Winter arrived furiously over the past week with several feet of snow piling up at high elevations in the Wasatch. Scores of skiers and snowboarders eager to reclaim lost days on the hill from last spring have emerged from COVID-induced hibernation, packing resort parking lots to sneak in a few early season turns before the lifts start turning. Energy and excitement for ski season abounds, especially in Park City where the town is looking to turn the corner from an extended economic swoon. The outlook hinges on control of the coronavirus pandemic and people feeling comfortable traveling to Utah. Amid Utah’s recently declared State of Emergency and Park City’s flagging lodging reservation numbers, neither seems certain. Anxieties are balancing on a knife’s edge yet again.
Optimism was building about a winter rebound after Park City experienced a summer of better-than-expected—though still frighteningly low—occupancy and revenue. National coronavirus case numbers ebbed, and naturally people started looking to the future and booking trips for the winter. Alas, reality bit and cases surged—acutely in Utah—and confidence began to wane. Emboldened by looser cancellation and refund policies, people have begun to cancel or postpone their trips.
Park City’s economy is a feast and famine affair with periods like the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in addition to myriad holiday weekends being typically lucrative. The latest forecasts from the Park City Area Lodging Association show an expected 20% decline in traditional hotel occupancy from December through March, where the vast bulk of revenue is collected. Hotel occupancy is a leading indicator for the broader economy and the town’s budget health, which relies heavily on sales tax.
These numbers, however, are not necessarily indicative of overall visitation forecasts. People concerned about coronavirus are likely to steer clear of hotels in favor of VRBO and Airbnb rentals, which don’t have shared spaces like lobbies and elevators. Then again visitors with these tendencies are less likely to visit and spend money at restaurants and shops in town.
Nobody knows with any certainty where this will wind up, but perhaps recent positive news about vaccine efficacy will encourage more people to travel. Then again it could inspire them to hunker down for the winter in anticipation of safely liberated travel a year from now. What is certain is it’s dumping snow in the mountains and skiing remains a fun and relatively COVID-safe activity. Dust off the skis or snowboard and indulge in a little powder therapy when it makes sense for you. And for those who feel comfortable traveling, hotel rates have dropped with occupancy—between 10% and 12%—so you can save a bit of cash on your trip to Park City.