Utah ski industry battling Mother Nature and economy

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Tourism is a $6 billion-a-year industry in Utah, and ski resorts are concerned because they now have two unpredictable factors to work with: the economy and Mother Nature.

"The greatest snow on Earth" is a top draw, and a major economic engine when it comes to Utah tourism. But amid tough financial times, there's concern that even the powder may not be enough to get some people to the slopes.

Utah ski industry battling Mother Nature and economy

"I think everyone's tracking the economy," said Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

At the Office of Tourism's board meeting today, representatives from Utah resorts and ski areas discussed plans to work through the recession.

"I think the real question we're all asking ourselves right now is: When do people begin to feel comfortable again?" said Kim McClelland, vice president of operations for Premier Resorts of Utah.

Already this year, resort bookings are down 15 to 20 percent. "There's that sense that people aren't sure what's going to happen tomorrow, so it's hard to make a decision today," McClelland said.

Utah's ski industry has enjoyed record numbers consistently over the past five years. Last year, more than 4 million skiers and boarders hit the slopes, but Ski Utah mostly credits 700 inches of great snow.

Utah ski industry battling Mother Nature and economy

"I think if the snow comes, people are going to come. Skiers and snowboarders are a specific breed, and they have got to do their thing," said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah.

But since no one can change Mother Nature's plans, state tourism officials are beefing up efforts to promote Utah as an affordable and convenient destination. They're discussing future ad campaigns that include highlighting the summer travel season and Utah's state parks.

"They want to make certain they're spending the taxpayers' dollars appropriately and following the governor's lead. But it's a very important industry to the state," von der Esch said.

The ski resorts say what they really need is a few good storms to get people excited about the season. They also say now is actually the perfect time to travel because gas prices are down and there are some great vacation deals.

E-mail: wjohnson@ksl.com

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