Note: All resort staff interviewed for this story—with the exception of Patrick Murphy, Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association Business Manager, spoke to us on the condition of anonymity.
The pull of gravity feels as glorious as it always has. It’s everything else, all the ski-adjacent activity—that seems different. Another winter has passed in which the COVID pandemic continued to rankle life, bending expectations and stressing the concept of normality. Park City can be an insular place, shielded from much of the world’s hardship. But it’s also a community sitting on a shaky foundation, if it can’t deliver the relative luxuries it promises.
Make no mistake, Park City isn’t a self-sustaining community. If visitors aren’t happy, the underlying economics of the mountain town don’t work. And this year, they weren’t happy. “Guests were angrier than I’ve ever seen. By day five of a ski trip, they were ready to explode,” says one veteran ski instructor at Park City Mountain. The sentiment was shared by others. “Because of our visibility on the mountain, we’re pretty customer-facing. And we dealt with a lot of disgruntled guests,” says another longtime Park City Mountain ski patroller.
The causes aren’t mysterious, but they are numerous. Lift lines long enough to inspire their own meme accounts were the norm. Lodges and restaurants were closed. Several chairlifts never turned all season and normally groomed terrain was devoid of corduroy. A much-publicized labor dispute between the Park City Ski Patrol Union and Park City Mountain’s owner, Vail Resorts, placed a sharp focus on limited mountain operations.
“We wanted to get a deal done before the season, but negotiations got off to a poor start,” says Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association (Canyons Village) Business Manager Patrick Murphy. The 158-member union voted nearly unanimously to strike if wages weren’t improved, and ultimately the two sides came to a deal avoiding a work stoppage that would have effectively shut down the resort.
Park City’s was hardly the only patrol in such a predicament, but other resorts addressed the problem prior to the ski season. “We got a substantial department-wide pay raise this year. They recognized a lot of turnover with mid-level patrollers leaving mostly for money reasons,” says a Snowbird ski patroller with more than 10 years of experience.
Murphy is happy about the improvement but notes it’s far from a perfect deal. “Even with the raise, it’s still barely a livable wage in Utah. The three-year deal is retroactive to this season, and it puts us on the same negotiating schedule as some sister unions, hopefully giving us more negotiating power next time,” he says.
Even amid the tumult, the ski patrol was the only fully-staffed department at Park City Mountain. “It has more to do with wages than COVID,” Murphy says. “The economic climate has shifted, and the way resorts compensate employees has to catch up.” If that doesn’t happen, the visitors will likely grow weary and the natives will grow restless.
Epic, Epic Pass Sales Bring the Crowds
Vail Resorts sold 47% more Epic passes this year than last. That’s an additional 700,000 passes. An inverse relationship between the number of pass holders and resort workers is a recipe for disastrous operations. If the trend continues, this year’s difficulties may only be the tip of the iceberg.
The future of skiing in Utah is shaky. Read more here.