SALT LAKE CITY — While recent late winter snowstorms have been a boon to Utah's ski resorts, the lack of snow earlier this season, unseasonably warm temperatures and a resulting lack of customers could force Wasatch Front snow resorts to raise lift ticket prices for next year more than the usual annual price hikes.
"At this moment, for this season, we've had fewer customers than we normally do during a good snow year. I would guess all the resorts in Utah were down a little bit. When the skier counts for the year come out, it won't be a record-breaking year," said Randy Doyle, general manager of Brighton Ski Resort.
He and other resort managers are hoping the March snowstorms may make up for the dry start of the season, when there was no precipitation and the thin base existing at Wasatch Front resorts was nearly all machine-made.
It was the second year in a row that Utah's normal November snowstorms did not arrive until late December.
Despite last year's unusually arid weather when resorts opened, it was a record-breaking year. But skiers and snowboarders may have stayed away this year when the same thing happened again — especially when Utah's resort rival, Colorado, got plenty of early season snow.
"It is quite unusual (for Utah) to have so little snow at the beginning of the season. We are warming faster on the Arctic and the equator, so as a result, winters are warming earlier. It points to a large part of a global warming trend. It's only going to get worse," said Utah National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney.
Through February, this year’s winter was on pace to be the fifth-warmest on record in Salt Lake City, according to the National Weather Service.
Connie Marshall, marketing director at Alta, said the resort had to delay its scheduled opening again this year. "We put off our opening date this year by 12 days. Last year, we delayed our opening for two weeks."
Despite the delayed opening, lift operators and other staff had already been hired for the resorts and had to be paid, even though Alta and other resorts were not bringing in any money from skiers.
"In our case, we did get opened, but we had really limited skiing," Doyle said of Brighton. "We didn't have all of our lifts running or all of our runs open. In a normal year, we would have had all of our lifts and all of our runs open. We did get a storm just in time for the holidays. But leading up to that and following after, this year we definitely had fewer customers.
"We may need to raise lift ticket prices next season enough to make up for it."
But Doyle emphasized that nothing has yet been determined and he is hopeful recent storms will help make up for the earlier losses.
"It's too early to tell whether we're going to need to have a much higher lift ticket price. We still don't know how the rest of March will go. March is a great month for us, and it's been terrific so far. We've gotten over 2 feet of snow. … If this snow continues, there won't be as much pressure to raise lift ticket prices," he said.
Lift ticket prices generally go up a little each season. Last season, a Brighton lift ticket cost $79. This year, it is $85.
Often the price hike is more than just a few dollars. Snowbird's day pass was $106 last year. This year, it's $119, an increase of $13. While that's less than Deer Valley's current ticket price of $135 (which was $128 last year), Snowbird still has the most expensive day pass of the Wasatch Front resorts, which are the resorts in both Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons.
Snowbird, however, has a wealth of restaurants and other amenities (like tram rides) that bring in customers year-round. Solitude has condo rentals, restaurants and its own village, but revenue for other canyon resorts are more strictly confined to the snow season.
"Alta Ski Area really is a winter operational area," Marshall explained. "Basically, we have from November through the end of April or early May to make enough money to sustain a year-round permanent staff of managers."
A big expense for resorts is the water and the energy required to make snow — a cost that was higher than usual this season.
In addition to the need for more days of snow making, there was a 5 percent rate hike in the cost of water. All resort water supplies, whether on Forest Service land or not, are negotiated contracts.
"We negotiate our water rights with Salt Lake City," Doyle said. "The city owns the water rights to all water coming out of the canyons. We didn't renegotiate anything new before this season. But it definitely was a more expensive operation for us this year."
Doyle went on to say, "We believe that we've used all the water that we're entitled to, and maybe some more. Salt Lake City has been a great partner in allowing us to use surplus water. In a year when precipitation is normal, we have less of a need to make as much snow, so we may be done in 20 days as versus 40 days. Our snow-making system is not designed to open the whole resort on man-made snow. Thankfully, we did get some natural snow at just the right time."
Alta opened Dec. 2, and made snow as often as possible right up until the holidays, Marshall explained. "But we could only make it when it was cold enough. There were a lot of cold nights and days during that time, but the cold temperatures weren't constant."
When the storms finally began coming, resort managers were relieved. Few people know that after a storm in a lean snow year, resorts will harvest 'white gold' from what Marshall and Doyle both called "our biggest snow gun" — the customer parking lots.
"We harvest it from the parking lot before we even allow employee vehicles to come in and park, before we're open to the public," Marshall said.
She describes parking lot snow as "nice and white," adding, "We actually have snow cats take it up on the mountain. Most of the harvested snow is placed around the lift entrances and exits, where people getting on or off the lifts quickly wear away the snow that is already there."19 comments on this story
All four Wasatch Front resorts, which consist of Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude, were happy about the succession of snow-dumping storms that blanketed the mountains during January and February — thus removing the urgency of collecting snow from the parking lots.
Next season's lift ticket prices won't be decided until summer, after figures for both income and expenses are finalized. But they will likely be higher than they are this year.
"Typically, the cost of doing business for any company in America goes up every year. There are always higher prices for things like utilities and labor, not just in the ski industry, but in all businesses," Marshall said.