Hot summer hydrates recreation firms

Revenues have been sizzling all summer for businesses that give residents and visitors to Greater Reno-Tahoe an escape from sweltering 100-degree heat.

Andrew Laughlin, owner of Sand Harbor Rentals, says revenues are up about 15 percent on a daily basis from 2011 for rentals of kayaks, personal watercraft and stand-up paddleboards at one of Lake Tahoe's most popular beaches. Laughlin says a rise in visitors to the Lake Tahoe Basin this summer, coupled with the growing popularity of paddleboarding, has Sand Harbor Rentals eyeing a record summer.

"Kayaks will always be popular at Lake Tahoe, but paddleboarding is the new hot item that people want to try out," he says. Laughlin was awarded the contract to operate rental services at Sand Harbor in 2011. "This year we got an early start, it has been strong all the way through, and I anticipate it will continue through September."

Recreational retailers around Lake Tahoe typically see a September swoon once kids head back to school and parents stop taking vacations, but weekend business often is brisk through October if the weather holds out, Laughlin says.

"The economy is rebounding. It seems like more people are at Tahoe this summer. We will see how it all shakes out in the end, but so far we definitely are doing better than last year."

Sand Harbor Rentals, sister company of Tahoe City Rentals, was awarded the lucrative seven-year Sand Harbor contract through a hotly contested bidding process of about 20 vendors. Laughlin says the additional revenue drawn from rentals at Sand Harbor, as well as the reduction in overhead from ferrying tourists and equipment to the East Shore beach Tahoe City, has provided an immense boost to his company's bottom line.

"Not having to relay kayaks and paddleboards there every day, with the amount of fuel that was consumed and the man hours it took to get 40 to 50 people in and out of the water, it was an incredible overhead expense," Laughlin says. "It is a lot simpler to operate, and it is a great service to the public. The East Shore has the largest section of undeveloped coastline at Lake Tahoe by quite a bit, and having easy access has been a great benefit."

For Mike Miltner, owner of Tahoe Whitewater Tours, this summer couldn't be any different from the summer of 2011. Revenues have been strong both years, Miltner says, but in totally different aspects of his business.

The record winter of 2010-2011 had the Truckee River running extremely high, cold and fast through July. As a result, Miltner didn't start rentals of float tubes and small inflatable kayaks at the Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield until the first week of August. But Tahoe Whitewater Tours countered with daily guided rafting trips through Class III rapids beginning at Crystal Peak Park in Verdi.

Tahoe Whitewater Tours usually takes groups of rafters through the Floriston Gorge below Boca Reservoir, but Miltner says conditions were just too dangerous last summer the river pulsed at 2,500 cubic feet per second through most of July. The steep-sided Floriston canyon is choked with large boulders and technically challenging rapids, and Miltner didn't feel he could operate tours with a comfortable safety margin.

That's not the case this summer, though; the Truckee River is flowing a meager 250 cubic feet per second or so through town. Rafting trips are down, but rentals of float tubes for a three-hour float from Mayberry Park or a two-hour trip from Crissie Caughlin Park to Wingfield are carrying the day. Tahoe Whitewater Tours puts between 50 to 100 people on the water each day and provides shuttle service to different drop-off points.

"This summer has been just diametrically opposite to last summer, even though we can operate on high water and low," Miltner says. "The different type of recreation we offer depends on the flow rate. This year we did one Crystal Peak tour, but now we are just doing inflatable kayaks and rentals of float tubes."

Business also is up at Wild Island, says General Manager Scott Carothers. Attendance for the popular water park at Sparks Boulevard and Interstate 80 eastbound is trending 20 to 25 percent higher year-over-year. The park also saw a similar rise in season pass sales.

Management counts on three factors for a successful season, Carothers says: appeal of the facility, customer service and value, and good weather. The park added a new ride for the 2012 season to spur interest in the park, and it's refrained from raising its season pass and general admission prices for several years to give a nod to perceived value.

"If you can tackle those three variables, you are setting yourself up for success," Carothers says. "The first two you can control, and we have had really good weather this year."

In-park spending has spiked about 25 percent over the prior year, and although the park can't track length of stay, the increased spending on food and beverages points to longer visits to the park. Group sales also rose slightly in 2012 the first increase in three summers, Carothers notes.

"We definitely are seeing a trend with the companies that survived the downturn. They are doing better and are rewarding their employees. They are looking for the right entertainment and the right reward for their employees."

About 70 percent of visitors to Wild Island are from northern Nevada, Carothers notes.

Businesses across the region are benefiting from a rise in visitors to the region. The estimated number of visitors to Greater Reno-Tahoe began ticking up in June after five months of year-over year declines, says the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. June was 3 percent year-over year but was up 11.6 percent from May, the RSCVA says.

Chris Baum, president and chief executive officer of the RSCVA, says July and August also are trending up, and that visitation to the RSCVA's Web site is up 42 percent year-over-year from northern California residents.

"The needle is finally going in the right direction, and we have got a lot more to come," Baum says. "The national economy is doing better, and people are traveling more in general. Our marketing efforts in northern California is really taking hold, and there are a lot of folks coming over to take advantage of Lake Tahoe, Reno and Sparks."


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