Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tahoe ski resorts prepare for season

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sacramento Business Journal - by Kathryn Reed Correspondent

Lake Tahoe ski-industry leaders are more focused on the anticipation of carving turns than on carving turkeys in late November.

"I've never made or believed predictions about snow," said Blaise Carrig, chief operating officer for Heavenly Mountain Resort. "It will come. That's been my approach."

The National Weather Service expects about 210 to 250 inches of snow this season for Tahoe City and the basin -- 10 percent to 30 percent above the average for the past 90 years, meteorologist Shane Snyder said.

Greater-than-average snowfall could help offset a lackluster season last winter.

With 70 percent of the California-Nevada resort able to be covered with manmade snow, Heavenly is prepared even if natural snow is scarce. The snowmaking guns were set up Oct. 29. Now, it's a matter of having consecutive cold nights and the right amount of humidity to be able to fire them up for today's opening.

At the other end of the lake, Squaw Valley also has ample snowmaking equipment. The resort hopes to run lifts beginning Saturday.

The problem in late October and early November is that an inversion layer often settles in, so it's warmer on top of the mountain than at the base.

Mother Nature didn't cooperate last season. Skiers and snowboarders stayed away, partly because the Sacramento region and San Francisco Bay Area were so warm and also de to the lack of understanding about how snowmaking and grooming can turn "old" snow into conditions that make the drive worthwhile.

It's been a challenge for the industry. About 55.1 million people hit the slopes last season nationwide, down 6.5 percent from the record 2005-06 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Despite the decline, last season was the sixth-best nationwide.

But the figure was downhill for the Pacific West region, which includes Lake Tahoe; it fell 14.3 percent from 2005-06.

Lake Tahoe resorts should rebound this season, according to Orbitz Insider Ski Index. Squaw Valley, about 90 minutes from downtown Sacramento, is the leading destination for skiers this season, the report said, based on hotel rooms and trip packages sold as of Oct. 11 with check-in dates between Nov. 20 and May 1.

Lift prices are expected to increase a few dollars from last year with more skiers.

A dismal snowpack beyond the holidays compounded last season's problems.

"For a ski resort, Christmas is the busiest time and lowest snowpack," Squaw spokeswoman Savannah Cowley. "It just makes us all very stressed out."

And the snowpack contained only about 40 percent of the average amount of water on April 1, the lowest figure for the month since 1988, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Heavenly destination
Despite the lower-than-average snowfall -- and revenue -- resort operators invested in capital improvements for this season. Heavenly, Homewood and Squaw will have new chair lifts.

Since Vail Resorts bought Heavenly in 2002, three high-speed lifts have been installed. The Olympic Express on the Nevada side is expected to be operating in early December. A zipline that propels riders at speeds of 50 mph with views of the lake opens next month.

Three new trails have been created in the area. Another trail off the Dipper Express chair is also new this season.

"We just approved the master plan, and it has some pretty important improvements that will make Heavenly a significantly better experience," Carrig said.

More lifts, trails and on-mountain lodges will be part of the resort in the coming years.

The $420 million hotel-condo-convention center project across the street from Heavenly's gondola looks like a big crater as crews work on the underground portion of the project. Dilapidated hotels dating to the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics once stood there.

RockResorts, which is owned by Vail Resorts, will run the 268-room Heavenly Chateau and the other 87-room, yet-to-be-named boutique hotel.

Master plans
Alpine Meadows Ski Resort and Homewood Mountain Resort were bought this year by San Francisco real estate development firm JMA Ventures. Homewood has a new high-speed lift that takes riders to the top of the mountain in six minutes, three times faster than the old lift.

Homewood is in the initial phases of creating a master plan. Owners anticipate hotel-condo lodging, more on-mountain improvements and base lodge changes to the west shore resort.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort, which was on the cover of the October issue of Ski magazine, had its master plan approved in October. Skiers and boarders could enjoy lift improvements soon at the 35-year-old resort.

Real estate has been the talk of Kirkwood for the past couple years, including the high-end Expedition Lodge under construction.

And with the addition of four trails at Northstar-at-Tahoe, the resort has 83 trails spread across 2,490 acres.

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