A visitor traveling to Sun Valley only during the fever pitch of summer or the mayhem that is the holiday season would be forgiven for thinking that the Wood River Valley is a constant bustle of people and activities.
But for those who visit outside of the prime time, and certainly for the year-round locals, the shoulder seasons return town to a state of calm. Gone are the lines of traffic collecting at each traffic light, and the routine trip to the grocery store is no longer an angst-inducing test of the depth of one’s patience.
Better known as ‘slack’ among residents, the seasonal downturn is a fixture for nearly all resort- or tourism-focused locales the world over. The cyclical nature of life in a community driven largely by tourism is akin to a collective circadian rhythm, the yin to the busy season’s yang. And though local business owners certainly feel the effects of this downturn, there is a nearly universal love for slack, especially here in the Wood River Valley.
For locals, it feels as though their town has been returned to them. A palpable sense of calm and quiet pervades every corner of the community and the breakneck pace of life in the high season yields to a tranquility more representative of the valley’s serene surroundings.
Among the many dramatic changes the COVID pandemic imparted on the valley, perhaps the most surprising was the complete disappearance of the spring and fall slack seasons. “COVID happened, and then there was no slack, neither fall nor spring,” says Paddy McIlvoy, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum. The outdoor sporting goods industry was overrun by an onslaught of demand for everything from bikes to bocce balls as the American masses took to outdoor recreation in droves in the first summer post-lockdown. McIlvoy’s business and other outdoor retailers in the valley experienced a seemingly unlimited demand for their wares that didn’t dissipate as the seasons changed.
Like any abrupt change to a longstanding pattern of events, the disappearance of slack left everyone living and working in the valley a bit discombobulated. Though most certainly a boon for many local businesses, the sudden change came at the price of work-life balance as operators and the small local workforce they employ were forced to work exceedingly hard to keep up. “It’s just not sustainable,” McIlvoy notes. “We want people who live here and work here to be able to take a breather every once in a while.”
The natural question on many minds following each subsequent shoulder season was simply, ‘Will slack ever return?’ Though it seemed the answer was a resounding ‘no,’ the spring of 2023 saw the return of slack, with one of the slowest spring seasons in recent memory.
Following a remarkable winter season of snowfall, spring proved to be nearly as wet, with warmer sunny days not arriving until well into June. This abnormally cold, wet spring undoubtedly contributed to a slow spring slack like in pre-COVID days.
“It was cold, rainy, and no trails were open, which may have been part of it,” says Sawtooth Brewery owner Kevin Jones. With the tourists gone, limited recreational opportunities to be had, and few, if any, sunny afternoons to entice people to meander the sidewalks, local businesses were bound to struggle. But with the struggles, slack also provided the pause many craved.
As local business owners look into the crystal ball, again attempting to prognosticate whether or not slack is actually back in full force, many agree that the slower shoulder season trend has likely returned. “I don’t think we’re going all the way back to 2018,” notes Olin Glenn, owner of Sturtevants, which operates in both Ketchum and its newly expanded location in Hailey. “But overall, I think the jury is still out.”
The pandemic drove unprecedented growth in year-round residents of the valley, a trend that supports the notion that the slack seasons could be on a trajectory to become less and less drastic. For organizations like Visit Sun Valley and The Chamber, the goal of reducing the effects of slack on local businesses and jobs through various marketing initiatives has become a lot more attainable. While it seemed like the job may have been done in 2021 when slack completely evaporated, the reality check of last spring has made certain their work is far from over.
For the most part, slack has been welcomed back with open arms, but far fewer residents of the valley long for it to return to its near ghost town-like state of affairs in slacks past. Time will tell just what kind of form slack begins to take as the rhythm of life in the Wood River Valley returns to its new balance. As the leaves turn this autumn, the locals of the Wood River Valley will once again get their chance to slide back into the easygoing pace of life in slack.