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SAM Magazine—Olympic Valley, Calif., Jan. 27, 2023—A mix of snowstorms and sunshine brought travel delays and bluebird days to the NSAA Western Winter Conference, hosted at Palisades Tahoe. NSAAwestSee more images in the slideshow below.More than 650 operators and suppliers attended the Jan. 17-18 event, which offered networking opportunities and education on topics ranging from sustainable snowmaking and community engagement to risk management and artificial intelligence.

While storms bookended the conference, leading to some travel challenges, a break in the snowfall that has been hammering the region since November brought spectacular bluebird days for the event itself. 

First tracks at the resort on Wednesday morning was well attended, with conference goers queuing up to load Resort Chair at 7.15 a.m. for a 7.30 a.m. start. Attendees that stuck around for Thursday morning (Jan. 19) enjoyed fresh powder and a slightly delayed first tracks outing on Palisades’ new Base to Base Gondola.

“Connecting with our friends and colleagues from across the industry in such extraordinary conditions was the highlight we all needed,” said Dee Byrne, Palisades Tahoe president and COO. “It reminds us why we devote our professional lives to this industry, and all that pow will help fuel us through fiscal year 2023 and beyond.”

First tracks were fun, of course, but also productive. “The early mountain access on Wednesday morning had me skiing with not one, but six [U.S. Forest Service] recreational staff from multiple regions and forests,” said Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association president Jordan Elliott. “Talking real issues while riding the new Base to Base Gondola is a memory that is going to stick with me for a long time.”

The tradeshow floor was packed during each of the three exhibitor sessions. “This year I saw so much energy in the tradeshow hall,” said Elliott. “Everywhere I turned I fell into great conversations with suppliers and area operators alike, and the synergy between everyone was palpable. It was clear to see that everyone missed each other over the last couple of years and were really happy to reconnect.” 

Conversations with operators making the tradeshow rounds suggest that many in the West are enjoying strong demand as the winter gets underway. “This season, we are breaking all records in skier visits and revenue, with no letup in sight,” said Brad Wilson, general manager of Bogus Basin, Idaho. That was reiterated by Clayton Shoemaker, VP of marketing at Big Bear Mountain resort,  “Snowfall has already surpassed last season. We have seen our lake rise over 4', which is also amazing. We continue seeing great market demand, and visitation is up over the projected forecasts.”

Shoemaker noted that he was made aware of “a lot of exciting occupational shifts in the industry” while he was at the NSAA Western Conference, but cautioned, “It does present concern on industry bench depth. Are we properly bringing up the next group of individuals to support this movement and growth? Are we hitting reset with the next generation without proper handoff?”

As for conference highlights, said Wilson, “The Climate Smart Snowmaking Study session was very interesting and informative. Staying current on innovations in snowmaking is important as we expand our system.”

Logan Stewart, mountain manager of Timberline, Ore., echoed that sentiment. “I found the snowmaking/water resource session eye-opening. There’s lots of ground to cover in the coming decades to keep ski operations sustainable.”

Timberline didn’t see much in the way of snow until after Thanksgiving, but “business has been solid with good numbers through Christmas break and into January,” said Stewart. “Staffing continues to be an issue with many departments still searching for a few hands to fill the schedule,” he added. 

Nonetheless, said Stewart, “It does seem we are finally out of the Covid hangover, with customers and staff feeling better about normal operations and resort life returning to normal.”

That return to normal was certainly felt at the conference. While the event was cancelled last year in response to a surge in Covid infections and subsequent staff exclusions, this year attendees gathered in person, with Covid a peripheral concern compared to the weather, networking opportunities, and educational fare.  

The NSAA Eastern Winter Conference at Killington, Vt., is being held Jan. 31-Feb. 1.