February had a record-shattering amount of snow fall in the Wood River Valley, and Sun Valley Resort achieved one of the highest skier counts in the past 20 years this winter.
Not bad, right? On Wednesday, Visit Sun Valley, the nonprofit marketing organization, reviewed the highlights of the past winter and identified successes, as well as opportunities to improve.
Executive Director Scott Fortner looked over data indicating that the winter of 2018-19 was more successful than the winter of 2017-18, which was dogged by poor snowfall throughout December and into January.
Accordingly, the occupancy rate at Wood River Valley lodging properties was up by almost 15 percent year-over-year in December 2018, Fortner told the audience at The Community Library in Ketchum.
Overall, from October to March the occupancy rate was up 3 percent, compared with the same time period in 2017-18.
Fortner said March 2019 occupancy increased by 2 percent, which was a point of pride because the U.S. Alpine Championships were held at Sun Valley in March 2018.
“It was a pretty good one,” Fortner said of the winter tourism season. “March beat last year’s March, which was an incredible March. The film festival [in 2019] actually had a very large four- or five-day spike, which we haven’t seen in the past.”
He said receipts from Ketchum’s local-option-tax collections increased by 7 percent from October to March year-over-year, and enplanements at Friedman Memorial Airport increased by 3 percent from November to March.
The resort reported 136 inches of snowfall on Bald Mountain in February, breaking a monthly record that dates back to the 1960s.
Last month, the resort reported a season skier-day count of 426,500, the most since 436,000 days were recorded in the winter of 1996-97.
Still, Fortner said the Wood River Valley lagged behind its competition in lodging occupancy in December, January, February and March.
The occupancy rate in the Wood River Valley was 37.2 percent in December, 38.9 percent in January, 49.2 percent in February and 43.9 percent in March, according to surveys compiled by Destimetrics/Inntopia and reported monthly by Visit Sun Valley.
Fortner compared that with the average of 17 other resort communities in the western U.S. this winter: The occupancy rate was 49 percent in December, 63 percent in January, 69 percent in February and 68 percent in March.
Fortner said Sun Valley benefited from 60 mentions and features in publications, websites and other news outlets, including a feature by Vice that focused on the Casino bar in downtown Ketchum.
The online feature was headlined “Everybody comes to Rick’s” and focused on the regular patrons and history of the Casino. The feature was a content partnership with Visit Sun Valley, Fortner said.
“We were blown away at how many times this thing got shared,” Fortner said. “There’s this fuzzy line between earned and paid media these days, and sometimes that line is getting blurrier and blurrier.”
He said a short documentary film called “The Fire That Saved Sun Valley,” which focused on the Castle Rock Fire in 2007 and the Beaver Creek Fire in 2013, also garnered mentions in The New York Times, Sunset magazine, Haute Living, Outside and Men’s Journal.
He said the 11-minute-long film focuses on the good that can result from wildfire, and how it influenced the backcountry skiing available in the Wood River Valley.
“We think it’s got a place in the mix as we move forward,” Fortner said of storytelling film features.
Looking ahead to the summer tourism season, Visit Sun Valley staff member Ray Gadd said marketing will target Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, Boston, New York and regional markets such as Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls.
The marketing will have additional focus on Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls in the fall, once many of the direct flights to Friedman Memorial Airport stop running. The Wood River Valley is an easy driving destination to those three cities, Gadd said.
Summer air service at Friedman will begin June 21 and include nonstop flights from Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. It will not include a flight from Chicago, which has only been offered during the winter thus far.
Gadd said Visit Sun Valley has produced short video clips that show Sun Valley as a summer destination for tourists seeking outdoor adventures as well as family-friendly activities. Each video displays where Sun Valley is on a map of Idaho relative to Boise and Twin Falls.
“We’ve always had that challenge of identifying where we’re at,” Gadd said. “Sun Valley, Idaho—is that in Iowa?”
Looking at on-the-books lodging reservations as of March 31, Gadd said June is better than the reservations for June 2018, and July also has a year-over-year increase. However, he said May and August were lagging behind in on-the-books reservations.
“We’ve had that smoke issue in the past,” Gadd said of wildfire smoke in August.