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Tahoe and western ski destinations see spike in visits with snow

Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@tahoedailytribune.com
A skier carves a fresh groomer at Heavenly Mountain Resort, one of three ski resorts in the region owned by Vail Resorts.
Courtesy Matt Gibson / LTVA

It’s no secret that snow is the big cash cow for any mountain town. It doesn’t take an economist to make that connection. While resorts across the Rockies and farther west continue to expand year-round tourism offerings, there’s still no substitute for a good snow year.

For far-western resorts from California to British Columbia, that’s meant a significant recovery from four down years.

“The West is looking strong this year,” said Tom Foley, director of operations for DestiMetrics — the Denver-based consulting firm that measures ski industry lodging trends in the Rockies and across the western U.S. “The driving factor is most certainly snow.”

His organization — which monitors lodging numbers in Colorado, Utah, California, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming — reported that far-western destinations have seen an average gain of 22 percent in lodging occupancy compared to last year. And, with the potential for a strong late season, that number could end up even higher.

“It’s the strongest occupancy pace we’ve seen there in the last five years. This certainly helps the fight to make up for lost revenue,” Foley said, noting that the season has lacked consistency from month to month and from one destination to the next. Even different properties within the same destination have showed variations.

“It’s an industry that has had an interesting season,” he said.

Foley further explained, “Blanket statements are hard to make. We’re seeing disparate performances across destinations.”

DestiMetrics’ February report also noted that last-minute bookings for the month jumped a surprising 19.2 percent across the Rockies and farther west over last year.

Foley and DestiMetrics director Ralf Garrison attributed the spike to a variety of factors. Regional visitors making last minute plans was likely among the lead contributors, according to Garrison. For Tahoe that means the San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno crowds.

“The Bay Area consumer has somewhere to go (this winter),” Foley said, which explains the impact of strong snowfall.

Locally, lodging numbers obtained by the Tribune support the Far West trend, and in some cases surpass it.

“Our season has been phenomenal,” Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority deputy director Sue Barton said. “This really goes to show what fresh and consistent snow does.”

According to City of South Lake Tahoe, tourism occupancy revenue for the month of December grew by 45.35 percent over last year for hotels and motels within city limits. Individual and vacation home rental revenue grew by close to 17 percent.

Even with a dry February, those trends appear to have continued in some capacity. Based on a representative sample of lodging properties, February showed a 25-percent occupancy increase over last winter.

“February was an outstandingly good month,” Barton said.

Year-to-date numbers from the same sample show a 22.7 percent increase over last winter. Mammoth Lakes, California, showed a similar increase while Colorado remained close to even with the previous year’s numbers.

While a spokesperson for Kirkwood and Heavenly Mountain Resort declined to give any indication as to the impact on skier visits, Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort spokeswoman Thea Hardy called their spike in visits and season pass sales “significant.”

“These storms help us so much,” she said.

Speaking in broad terms, Hardy added, “You can tell through town it’s more lively.”

But beyond this season, the impact could likely even carry over to next winter, Foley said. His organization refers to it as “snow equity.” A strong snow year typically remains in the mind of the consumer the following season.

“That memory stays alive, and it can be taken advantage of to get that skier in the door next year,” Foley noted.