The ski lift |

The ski lift

Rob Sabo

The vitality of tourism and gaming at South Lake Tahoe is directly linked to a healthy winter. Big snowstorms mean more skiers headed to Lake Tahoe resorts and with several big storms piling the white fluffy stuff en masse, regional ski resorts are operating the majority of their ski lifts.

More skiers spells more revenue for the Lake Tahoe region. And with scant snow last year, coupled with the crumbling national economy and tightened consumer spending, the gaming win in January at South Lake Tahoe properties plunged almost 24 percent from year-earlier figures. February numbers were worse, nearly 27 percent less revenue the biggest drop in gaming revenues in the state.

Dann Lewis, recently hired director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, says that wet winters equals big bucks.

“If El Nino cooperates and we have a really good snow season this year, that is going to be a tremendous help to the Reno-Tahoe area,” Lewis says.

And the tide may be turning at the lake.

The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority recently conducted a survey through Strategic Marketing Group, and the results seem to point to a rise in visitors to the region. Of the 806 people planning trips to Lake Tahoe, nearly a third plan to spend one or more nights at a South Shore property. The survey predicts a 34 percent increase in tourism to the area in the coming year.

“We’re hopeful this sample proves to be an accurate snapshot of the overall picture,” says Carol Chaplin, executive director of the LTVA. “The trend for increased tourism is a positive message for the entire south shore, especially as we move into what’s expected to be a solid winter season. Hopefully, the tide is turning.”

In Washoe County, the tide may already have turned, some casino executives say.

Bill Hughes, director of marketing operations for the Peppermill Resort Casino, feels gaming revenues have begun to flatten out. The gaming win in Washoe County for September was off around 7 percent from year-earlier figures a modest decline compared with the 20 percent fall in August, peak tourist season for the region.

Hughes doesn’t expect the coming year to be as difficult as 2009 for Truckee Meadows hotel-casinos.

“It is my opinion that we will do better than this past year,” he says. “A lot depends on how the economy in California turns, and there seems to be little bit of an upswing in the California market, at least for the housing market. If that stabilizes and construction gets back in gear, it will bode well for their economy to pick back up and create more tourism in our marketplace.”

Highly targeted marketing campaigns also will help the region draw more tourists in 2010, Hughes says. It’s important to reinforce the message that Reno, formerly known primarily as a hub for gambling and quickie divorces, has changed.

“There are a lot of new things in Reno,” Hughes says. “We are still living with those past legacies, but Reno has a lot more to offer now. We buried the train, we have a new ballpark, a kayak park, we have got a lot of great restaurants. There are a lot of reasons to come to Reno.

“To become more of a resort destination than a gambling destination, we are going to need more retail businesses and conventions rather than just regional tourists,” Hughes adds. “We need to do a better job of getting Reno out in front of the major feeder markets so that people keep us top of mind.”

In Elko County, where the recession landed pillow-soft rather than rock hard, tourism and gaming continue to expect modest declines.

The gaming win in Elko County, which includes West Wendover, was off in single digits for much of 2009. Tom Lester, convention and tourism manager for Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, says the region will hold ground in 2010 mainly because of the changing perception that Elko is a merely stopover to someplace more fun.

“We are doing quite well,” Lester says. “We are becoming more of a destination area for overnight stays and touring the entire area. We are educating tour operators about what area has to offer. And we are definitely affordable, which helps as well.”

In addition to a strong following for established events, such as the Basque Festival and Motorcycle Jamboree, Elko will benefit from the second-quarter opening of the California Trails Interpretive Center. The $14 million facility located eight miles west of town chronicles the history of the Gold Rush.

And it seems vacationers will stay closer to home in 2010, Lester adds.

“Rather than taking that Florida trip they might be looking at a different destination, and that might help.”