Ski season is upon us, and despite a sluggish economy, resorts have been quietly pouring millions into updates and additions at locations throughout the West. And it appears those investments are paying off. Last year, according to the National Ski Areas Association, lift ticket sales exceeded $60 million, shattering the old record set in the 2007–2008 ski season. What this means for skiers this season is more lifts, more terrain and more places to put up your tired feet after the ski day. Here’s what you can expect.
The most striking changes are taking place here. Most recently, Squaw Valley (squaw.com) divulged that the resort is joining forces with neighboring Alpine Meadows (skialpine.com), meaning both mountains will be accessible on one lift ticket or season pass. This announcement came on the heels of last year’s news that KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm, had purchased Squaw from its founding owners. The good news for Squaw regulars (and homeowners), is that the acquisition triggered a five-year, $50 million commitment to capital improvements.
For this year’s ski season, the investment translates to a new on-mountain terrain park and the renovation of Squaw Valley’s Olympic House base lodge. Its ground floor has been transformed into a day lodge and family recreation center, which will provide a cozy place for families and friends to change into their equipment or relax before or after spending time on the mountain. In addition, the sundeck at the base of the KT-22 bar will be enhanced with outdoor fire pits, live music and on-mountain cabanas for a more intimate après-ski experience. “We’ve listened to our guests and learned that the very caliber of this mountain may have kept some visitors away,” says Andy Wirth, Squaw’s president and CEO. “Although we are aware that many locals love the mountain as is, we are confident they will appreciate the improvements as well.”
Around the same time that Squaw was purchased, Northstar (northstarattahoe.com) got snapped up by Vail Resorts, which also operates Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe and four other ski resorts in Colorado — Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek. The new company committed $30 million to improve the resort, already viewed as having one of the region’s most modern facilities. A few of those improvements: a new chairlift and an additional 170 acres of skiable terrain.
The Northstar acquisition also means that guests can now take advantage of the company’s popular Epic Ski Pass, which includes seven resorts, as well as a new smart phone app, Epic Mix. In addition to tracking the number of vertical feet skied daily, the app includes a new feature that allows photographers to tag users who mug for on-mountain professional photographs and then have an unlimited number of those shots delivered free to their Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Refinements are under way east of the Sierras as well. Vail Resort’s (vail.com) namesake mountain, for example, replaced an old triple chairlift with a high-speed quad that ferries guests to the top in half the time. And this month, Vail will open The 10th, a 60-seat, 13,000-square-foot high-end restaurant at its mid-mountain facility. Down at the base village, visitors can tempt their taste buds with gourmet Japanese seafood and sushi at Matsuhisa, named for its proprietor Nobu Matsuhisa (the chef known more widely for his restaurants that go by his first name.) And just last month, Elway’s, the signature restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Denver, opened in Vail Village.
Down the road, Aspen Skiing Company (aspensnowmass.com) invested over $26 million in on-mountain improvements this season. Notable projects include a high-speed quad on Buttermilk, a remodel of the Merry-Go-Round restaurant on Aspen Highlands, and the first phase of the new Elk Camp Restaurant at Snowmass, slated to open in 2013. Meanwhile, in town, several new restaurants opened, including Steakhouse 316. Styled to feel like a 1920s boudoir, this boutique eatery brings a New York vibe to the mountain dining scene. And the St. Regis Hotel (stregisaspen.com) debuted its $40 million property renovation that includes redesigned guest rooms, a renovated pool area and outdoor dining.
Later this month, Park City will add yet another luxury hotel to its growing list of upscale accommodations. As its name implies, the Washington School House Hotel (washingtonschoolhouse.com) originally functioned as a school. Built in 1889 with locally quarried limestone, the 12-room inn two blocks from the Park City Mountain lift will appeal to folks who crave luxury but prefer the intimacy of a boutique hotel. And just last year, Montage Deer Valley (montagedeervalley.com) and Escala Hyatt Lodge (escalalodge.hyatt.com), at the neighboring Canyons Resort, opened for business.
Meanwhile, there’ve been upgrades galore at the Canyons Resort. The resort stepped up its mountain capabilities, too, with a new gourmet restaurant called The Farm. It features seasonal, modern American cuisine showcasing ingredients sourced largely from local farms. The restaurant sits at the base of the mountain in a new area dubbed Ski Beach, because it features a lifeguard tower and plenty of lounge chairs for soaking up mountain sun. In addition, the Canyons added 300 skiable acres and debuted North America’s first heated chairlift.
Finally, even laid-back Sun Valley (visitsunvalley.com) has made some notable tweaks, including six new themed adventure trails for beginner tree skiers and boarders. The trails are intended to pique the interest of children but can also be enjoyed by the young at heart. The faint of heart, on the other hand, may want to steer clear of the 20 new rails and 18-foot half-pipe in Sun Valley’s wicked Terrain Park.
With all these new incentives, why sit home and complain about the cold and rain? Instead, wax up the skis, dust off the tire chains, and pray for snow, pray for snow, pray for snow.