Insider's Guide to Salt Lake City
Nathan Rafferty, the 39-year-old president and CEO of Ski Utah, seems born to fill an enviable position. A Utah native and a passionate skier and biker, Rafferty is by turns humble and visionary. And no matter which sport he’s talking about, he exudes the kind of optimism and energy that make you want to jump up, grab your gear and go along for the ride.
Ski Utah and the Utah Ski and Snowboard Association were founded in 1975 (before Rafferty even hit kindergarten) with the aim of promoting the state’s then underappreciated assets. In the early ’90s, as the small association worked to put Utah’s dry powder snow and “insider secret” slopes on the world map, Rafferty was busy arranging ski trips for fraternities and sororities at the University of Arizona, where he majored in communications. “I started out with about 120 takers the first year,” he says. “When that grew to 750, I figured there was some good potential there—a way I could actually work and get plenty of skiing in at the same time.”
Following this not-too-crazy dream, he spent the summer of 1994 as an intern for Ski Utah, then “bounced back and forth,” as he describes it, between that organization and Park City Mountain Resort, where he worked in sales and marketing. Eventually, Rafferty signed on as Ski Utah’s office manager and graduated to communications director—a position that proved instrumental in helping Salt Lake land and successfully host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. In 2005, Rafferty was named the company’s president and CEO.
The European model
“I get fired up about every part of my job,” says the energetic executive, known to friends as Nato. “I’m always looking ahead, thinking about how we can make the skier experience even better.” These days, that means thinking a lot about European models of transportation: direct rail from the airport, gondolas from resort to resort. “I did a cycling trip through Switzerland with my family, and when I experienced the way people move around there, I started salivating,” Rafferty describes. “The ride from point A to point B was part of the fun, whether it was cycling or on a cog rail. That’s my dream for Salt Lake’s resorts.”
His role at Ski Utah involves plenty of time on the slopes, presumably, but “as for the impression that all I do is ski, I gave up battling that a while ago. I figure people really do want to hear that, so that’s OK. But the reality is, we’re a lean organization with just nine people—and thank goodness they’re all smarter than I am, because we have to make every dollar we spend,” Rafferty says. Unlike other tourism-oriented groups, Ski Utah receives no funding from taxes.
The CEO’s ongoing mission is to convince skiers and snowboarders the world over that Utah’s 13 resorts provide the ultimate winter experience. Seven of them are easily accessible from downtown Salt Lake, so the concept tends to sell itself once visitors experience the ease of getting around. As Rafferty puts it, “You can fly into Salt Lake International Airport—which is about 10 minutes from my downtown office—and once you have your bags and are on your way, it’s about 35 minutes to the slopes. When newcomers see the Wasatch Mountains jutting up from the Salt Lake Valley and start calculating time saved, extra ski runs enjoyed, and the really great food and lodging options we’re offering, they’re blown away.”
It’s no surprise that the 2002 Winter Olympic Games marked a big upswing in “skier days,” a key measurement in the industry defined as one person visiting a ski area for any part of a day or night for the purpose of skiing or snowboarding. (In 2009–2010, Utah racked up 4,048,153 skier days.) “Starting with the 2003–2004 season, we had five record ski years. The Olympics put us eye-level on the shelf with more established destinations, like Aspen and Vail,” Rafferty says. “The Games also had a major impact on Salt Lake’s infrastructure. We redid the freeways and built a light-rail system that transformed the city.”
Salt Lake renewal
Now another transformation is taking place, as cranes and scaffolding dominate the heart of Salt Lake for a revitalization dubbed “Downtown Rising.” A few blocks (in this city, each block equals 10 square acres) are being rebuilt around exciting urban-living and major retail concepts. Since the locally prominent LDS Church has funded the project, it has been somewhat insulated from the economy’s recent mood swings. “Not to say that Salt Lake hasn’t been affected,” says Rafferty. “Tourism and convention sales have been challenged by the economy and by the project. But when it’s completed—the goal is first quarter 2012—we’re going to have a spectacular, dynamic city center. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs is moving 1,200 employees to a new skyscraper on Main Street, and we’ve broken ground for another major TRAX light rail to the airport, which should be completed by early 2013.”
Just as the tourism industry has had to tighten belts and lure visitors with incentives, Rafferty, who has grown to know the ski business inside and out, says he has had to be “pretty aggressive about courting sponsors.” Fortunately, once he gets visitors on his turf, he knows just where, when and how to seal the deal. “I could take them to any one of a number of great restaurants—and I do,” he says with a grin. “But there’s nothing better than an evening with our NBA team, the Utah Jazz. We’ll sit in some amazing seats and talk over a cold local brew—Rafferty is partial to Squatters’ Chasing Tail Pale Ale—and a hot dog. Nothing like it.” While he’s a major Jazz fan, Rafferty notes that “when it’s family time, we love going to a Salt Lake Bees’ baseball game at the Spring Mobile Ballpark. Whether you’re concentrating on the game or just taking the mountains and the sunset views, it’s an unbeatable experience.”
Proximity is also key in Rafferty’s Salt Lake. Most of his favorite restaurants are a quick walk—or even better, a bike ride (he keeps one in the closet and hops on it whenever possible)—from his downtown office in the Sheraton Hotel. He and his family live in nearby Park City, close enough for a fairly strenuous bike ride to and from work whenever time and weather allow. The Bonneville Shoreline Trail, a bikers’ and hikers’ dream, with incredible views, ringing the city’s east and north side, is just minutes away.
When he’s not into pedal power, Rafferty jumps on a BMW F800 GS dual-sport motorcycle. “It’s equally comfortable on dirt or pavement,” he says. “I can pack that thing with enough gear for a weekend trip or a year-long, round-the-world odyssey—which is on my short list. A couple of years ago, I rode with my brother and a few friends from Salt Lake to the Oregon Coast on almost 100 percent dirt roads by following a route I found online. A couple of good friends, lots of dirt, getting lost more than once, camping, cheap motels, dive bars and greasy spoons. Heaven!”
VIRGINIA RAINEY has written for a variety of Salt Lake City travel guides, including Fodor’s, The Insider’s Guide and Zagat.