Idahoans’ summer desire to run to the mountains and play is far more predictable than when and how much it will snow at Bogus Basin each winter.
That’s why Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area plans to spend nearly $4.3 million in the next five months to turn the non-profit ski area into a multi-season destination — with a mountain coaster, summer tubing, more mountain biking, a climbing wall and a lawn-and-patio setup for hanging out in the summer sun or winter snow. (For a breakdown of the improvements, click here.)
The plan is to open July 1 with a Thursday-Sunday schedule and grow to a seven-days-a-week operation either late this summer or next summer. Beginning next year, the summer season is expected to run from Memorial Day weekend through the end of September.
“What that gets us to is a sustainable business plan,” said Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson, who was hired in fall 2015 amid financial struggles. “That’s why I was brought on ... because we have not been sustainable.”
Bogus Basin will pay for this year’s improvements with cash banked through two consecutive strong seasons of snow and revenue, Wilson said. The ski area set a record for revenue produced from its annual Presidents Day season-pass sale last month.
Bogus will retain enough cash to provide insurance against a bad winter, Wilson said. It also remains about $7 million in debt, so he considers the ski area still in “financial distress.”
“The problem with Bogus Basin is every time we get in a three- or four-year drought situation, we end up in dire financial straits,” said Brian Ellsworth, the chairman of the Bogus Basin board of directors. “The summer plan will pay for some of our deferred maintenance, as well as replacement of some of the old assets.”
The improvements planned for this summer come in year one of a 10-year business plan that came out of a feasibility study performed by SE Group, which specializes in helping ski areas improve their businesses. The feasibility study concluded that Bogus Basin was a “one-dimensional business” with unreliable snow as its Achilles’ heel, said Ted Beeler, president of SE Group.
“There’s much to be done, and this is the first phase of that,” Beeler said of the summer plan. “They had quite a run of poor snow and lack of performance, so they’re still chipping away at that, but there’s a real opportunity ahead.”
Bogus Basin joins an industry-wide trend of expanding summer operations at ski resorts that spiked after new guidelines, finalized in 2014, allowed more variety of recreation at ski areas that utilize U.S. Forest Service land. Most of Bogus Basin’s improvements will be built on the one square mile of land it owns around the Simplot and Pioneer lodges.
Snowbird in Utah added a mountain coaster in 2013. It also offers mountain biking, a ropes course, a vertical drop, climbing walls, trampolines, inflatable houses and other family-friendly activities.
Like Bogus Basin, Snowbird has easy access to a large population base. It’s six miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon just outside Salt Lake City, where many residents are within a half-hour or less of the ski area.
The mountain coaster is Snowbird’s most popular summer attraction.
“With the popularity and success of our summer programming, we don’t really have much of an offseason anymore,” said Brian Brown, the communications manager at Snowbird. “... We definitely are seeing people who want to recreate more in the mountains and beat the heat. It’s a great opportunity to get families to visit Snowbird in the summer season if they’re not ski families in winter. It’s very accessible access to beautiful parts of nature.”
Wilson and Beeler estimate that only 10-15 percent of Treasure Valley residents ski or snowboard. That leaves a massive amount of room for growth with activities that will draw non-skiers to the mountain. The gravity-fueled mountain coaster will run in the winter, too, creating package opportunities with the snow-tubing hill. Summer activities will range from trampolines to climbing walls to a ropes course in the trees. The Deer Point lift already provides summer rides to hikers and bikers.
The Bogus Basin board of directors approved this year’s improvements in late February.
“The board approved the spending on these because we really want to try to not be 100 percent dependent on winter,” Wilson said. “Winter is always going to be our primary source of income. We do over $10 million (in revenue) in the wintertime.”
The hope is that summers will provide from $1 million to $2 million in profit — enough “to get us through the worst winter we’ve ever had,” Wilson said. When the winter goes well, that summer income will combine with winter income to fund improvements across the operation.
An aerial-adventure ropes course is planned for summer 2018. A zipline canopy tour, adventure tower and more biking improvements could be added, too.
The first major winter improvement on the 10-year plan calls for replacing the Morning Star triple chairlift, which services novice terrain but is the most difficult chair on the mountain to load and unload. That project is estimated at $4 million and slated for year four, in 2020-21. That date could move depending on revenue.
Bogus Basin also is in the planning stages for a $5 million snowmaking system that would provide top-to-bottom skiing from the Deer Point and Morning Star lifts when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, providing guaranteed skiing during Christmas break. Fundraising will be a part of that plan.
The ski area prioritized summer infrastructure over winter for now because of the potential return on investment, Wilson said. Skiers appreciate upgraded lifts but that doesn’t necessarily translate to increased revenue like the summer season could.
Another advantage of the multi-season approach: Bogus Basin expects to have about 150 employees in the summer as opposed to 40 in the past. More employees will be able to work year-round, too.
“It comes down to what is the best use of the last two years’ revenue, and we feel the best use is to invest it into an operation that will have a return on it,” Wilson said, “and then that return becomes the economic engine that fuels winter improvements, fuels additional summer improvements and guards against those ‘what if?’ seasons.”