The Olympics really showed we could handle a global-level event, with significant crowds
SALT LAKE CITY — Before the buildup for the Olympics 10 years ago, Snowbasin in Utah was little more than a mom-and-pop operation, with aging lifts and amenities and offices in a single-wide trailer.
Now even its bathrooms are turning heads, with the Italian marble day lodge restrooms recently voted top five in the U.S.
Plenty has changed since the 2002 Winter Games put Utah's ski industry on the map.
The state's 14 resorts have undergone roughly a billion dollars in improvements, from high-speed lifts and bubble chairs to the construction of high-end global hotels such as the Montage Deer Valley and Waldorf Astoria Park City.
Overall skier visits have increased 42 percent to 4.2 million, skiable acres are up 26 percent, and a trend of late has been multi-generational vacations — grandparents on the slopes with their children and grandchildren.
The international clientele also is on the rise, particularly at Park City's three resorts, which report international business has increased 200 percent in 10 years. Bilingual instructors and foreign accents on the slopes are now quite common, with Aussies outnumbering UK skiers in Park City for the first time but more and more groups coming from Mexico and Brazil.
There's even a non-stop flight from Paris to Salt Lake City International Airport five to seven days a week.
"In many respects I don't think we were even on the radar screen. The Olympics did a great job of exposing us," said Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber and Visitors Bureau.
He said the Olympics also provided a giant "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," reflected in places such as Deer Valley being voted North America's No. 1 overall ski area for the fifth straight year by Ski Magazine readers. Before the Olympics, Park City had one five-star resort; now it has five.
"Even if you didn't know a lot about us, being able to say we hosted the Games creates credibility," he said.
What hasn't changed is the snow, still billed as The Greatest Snow on Earth because of its low moisture content and touch of salt.
It's what drew Evan Unger to Utah nearly 40 years ago when he was a student at Cal-Berkeley. He had planned to ski Tahoe, only to encounter rain. He ended up heading to Snowbird instead and discovered the "magic" powder that has been bringing him back ever since. These days, Unger, who has skied just about everywhere in the world, is often accompanied on trips to the backcountry with his daughter.
In fact, multi-generational ski vacations are a growing trend. "Ten years ago we wouldn't have seen that," Malone said.
"People are living longer and are active later in life," added Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah.
To Dave Fields, such opportunities are priceless. He still remembers the tears streaming beneath goggles on his father's face last winter when three generations skied the same green run at Powder Mountain.
It was a bluebird day, with warm sun on their backs and a good snowpack underfoot. His then-69-year-old father Chuck, a 50-year member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, pulled off to the side as his 8-year-old grandson and 5-year-old granddaughter went by.
"It was so important to him," said Fields, who grew up skiing Alta and at 40 is now vice president of resort operations at Snowbird. "That was his legacy to his family, this love of recreating outdoors. It was a great day that I will never forget."
While powder-hounds have been venturing to Utah for years, numerous Olympic athletes now call Park City home because of what the Games helped create.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association is based in Park City and Olympic hopefuls now train at the 85,000-square-foot Center of Excellence, which opened in 2009 and offers programs in everything from cardio to sports physiology and nutrition.
Olympic bronze medalist Bryon Wilson has relocated there as have Shannon Bahrke (moguls silver and bronze) and Billy Demong (nordic combined gold and silver). Emily Cook (aerials), Heather McPhie (moguls), Jen Hudak (halfpipe skiing) and Liz Stephen (cross country) also moved to Utah for the convenience, with great snow just 35 minutes away from an international airport.
Malone calls the athletes a link to the Olympic legacy, past and future.
"We still have a real connection to that part of the business," he said.
Since the closing ceremonies ended, there have been dozens of international competitions in Utah. World Cup events have been held in bobsledding, skeleton, luge and speedskating and world championships in freestyle skiing. The U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix is set for Canyons Resort again in February, and the 2012 Freestyle World Cup is headed to Deer Valley.
"Everyone's training here, a lot of athletes live here," Malone said. "It wasn't like we had one shot, had the Games and never had competition again. It's kind of in our DNA."
Snowbasin for the second straight year will host the Winter Dew Tour Championships. In February, the event drew 44,000 people over a four-day period.
"The Olympics really showed we could handle a global-level event, with significant crowds," said Jason Dyer, marketing manager at Snowbasin. "We used it as a platform."
It's a big jump up from the old days at Snowbasin, which now has the capability to move 14,650 people up the mountain in an hour.
Many of them no doubt have checked out those ultra-lux bathrooms.
"Hosting the big party has its advantages," said Rafferty.
A look at what's new in Utah this season:
— At Alta, skiers can skip the ticket window and head straight to the powder using the resort's new Smartphone application that allows them to reload their card. The popular Corkscrew Run also is being modified to ease the pitch and fulfill a promise to provide a true blue run from top to bottom.
—Beaver Mountain has added a new triple chair to provide access to additional beginner terrain.
— Brian Head in more accessible now that a new United Express nonstop flight has been added between Los Angeles International Airport and the new St. George Airport.
—Brighton Resort is investing $500,000 in snowmaking upgrades and $20,000 in terrain park features.
— Canyons Resort will offer heli-skiing from the resort in conjunction with Wasatch Powderbird Guides.
— Deer Valley is redesigning its beginner/learning area on Wild West ski run and adding more Sunkid conveyor lifts.
—Eagle Point has added 200 more skiable acres in its second season as well as tree skiing and spa services.
— Park City Mountain Resort has two new conveyor lifts for beginners. Snowmamas — real moms from around the country — will be chosen to help create unforgettable winter family vacations now that it has been named top family destination in Ski Magazine. The resort also improved its terrain park and overhauled 3 Kings lift to double capacity.
—Powder Mountain expanded its single-ride snowcat terrain by 50 percent and added more gladed terrain.
—Snowbasin added two more snowcats for grooming and new outdoor gas fireplaces on Earl's Patio.
—Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort remodeled its flagship hotel and is introducing three new programs, including an adult adventure camp and Expedition Team for expert young skiers/boarders.
—Solitude unveiled free Wi-Fi throughout Solitude Village.
—Sundance is expanding and moving its terrain park so it can remain open during night operations.
—Wolf Mountain has better uphill transportation, added a handful of new runs and more pricing options.