Tahoe resorts aim to draw crowds from places other than Bay | SierraSun.com
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Tahoe resorts aim to draw crowds from places other than Bay

TEYA VITU, Sun News Service

Travel writers aren’t the only ones who haven’t had Lake Tahoe on their itineraries.

Except for Northern California, no place else – not even Southern California – sends all that much business to America’s largest alpine lake.

Even with the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America as well as a former Winter Olympic site, Lake Tahoe relies on Northern Californians for 60 to 70 percent of its tourism business. Southern California makes up no more than 15 percent of the lake’s visitors.

Northern Californians are primarily weekend visitors, leaving many businesses scrambling for business from Sunday to Thursday.

Many Tahoe business and tourism organizations clearly realize that metropolitan Los Angeles is an untapped gold mine of potential visitors to fill rooms more days of the week.

“We’re the best kept secret. We have so much potential to share the beauty of the lake with the world,” said Vicki McGowen, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Incline Village/Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau.

For Lake Tahoe, north and south, the world starts with Southern California and travel writers. The lake’s tourism experts also have sights set on Texas and Chicago – two markets Tahoe people find ripe for the plucking.

The Resort at Squaw Creek will have a media familiarity trip in early January for about 20 writers, mostly from Southern California. Lake properties have become eager to host media since 60 members and guests of the Society of American Travel Writers Central States Chapter visited the lake in summer 1997. Numerous travel articles about Tahoe have appeared in magazines and newspapers from that junket.

“That’s where we need to be focusing our efforts: getting media outside of California and the Bay Area aware of us and talking about our snow,” said Emily Salmon, director of leisure sales and marketing at Squaw Creek. “The majority of writers have not visited the resort before.”

The travel writer junket from the Midwest revealed that most travel writers had not even visited Lake Tahoe prior to the junket.

Monica Bandows at Heavenly Ski Resort has worked eight years to build media relationships with print and television news outlets in Southern California. This has paid off with visits to Heavenly in recent weeks by the Los Angeles Times and the CBS and Fox affiliates in Los Angeles.

“Those relationships were extremely hard to get,” Bandows said.

The same week that reporters visit Squaw Creek will also have more than 30 leading meteorologists at the resort for a conference called Operation Sierra Storm. Many will give Tahoe more media exposure by broadcasting weathercasts from the lake and mountains, said Phil McKenney, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.

“My goal is to promote Tahoe as one destination, one attraction,” McKenney said.

The resort association formed in July 1996, the result of a merger of the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce and the Tahoe North Visitors and Convention Bureau to market the North Shore as a single tourist destination. McKenney has gone one step farther by gaining the contract to operate the South Shore’s toll-free reservation number.

This created the first lakewide central reservation system in November 1997 to book a room at Tahoe. Before, one had to make separate calls to check on rooms on the south or north shores.

“It gives an opportunity to go one-stop shopping,” McKenney said. “My major step was to take on South Shore reservations. We will pick up Incline’s (800) number in the next 12 months. We have had a 21 percent increase in central reservations for North Lake this fiscal year and we’re booking more business for South Shore than they had before.”

Tahoe seeks one identity

Lake Tahoe got a late start on marketing itself as just Lake Tahoe. It’s always been South Shore or North Shore and this or that ski resort. Divided efforts for decades resulted in Tahoe basically remaining a regional weekend attraction rather than a true national or international destination.

Just two years ago, visitors bureaus, ski resorts and other tourism outlets joined forces to give Tahoe one voice. McKenney said this joint effort was spurred on by the New Year’s Flood of 1997 and President Clinton’s Tahoe summit in summer 1997.

“We are doing some of the things now that Colorado has done for years, Salmon said. “I think in the long-term the direction we have to take is national recognition. We can’t continue to rest on the Bay Area.”

The January 1997 floods, which closed the Highway 50 western approach to the lake for several weeks, quickly drew the visitors authorities together for joint marketing to remind the Bay Area that “Lake Tahoe was open for business” even if the main road from San Francisco was closed.

The start of 1997 also brought together all the major players along the lake to plan for Clinton’s visit. Government officials, environmentalists, tourism people and other businesses planned the president’s visit down to the minutest detail.

“Literally for six months we sat around the table and just hammered the issues,” McKenney said. “It was almost a second job.”

Those relationships shifted from crisis management and presidential planning to tourism marketing as a team. This brought the rest of the lake together in a fashion already in place in the ski industry. Not that the ski properties had perfected the art of attracting destination visitors – those visiting for more than a weekend.

Strategic Marketing Group in South Lake Tahoe, headed by Carl Ribaudo, places $1.2 million in advertising on behalf of Ski Lake Tahoe (the six largest ski resorts) and the Sierra Ski Marketing Council (the visitors authorities and chambers of commerce around the lake and in Nevada’s western valleys). Ribaudo said Tahoe’s tourism industry needed until the later 1990s to treat tourism as an industry that must be nurtured.

Where Colorado’s Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone combine for more than $20 million in advertising, Tahoe’s Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Kirkwood and Northstar advertise for perhaps $6 million, McKenney and Ribaudo said.

“(Tahoe) has had the luxury of strong business from Northern California,” Ribaudo said. “They really didn’t have to work as hard as Colorado in the middle of the country. I think they have realized that the (Northern California) market is really tapped and it’s weekend business.”

Gaming slumps throughout 1990s

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Stateline casinos, where the gaming win in 1997 was the lowest since 1986 with drops in six of the last eight years.

Gaming peaked at Stateline in 1989 with the casinos winning $352 million compared with the $294 million win in 1997, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board statistics.

The Stateline casinos, however, right now show signs of a minor rebound, with double-digit increases in gaming wins in July, August, September and October. These increases over last year are a bit misleading, said Steve Teshara, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance.

“You are comparing to a pretty crummy year,” Teshara said.

But Teshara said he does notice positive signals that Tahoe is trying to counter the proliferation of gaming across the country that contributed to Tahoe’s decline. He does blame local apathy for helping the decline.

“All of the South Shore was in a period of stand still (for much of the 1990s),” Teshara said. “That’s changing now. People are finding reasons to come back.”

The three biggest reasons are still on the drawing boards. Heavenly and Squaw Valley each plan to build villages at the base of their resorts and Sand Harbor hopes, in coming months, to build a new stage, backstage facilities and a redesigned entrance and ticket booth.

Here comes the bride

One Tahoe industry not struggling to establish itself beyond Northern California is the wedding business, where about 60 percent of the brides and grooms come from out-of-state. In the past five years, Beverly Bedard has seen a 10-fold increase in the economic impact of weddings along Tahoe’s north shore.

She said the wedding industry in the North Lake Tahoe communities has soared from $4 million in 1993 to an estimated $44 million in the past year. The number of weddings has doubled from about 1,000 a year to between 2,200 and 2,500 in the same time frame, she said.

“Weddings and honeymoons are the first new industry to come to the North Shore in 30 years and it’s the first year-round industry to ever come here,” said Bedard, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Wedding and Honeymoon Association.

Bedard, former executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, built the association’s membership and marketing budget from 30 members and $40,000 to 120 members and $130,000 to advertise the North Shore in wedding publications.

“One of the things I want to stress about North Lake Tahoe (wedding establishments) is a tremendous networking effort,” Bedard said. “They refer business back and forth. It is not a cut-throat business up here. That is one of the reasons the association is so successful.”

Bedard wants to focus even more attention on bringing honeymoon couples to Tahoe. She said honeymooners who get married on the East Coast generally arrive at the lake Sunday evening and go home Thursday – the precise time of week where Tahoe’s economy needs a boost.

McKenney of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association welcomes weddings as a way to build business in shoulder seasons and weekdays.

“I think weddings and honeymoons play a significant role,” McKenney said. “A wedding is not just a one-day event. People wrap vacations around it.”

The weekday nature of honeymoons and the year-round marriage market play right into Lake Tahoe’s efforts to transform a weekend resort into a seven-day, year-round destination.

Southern California is the place

Lake Tahoe collectively launched its first major marketing assault this year on Southern California, where a drive north for skiing invariably means Mammoth, not Tahoe.

The Mammoth Mountain Ski Area counts on Southern Californians for 82 percent of its skiers while only 10 to 15 percent of Tahoe’s skiers call metropolitan Los Angeles or San Diego home.

“Guess how hard it is for us to get people from the Bay Area,” said Joanie Saari, a Mammoth spokeswoman.

Mammoth has a mountain barrier discouraging San Franciscans but Lake Tahoe simply has to overcome a Southern California mindset that Mammoth is all there is in the north.

“That’s been the habit,” Squaw Creek’s Salmon said. “They basically get in the car and drive to Mammoth.”

Squaw Creek, adjacent to the Squaw Valley ski area, just this fall for the first time hired a Los Angeles-based media representative to exclusively market Southern California, she said.

“Southern California is a big audience we’re going after actively now,” Salmon said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to see a 3 percent increase this year (from Southern California.)”

Also, the visitors authorities in South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City and Incline Village will have a joint four-color, pull-out advertising section in the Sunday issue of the Los Angeles Times Jan. 10.

Southern Californians have shown an increasing interest in Incline Village the past few years, McGowen said.

“We get 12 percent of our visitors from Southern California,” McGowen said. “About five years ago, it was 8 percent of the market. I’d like to get 20 percent from Southern California.”

Even Heavenly, which has the most diversified visitor base, brings in only 14 percent of its customers from Southern California. Heavenly relies on Northern California for only 45 percent of its business but Tahoe’s largest ski resort still suffers the same malaise as the rest of the lake: heavy weekend business, plenty of space on weekdays.

“We can only put so many people on the slopes,” Bandows said. “We need to grow our Monday to Friday business. We need more of a destination guest.”

Heavenly comes close to capacity on Saturdays, which has twice as much and sometimes even triple the business of weekdays. Heavenly wants to bring weekday business to a similar level as weekend skiing, though it’s acknowledged that the weekend will always be the strongest market, Bandows said.

As McKenney at North Lake’s resort association puts it, “Sunday to Thursday is where you have occupancy opportunity.”

And McKenney and others believe Texas is the ideal market for Tahoe. Several airlines serve Texas from Reno-Tahoe Airport.

“Texas is tired of Colorado,” McKenney said. “They’ve been there and done that. They’re looking for something new and they seem to be looking favorably on California. I’m watching Texas very closely.”

The Sierra Ski Marketing Council, of which McGowen in Incline is a member, has targeted Texas with advertising.

“We’ve been more aggressive in Texas this fall than last fall because of the air service,” McGowen said. “Chicago is next. Chicago is an important city (to bring conventions to Tahoe).”

Teshara of the gaming alliance has equal interest in Chicago and Texas for gamblers as well as conventions at casinos.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is there is a lot of competitive spending by people with a lot more money than we have,” Teshara said. There’s huge marketing dollars being used out there. A casino general manager said to me ‘we can’t forget to ask people to come.'”

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