Utah ski officials kick off the new season energized by the growing possibility of another Winter Olympics bid and buoyed by two straight seasons of record visitation. But there’s also some concern that publicity surrounding the state’s strict new DUI law that goes into effect next year may keep skiers and snowboarders away by adding to the long-held stigma that visitors can’t have fun in Utah.
DUI law controversy
State lawmakers voted to lower Utah’s blood alcohol limit for most drivers to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent in a move they think will save lives. The change gave the predominantly Mormon state the strictest drunken driving threshold in the country and triggered backlash from tourism groups. The law is set to take effect on Dec. 30, 2018.
Nathan Rafferty, CEO of Ski Utah, said the ski industry wants to make the roads safe but said penalizing someone for driving after having one or two glasses of wine misses the mark. Rafferty said he’s going to lobby state legislators this year to tweak the law so that that it doesn’t penalize lower-level DUIs the same as higher levels.
The negative press that came after the Utah law was signed doesn’t help Utah as it tries to compete with Colorado, California and Canada for winter vacationers.
The American Beverage Institute ran full-page ads in Salt Lake City’s two daily newspapers and USA Today, featuring a fake mug shot under a large headline reading, “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation.”
“It just underscores that element that we’re working hard to dispense with, which is that Utah is a tough place to have fun,” Rafferty said. “It’s one step forward and two steps back.”
Spokeswomen for Deer Valley and Park City Mountain said they will focus on reminding visitors they can do a car-free trip to their resorts in Park City thanks to town shuttles, car services from the hotel and the relatively close proximity to the Salt Lake City International Airport, which is about 30 miles away.
“We’re always kind of dealing with those quirks of Utah and the perception,” said Emily Summers of Deer Valley Resort. “But then again we really thrive on family vacations and spring breaks where they have kids elementary-school aged.”
Rafferty isn’t worried about Utah’s reluctance to join Colorado, California and Nevada in legalizing marijuana. He said Utah ski resorts embrace being known as family friendly destinations.
“We’re happy not playing in that realm,” Rafferty said. “Utah is never going to be Las Vegas. We’re not going to sell ourselves as party central and we’re totally comfortable with that.”
More record visits?
Brighton planned to open on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the first of Utah’s 14 ski resorts to open for the season. Several others are planning to open the day before Thanksgiving as the industry aims to set a visitation record for the third consecutive season.
Fueled by above average snowfall, the state registered nearly 4.6 million skier days last winter, surpassing nearly 4.5 million the year before, according to Ski Utah figures.
Who owns what?
The biggest offseason news was Deer Valley Resort being purchased by a new company that has brought 13 ski areas from Quebec to Colorado under one umbrella. It marked the latest deal in an industry that is becoming more consolidated.
Deer Valley became the group’s first ski area in Utah and joined a collection of resorts that also includes Mammoth and Squaw Valley in California, Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado and Mont Tremblant in Quebec.
Summers said skiers won’t notice any changes this season. That means Deer Valley’s longtime ban on snowboarding remains, Summers said.
The company still doesn’t have a name (it’s run by affiliates of the KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown and Company investment firms) and it hasn’t yet finalized a pass that would allow people to ski at all the company’s resorts, Summers said. That pass would help the company compete with Vail Resorts’ popular Epic Pass, which allows skiers to buy one pass to ski multiple times at its different resorts.
Deer Valley’s sale means all three ski areas in the mountain town of Park City, Utah, are owned by mega ski companies. Vail Resorts bought Park City Mountain Resort in 2014 and connected it to neighboring Canyons Resort to create one of the largest ski areas in the U.S.
Utah’s Solitude resort, which Deer Valley bought in 2015, was not included in the sale announced in August. Solitude will still be owned by Deer Valley partners, the resort said.
Utah resorts are giddy about the possibility of Salt Lake City hosting another Winter Olympics, which would bring priceless exposure and likely lead to infrastructure improvements by resorts and government.
“It’s a 17-day infomercial showcasing the very best of the best,” Rafferty said.
An exploratory committee is working to see if it’s feasible for Salt Lake City to make a bid for the 2026 or 2030 Winter Games. It plans to issue its recommendation to state leaders in February.
The state’s pitch would center on the fact that Salt Lake City can put on world-class Olympics for less money than cities that have to start from ground zero since most of the venues remain in use from the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Deer Valley regularly hosts World Cup ski events, one example of how the state would be able to easily get ready for another Olympics, Summers said.
“We’re all behind it and we could pull it off really well,” she said.