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Ski resorts heat up when snow melts

Summer visitors wooed with sports, discounts, events

SHARE Ski resorts heat up when snow melts

PARK CITY— Every year, millions of tourists flock to Western ski resorts for one reason: it's white, fluffy and knee-deep.

But even the best powder melts away in the summer. So then what?

Rather than succumbing to the forces of nature and closing up shop as they used to, resorts in the Rockies and elsewhere are luring summer tourists with a combination of sports and cultural events.

"I think resorts have come to realize that they can't make it financially with just four months of work per year," said Shawn Stinson, director of communications at the Park City Visitor Bureau. "It's like a shop that you are paying rent on but not bringing in any revenue."

Most ski resorts first ventured into summer business in the mid-'90s, when they opened lifts to mountain bikers seeking an easy ride up the mountain and an adrenaline rush down. Since then, summers have expanded to include so many activities it's hard to keep track.

The options include: paragliding, hot air ballooning, Frisbee disc golf, mountain scooters, fly fishing, horseback riding, music and dance festivals, concerts and children's camps.

"It's horribly hot in Salt Lake City so we come up here to mountain bike," said Canadian Gary Ayton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, about 35 miles away. "They've done a great job building the trails. They're twisty, and you can climb for hours. But there are also some wild downhills for the speed-hounds."

Mindy Deleone, a 49-year-old Park City resident and mother of three, says she's seen the trails that wind through Park City and nearby Deer Valley go from "treacherous" to "awesome."

"It used to be just locals riding on deer trails," said Deleone, who rides three to four hours almost every day. "Now there's something for all levels and age groups."

With the help of local bike shops, the two resorts have built more than 100 miles of marked trails during the past five years. Maps illustrating the routes are available around town.

But not all summer visitors come for the biking. Believe it or not, many are on business trips.

Lured by resorts' unbeatable offers of blue skies, round-the-clock entertainment and off-season prices, more and more corporations are scheduling their conventions or special events in the mountains.

"We're here with a bunch of lawyers," said Kathy Bumb, of St. Louis, Mo., minutes after shooshing down the Alpine Slide — a slippery, twisting track — with her husband and two young kids Saturday afternoon. "It's fabulous. There's so much to do."

If physical activity isn't your thing, don't worry. You can attend Aspen's 51st annual classical Music Festival or Sun Valley's Ice Show, with performances by Olympian Katarina Witt and others. Dance performances, symphonies and live jazz concerts abound.

Despite the flurry of activity, however, summer revenue still provides just a fraction of most resorts' annual earnings.

"Summer numbers are blown away by the winter," said David Fields, a

sales and marketing director at Snowbird, one of the few resorts that started summer business alongside its winter operation 29 years ago.

Ski ticket sales, rentals, ski school, lodging and restaurants generate more than 90 percent of most areas' annual profits.

Room occupancy is also dramatically lower in the summer, but that's good news for guests, who may pay as much as 50 percent less than in winter.

Still, marketing experts in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming agree that summer is an ideal time to keep the energy going by cross-marketing and getting the winter message to guests.

"We'll definitely come back in the winter," said John Bumb, Kathy's husband. "I want to get the kids skiing. They're so adventurous they'll love it."

Year-round business also lets resorts hold onto long-term workers and professionals, rather than laying them off in the spring and rehiring in the fall.

A handful of resorts, including Idaho's Sun Valley and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, say summer is actually their busiest time.

"I think we are way above the curve in this one," said Jack Sibbach, director of marketing and public relations at Sun Valley Resort. "We've been open since 1937, and about six years ago our summer business surpassed our winter business."

Situated at about 6,000 feet, lower than most of its competitors, the Idaho resort is a favorite destination spot for many elderly people, not just families and outdoor fanatics, Sibbach said.

For Jackson Hole, the nearby national parks of Grand Teton and Yellowstone have been a magnet for years. Grand Teton is just three miles from the resort; Yellowstone is 50 miles away.

"We're in a very unique position because of the draw of the national parks and the Western ambiance," said Anna Olson, director of communication at the Wyoming resort.

Olson said 3 million people visit Jackson Hole in the summer, compared to 150,000 in the winter.

But the majority of resorts are still racing to catch up and transform themselves into four-season destinations. Some, including Park City, have even shed the "ski resort" label in their name, substituting it with "mountain resort."

"There's now a little bit of everything for everyone," said Deleone. "That's the way the industry is moving."

Web sites: www.skiutah.com; www.skicolorado.org; www.sunvalley.com; www.jacksonhole.com