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Utah ski resorts have a problem, and it's not just a slower economy. Last season Alta ski resort received 264 inches of show by New Year's Day. This season only 110 inches have fallen, 44 percent below average.

High snowfall levels typically boost resort reservations, but local resort officials are cautiously optimistic about snowfall so far.

"We don't have empirical data, only anecdotally, but a great snow year, that always translate into good booking the following year," said Coleen Reardon, marketing director for Deer Valley where lodging bookings are already up more than 10 percent. In skier services, like lessons, the resort is looking at single digit increases over last season. And Deer Valley isn't the only resort looking at better than normal initial numbers.

"We fully expect to exceed last season which was the best in Canyons' history," said Mike Goar, managing director at Canyons. "We had a record year for skiers." Last season the resort opened a heated four-person lift, another 300 acres of land and nine restaurants.

Even with low snowfalls, the numbers from last season offer another reason to hope. The best season for individual skier visits happened in the 2007-2008 season when 4.25 million people skied for part of or whole day. Last year was the second-best season with 4.22 million skier visits. In the past two years, local resorts had the fifth and sixth best skier visit numbers in history — and that was the heart of the worst economic conditions.

Passing the economy, lodging rates rise

More snow usually translates into more business, even though other areas of the economy are still struggling to recover. All may not be lost with a smaller base of snow.

One indicator resorts use to gauge expectations is resort and hotel bookings. As of Oct. 31, on-the-books occupancy for the next six months (November through April) was up 10.8 percent, while average daily rates were up 3.5 percent over last season, according MTRiP, which uses data from 265 sample property management companies in 15 mountain destination communities in Colorado, Utah, California and Oregon.

Interestingly, October lodging occupancy was down 3.3 percent and average daily rates were down 11.8 percent. However, the pace of bookings taken was optimistic with reservations for arrivals from October through March up 12.5 percent.

Cooperation from Mother Nature was the most consistently cited reason for an increase in early season bookings over last year.

Fresh snowfall is so important that some resorts have seen bookings and visits slow down after nearly a month of no new snow.

"Right now we're looking good," said Brighton marketing director Jared Winkler of the resort's expectations. "We're down for what was going on last year, but we started out really good. We just need a little more snow to get more coverage. Snow storms bring out the skiers."

On July 4, Snowbird closed for the 2010-11 season with 783 inches of snow. The second most on that date — ever.

No substitution for white snow

In fact, while some resorts point to capital improvements or special discounts and offers as the reason the ski industry seems to be faring well even as the economy continues to flounder elsewhere, Winkler said the solution to most economic woes in the ski industry is simply more of the white stuff.

"Specials can help for sure," he said. "We paid attention to marketing and getting the word out about Brighton, but we just got lucky with some good snow last year."

The reason for optimism isn't just wishful thinking or a bit of early snow. MTRiP released August and September reports that were very promising.

Year-over-year occupancy for the next six months (October-March) is up overall 8.4 percent compared to the same period last year with January up 18 percent and February up 10.3 percent.

"It's clear from these numbers that although consumers remain concerned about jobs, earnings and the overall recovery of the economy, skiers and snowboarders appear particularly willing to invest in recreation and discretionary travel to mountain destinations," said Tom Foley, operations director for MTRiP. "Tourism destinations must walk a fine line — delivering great value on one hand and maintaining profitability on the other."

Tours, special events attract audience

While skiers and snowboarders remain loyal to the industry, they are not reckless in their support. That's why hosting special events such as the FIS Freestyle World Cup (Deer Valley), Winter Dew Tour (Snowbasin) and Friday Night rail jam series (Park City, Brighton and Snowbasin) and special deals and discounts can make a huge difference in a resort's bottom line.

"The visibility does help," said Snowbasin's Jason Dyer. "The Dew Tour has been a large help to us. It's the final stop again this year from Feb. 9-12, and it's youth-driven, which is awesome."

Exposure is the biggest obstacle for any resort — especially when they all offer unique experiences on the "greatest snow on Earth."

New construction, expansion

In addition to Utah's resorts finding ways to weather the economic downturn, one resort actually opened and a number of resorts have made upgrades, improvements and just a basic overhaul.

Eagle Point is a new resort on Mt. Holly that caters to Southern Utah and Las Vegas skiers, while Canyons has expanded in Park City.

At Eagle Point, the expectation is to double the number of skier visits they enjoyed in their opening season.

"We're getting people who've stopped skiing because the (former) resort shut down, but we're also rejuvenating skiers from Las Vegas and Southern Utah," said Lane Tucker, base operations manager. "Our other market is the skiers on their way to Salt Lake resorts from Arizona and California."

Not painless

Like every industry, the ski industry was hit by the recession, especially those resorts that rely on visitors from out of state.

Deer Valley is one. Reardon said the resorts approach wasn't the norm in the industry. Instead of cutting costs by reducing staffs, Deer Valley chose another route.

"When the wheels came off the economy," she said, "our leadership decided to lay off of capital improvements. We invested in our staff because our brand is everything. I think that's one of the reasons we're recovering more quickly. I think it was really brilliant of our leadership to say this is who we are, and we're not backing away from it."

And one thing Utah resorts have proved they can do is deliver an above average experience. Four of Utah's resorts were listed in the top 10 of SKI Magazine's reader survey rankings, with Deer Valley earning the No. 1 ranking for the fifth consecutive season. Six were listed in the top 10 for snow, seven were listed in the top 10 for access, and four were listed in the top 10 for value. Park City was named the best family resort.

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com