Skier-day totals dropped last year to 3.8 million, the lowest since 2003-04, when snow arrived late, picked up for a while in mid-season, then dropped off again. "It was kind of a downer year," Rafferty understated.
The weather pattern hurt the whole U.S. ski industry, he noted, with Utah's 10 percent drop from 2010-11 (second highest ever at 4.22 million) being less painful than the 16 percent decline nationally.
But after last weekend's big storm, and with forecasts calling for more snow this weekend, Rafferty is ready to stop talking about how bad last year was and eager to be optimistic that November's weather is a sign of what's to come.
"It was amazing to see how memories of last year evaporated in one run Tuesday at Brighton," he said, referring to opening day at the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort, which again was Utah's first to open this season.
Brighton Resort spokesman Jared Winkler called Tuesday "one of the best openings I've seen in years," a partial reflection of strong interest this fall in seasons passes and coupon books. He's counting on reports of the fast start "giving people confidence they can come to Utah and find the snow they're looking for."
Like Rafferty, Patrick Lundin from Powder Mountain Resort above Ogden is expecting record visitation because "skiers and snowboarders are resilient. They bounce back. There's more of a pent-up desire to get on snow again."
Now, he added, "we just need Mother Nature to jump back in and be our friend again."
Even if it's not, Deer Valley Resort is better equipped to deal with it this winter, having expanded its snowmaking system to cover Empire Canyon from top to bottom, said spokeswoman Emily Summers. Deer Valley also replaced its Deer Crest lift with the Mountaineer Express, which cuts the uphill ride from 12 minutes to 3½.
At Canyons Resort, spokesman Steve Pastorino said a new 83-unit hotel, four more restaurants, a snowshoe-trekking program and an emphasis on learn-to-ski classes have lifted vacation package sales.
Along with these attractions, he added, "all of us feel this pent-up demand is having tangible effects. People are booking early."
At least they were before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, a major market for Utah's ski resorts and lodges. Bookings dropped abruptly. With so many places out of power, Ski Utah suspended its digital advertising campaign.
Even with that blip, Alta Lodge spokeswoman Joni Dykstra said advance bookings at her rustic lodge are keeping pace with last year.
Rafferty also said he is not concerned that Utah's uphill quest to compete with Colorado for skier visits might become more challenging now that Coloradoans have voted to legalize marijuana, reinforcing that state's claim to be more fun apres-ski than stodgy Utah.
"That may do us more good than harm," he said, noting Utah resorts' promotion of family ski vacations. "Our goal is never to be Vegas. We're not after the Vegas crowd, but people who love skiing."
Alta • Friday, 43-inch base
Beaver Mountain • TBD
Brian Head • Friday
Brighton • OPEN, 39 inches
Canyons • Nov. 23
Deer Valley • Dec. 8
Eagle Point • Dec. 21
Park City • Saturday
Powder Mountain • Wednesday
Snowbasin • Thursday
Snowbird • OPEN, 28 inches
Solitude • OPEN, 22 inches
Sundance • Dec. 7
Wolf Mountain • Nov. 23
*Dates are weather permitting.
For up to date information on ski area openings go to www.skiutah.com/winter/index.html.
What a deal
Enroll a friend or family member in a ski lesson this winter and you could win a prize.
Ski Utah is participating in a national campaign to reward skiers and snowboarders for introducing newcomers to the sport. "If you take them to a professional lesson at any resort, you can enter to win ski trips, gear or apparel," said Ski Utah marketing director Raelene Davis, noting that prizes will be awarded weekly.
More information is available online at bringafriend.org.