The winter that wouldn't end has segued into the winter that won't begin.
Last year Lake Tahoe ski resorts enjoyed one of the best winters on record with many resorts reporting 60 or more feet of snowfall from October through April. However, the snow has yet to begin whitening the ground at regional ski resorts - yet Lake Tahoe hoteliers aren't getting anxious about this year's prospects for a banner winter.
Bookings are up across the region, hotel operators and tourism executives say, and most properties around Lake Tahoe long ago learned to look at the season as a whole and not on a weekly or even monthly basis.
Andy Chapman, chief marketing officer for the North Lake Tahoe Chamber Convention and Visitors Bureau, says advance bookings in October were up 35 percent year over year for 18 different North Lake Tahoe properties despite the fact that the region is well below seasonal average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported an average of just over 8 inches of snow at Soda Springs (6,916 foot elevation) for most of December. The region receives about 350 to 400 inches of snow annually, Chapman says.
Despite the lack of snow tourists are still including Lake Tahoe in their holiday travel plans. Hotel executives on the north shore and south shore of Lake Tahoe say that Christmas, New Year's Eve and President's Day advance bookings also are trending up.
Bill Cottrill, director of sales and marketing for Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe, located near the base of the gondola that services Heavenly Mountain Resort, says that last week the property was trending 20 percent ahead of the same period in 2010.
And ski conditions are ideal for the vast majority of vacationers to Lake Tahoe, Cottrill notes.
"People want to go on vacation and get out of the city," he says. "Our guests are mostly beginners and intermediate skiers and families who just want to see Lake Tahoe. They aren't looking for five feet of powder. They want to see their skis, the sun and the lake. They need a small amount of snow, and right now Heavenly has some great skiing. Heavenly has its snow guns going top to bottom."
Heavenly last week pushed hard to open the Stagecoach lift in Nevada, allowing skiers top-to-bottom access on the Nevada side, and the resort expects to continue opening runs on the California side of the resort.
Advance bookings also have risen at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort Spa and Casino at Incline Village, says Nate Hardesty, director of sales and marketing. The 422-room Hyatt resort has seen a rise in bookings on average of 5 to 12 percent for certain dates, Hardesty says, and he expects the resort to sell out for New Year's Eve and other key dates.
Besides, he says, excluding the last two years, cold, dry weather patterns are normal for this time of year.
"Historically we don't get a lot of snow until Christmas. We usually are in a kind of lull until the week leading into Christmas. I have got to believe by then we will get our normal snowfall."
Alex Mourelatos, general manager of Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort at Tahoe Vista, says that the weak snowfall totals have caused a drop in advance bookings at his property by as much as 50 percent from a similar timeframe last year - but that's to be expected for a lakefront property, he says. Mourelatos says his business has a direct correlation between snowfall and bookings because it picks up overflow once properties located at or near major ski resorts fill up.
Historically, Mourelatos adds, year-over-year revenues at Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort have risen five to 10 percent over the last four years due to brisk winter business. The Tahoe region enjoys an exceptionally strong skier base throughout northern Nevada and California that buffers the effects even the poorest winter, he says.
"As soon as it starts snowing, we know we have to schedule more people at the front desk and in reservations because we are going to get more calls," Mourelatos says. "If you are thinking about (bookings) weekly or monthly, you get a little nervous, but you have to look at the whole season, and it tends to balance out. We have had many dry Decembers that have been followed by great storms in either late December or early January.
Most of the large ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe region have been open for several weeks. Diamond Peak in Incline Village opened Dec. 15, while Homewood Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe's west shore was scheduled to open on Dec. 17. Cold temperatures have allowed snowmaking crews to work double-time.
"Last year was phenomenal, no doubt, and now we are on the other end of that and are seeing below normal precipitation," Chapman says. "The good thing is that cold temperatures have allowed resorts to make a lot of snow. Given the fact that we have had limited natural snowfall, the resorts still can put a nice product on the ground."