Utah ski area leaps ahead with luxury lodging

By Paul Foy, Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah — When David Johndrow was looking to buy a hotel suite for use as a winter home in Park City, he had his pick of new luxury lodging: Montage Deer Valley, the St. Regis Deer Valley or the Waldorf Astoria Park City.

All three newcomer properties in the ski town were financed before the real-estate bust, as part of the development that followed the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. All three were built during the Great Recession. And now, despite a still-soft national economy, they are setting a new standard of luxury in Utah to match anything in Colorado or British Columbia.

Johndrow, 42, a former technology executive, and his wife, Maryann, eventually chose the Montage, where residences run $2 million to $10 million, over the four-star St. Regis, which is served by a 230-foot-high funicular railway, or the nearby Waldorf, served by a private gondola at The Canyons Resort.

Johndrow, owner of the Napa Valley boutique winery Johndrow Vineyards, said the Montage has already earned a reputation for exceptional service with its resorts in Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills.

“They’re going to deliver,” Johndrow said. “They take care of you.”

Johndrow will have 75-mile views from the ninth floor of the 13-story building tucked under the summit of Deer Valley, voted the No. 1 resort for a fourth straight year by readers of SKI magazine. “There’s nothing on the mountain comparable,” he said.

Utah also has a longstanding five-star hotel resort, the Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley, named for a Norwegian Olympic gold medalist.

Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah, said the new hotel developments are a “huge deal” that show resort operators are “bullish on Utah,” where skiing is a $1 billion-a-year industry. He added, “They have to know something.”

“We were convinced Park City was going to be the next great skiing market,” said Jeff Mongan, senior vice president of The Athens Group, a Phoenix development group with an ownership stake in the nearly half-billion-dollar Montage.

Resorts upgrading
Other Utah ski resorts are moving on major new developments, too.

Talisker Corp., owner of The Canyons at Park City, is spending millions of dollars to reconfigure the mountain and add North America’s first heated chair lift with a bubble shield that swings over passengers like a pair of orange goggles. It is opening an eighth peak for skiing and adding or realigning other lifts while redesigning the village base.

On the other side of the Wasatch range, Snowbird is seeking to extend skiing to nearly 11,500 feet in elevation with a tram from its summit to a higher peak. Resorts on both sides of the narrow Wasatch mountains are discussing a common ticketing system and additional lifts that could let skiers glide effortlessly from one resort to the other, possibly within a few years.

Some of the seven Wasatch resorts that practically rub shoulders have opened their borders to a neighbor, but the plan is get all or most of the resorts to join together.

“All of us are looking at linking up,” said Onno Wieringa, general manager of Alta Ski Area, who said a seamless radio-frequency ticketing system already adopted by Alta would “just make it simple. You put the pass in your pocket and don’t have to show it to anybody.

Snowbasin, another Wasatch resort that stands apart near Ogden, has filed ambitious all-season and lodging resort plans for government approval.

A New York hedge fund, meanwhile, is opening Utah’s 14th ski area dubbed Eagle Point, the former Elk Meadows in the spectacular Tushar mountains of southern Utah.

“The biggest real-estate crash in history allowed us to buy this resort, warts and all” for $1.58 million plus debt, said Shane Gadbaw, one of Eagle Point’s three partners from XE Capital Management. The partners are racing to get the ski area, left dormant for eight years, open by December.

Long ski season
Utah’s great skiing lured Johndrow, an Oklahoma native who built and sold staffing and technology companies, then turned to making wine in California.

Johndrow winters in Utah and often returns to the mountains in the hot summer from Oklahoma or from his California winery, which he says occupies only six weeks of his attention a year. He sold a house at Deer Valley’s Empire Pass to take up residence at the Montage, which sports a 35,000-square-foot spa, restaurants and bars, a bowling alley, ski and other shops, and a library and game room off a cavernous limestone lobby.

“Our clients have fallen in love with a fully amenitized hotel,” said Flint Decker, vice president of sales for DV Luxury Resort Realty LLC.

Another recent entrance in Park City was made by Hyatt Hotels Corp., which is taking over an upscale condominium/hotel development, the Escala Lodge, at The Canyons.

Resort operators say Utah is being quickly discovered by harried travelers who like that a major airport in Salt Lake City is only about 45 miles from nine of the Wasatch resorts.

Utah also has the fundamentals: dependable snow, often exceeding 500 inches a season, great powder and a long ski season with some resorts open before Thanksgiving.

Winter hasn’t disappointed skiers in Utah this year, with major Pacific storms delivering early-season powder in abundance before Thanksgiving weekend. Alta is already reporting more than 100 inches of snow.

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