Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tahoe looking for tourists

By Gilbert Chan, The Sacramento Bee

Jul. 12--South Lake Tahoe officials are turning up the celebrity quotient to revive the tourism industry on which their residents depend as the region continues to try to mute the economic fallout from the devastating Angora fire.

Fresh off last week's pitch by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, business leaders are now counting on new radio spots by one-time "Saturday Night Live" comedian Kevin Nealon and a nationally broadcast celebrity golf tournament featuring the likes of former NBA All-Star Charles Barkley to help dispel misconceptions about conditions.

The wildfire, which charred 3,100 acres and destroyed 254 homes, has scared off tourists and put a squeeze on the resort community's economy. Tourism officials and merchants say sales for the crucial summer season are off 7 percent to 30 percent, depending on the business.

"The whole place didn't burn down," said Joe Santalla, general manager of Tahoe Keys Boat Rental.

To drive home that point, business leaders recruited Nealon to urge Sacramento and Bay Area radio listeners to return to the lake, saying in 60-second advertising spots that the "nightlife has not slowed down one bit on the south shore."

Nationally, officials are looking at seven hours of network television air time of the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament this weekend to draw attention to the Tahoe basin.

"It is really important to get people up here. Most of the businesses are still down from their original bookings," said Patrick Kaler, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

Tourism accounts for about 80 percent of the local economy. Most resorts and retailers rely on July and August to generate the bulk of their profits.

Although business picked up during the Fourth of July holiday week, officials say overall sales remain below normal for early July.

For the summer, resorts and hotels are looking at a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in reservations from a year ago, said Jerry Bindel, president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association.

The drop is another blow for businesses still trying to recover from a disappointing winter season cut short because of sparse snowfall.

"The winter was very poor. It died on January 15," said Mark Gandt, president of Tahoe Sports Ltd. Sagging sales have forced him to cut his payroll by 15 to 20 percent in the past six months.

"Everyone is hurting," Gandt said. "The last week of June is usually strong. It was a terrible week."

In response, the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority tapped into an emergency fund and on Monday launched a two-week, $65,000 radio ad campaign featuring comedian Nealon, a local resident.

Officials are also counting on potential tourists seeing TV images of sweeping views of the lake and Sierra Nevada this weekend as celebrities descend on the lakeside Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course for an annual golf tournament.

Barkley, actor Don Cheadle and soccer star Brandi Chastain are among the sports and entertainment luminaries scheduled to play.

During coverage by ESPN2 and NBC, the networks will publicize an 800 number and a Web site where viewers can donate to wildfire relief efforts. NBC Sports also will air a feature with reporter Jimmy Roberts and some of the celebrities with interviews of families who lost their homes in the fire. Celebrities, who claim amateur status for the event, will donate any winnings to relief efforts.

(ESPN2 will begin broadcasting the tournament at 4 p.m. Friday. NBC's live coverage -- aired locally on Channel 3 (KCRA) -- starts at 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.)

"This event has been like a big picture postcard for Lake Tahoe," said John Packer, spokesman for Harveys and Harrah's resorts. The network broadcasts are "a terrific opportunity to show the country that Tahoe is beautiful again."

While firefighters knocked down the fire more than a week ago, officials say they continue to face a huge challenge with out-of-state residents who believe a large swath of the Tahoe basin burned and the skies are brown with lingering smoke.

On Monday, for instance, Patrick Ronan, owner of Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa, answered a call from a customer in Georgia. The caller, who has reservations for August, "wanted to see if our hotel is still standing." The lodge is about seven miles from the fire area.

In North Lake Tahoe, businesses slowed during the fire, but reservations picked up as some tourists shifted vacation plans there from the south shore.

"We are not seeing ... any kind of short-term dip," said Andy Chapman, tourism director for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.

While South Lake Tahoe resort operators say weekends are mostly booked up for the summer, reservations are lagging for midweek -- in part because of cancellations by visitors who had planned weeklong stays. Some resorts are offering midweek promotions to entice visitors.

Even if summer tourism picks up through Labor Day, operators say they will be hard-pressed to make up for lost sales during the Angora fire. Tahoe Keys Boat Rentals, for example, rang up about $600 in sales the day after the fire broke out -- compared with $12,000 on the same day the previous year, Santalla said.

Doug Anderson, owner of Anderson's Bicycle Rental, said his small shop lost $10,000 to $12,000 in sales.

"There was a 10-day stretch in which we took a big hit," Anderson said. "It's going to affect the bottom line."

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