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Tahoe’s ski resorts spending millions to compete

TOM GARDNER, Sun News Service

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – Ski areas nestled around the Lake Tahoe Basin are emerging from decades in the shadows of resorts in Utah and Colorado with a billion-dollar makeover centered on their namesake jewel.

“What everyone else has, we can build,” Kirkwood Mountain Resort President Tim Cohee said. “What they can’t build is Tahoe.”

And building is just what Tahoe is doing, to add even more allure.

A quarter of the basin’s renewal is the $250 million Park Avenue Development, where T-shirt shops and motels are giving way to chalet-themed resorts rising around the project’s centerpiece – a $20 million, 138-car gondola soaring more than 9,000 feet above sea level.

“It’s the beginning of a new era for the South Shore,” said Monica Bandows-Marini, communication manager at Heavenly Ski Resort.

The “beginning” actually started more than a decade ago when the resort operators began realizing they were ceding thousands of potential customers to Utah and Colorado by living in the past.

“Fifteen, 20, 25 years ago, Lake Tahoe resorts were doing pretty well just with the day-drive traffic out of the Bay area and Sacramento, whereas the Colorado resorts really had to market themselves as resort destinations to get that kind of business,” said John Wagnon, vice president of marketing at Heavenly. “Colorado certainly got out ahead of the marketing effort a lot earlier than Lake Tahoe or Sierra resorts did.

“In the last 15 years, we’ve really changed the image of Lake Tahoe in the minds of consumers all throughout North America and in Europe. “We are a world class destination in pretty much every sense of the word.”

Along with getting out the word, the areas had to re-examine their product. While Colorado resorts touted their snow, Tahoe’s runs were scorned as “Sierra cement.”

“I’d like to know who created that whole ‘Sierra cement’ concept,” Wagnon sniffed. ‘My guess is that it was probably somebody from a Colorado ski resort.”

But even devotees of Tahoe’s mountains like Wagnon and Cohee concede there were problems.

Long before he was operating them, Cohee was skiing the Sierra’s trails.

‘It was just a total pain,” he said.

Lines were long, lifts were slow and crowded, runs were short and the snow was bad.

The resorts responded with faster lifts seating four or more across and with aggressive grooming of the slopes. Expansion added longer runs and snowmaking equipment let seasons start earlier and end later.

Concurrently, the Reno airport expanded and additional carriers opened up new markets for an area where flights previously had involved multiple connections and pricey tickets.

“It was hard to convince somebody back east to fly over Colorado and Utah to go skiing at Tahoe,” Cohee said. “It was very expensive and you couldn’t get here.”

The resorts pooled their resources to pitch their accessibility, their snow and their beauty, not to mention the high-rise casinos soaring at the bottom of Heavenly.

“Gambling is one component of a full, well-rounded nightlife package. One of the things that Lake Tahoe can offer, and specifically South Lake Tahoe and Heavenly, is a unique nightlife aspect to the vacation,” Wagnon said.

The faster lifts are giving skiers as much time on the slopes as ever before with less waiting around. As a result, they’re skied out in a few hours and looking for activities off the mountain.

“The number of high-speed lifts has really changed the average skier’s day,” Bandows-Marini said.

That’s particularly true of the gondola, said Harrah’s Tahoe spokesman John Packer.

“It’s a huge convenience for the skiers. It’ll really make South Lake Tahoe more of a skiing town where you don’t have to drive some great distance to park and get a lift ticket. The ski lift comes to you,” he said.

For people who want to avoid the South Shore’s action, Squaw Valley to the north has teamed with Intrawest in a $250 million village that will consist of 640 mountain homes and 80 boutique shops and restaurants on 13 acres at the resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Kirkwood is extensively involved in homes and condos and development also is under way at Northstar-at-Tahoe. Lifts, shops, restaurants and expanded lodge facilities are springing up on both sides of the state line.

The if-you-build-it cliche seems to be working. Tahoe’s west shore resorts have seen their numbers increase from 2.6 million in 1996-97 to 3.25 million last season, according to the California Ski Industry Association.

Colorado, with more than twice the resorts, has declined from 11.84 million to 10.9 million in the same period, according to Colorado Ski Country USA, while the 14-member Utah Ski Association had 2.98 million visitors last year, down from a record 3.14 million a year earlier and the previous record of 3.11 million in the 1994-95 season.

“The Tahoe area is unique,” said Skip King, the spokesman for Heavenly’s parent American Skiing Co., which is headquartered in Maine. “There is no place anywhere in the world that offers the same combination of snow, very very dynamic mountains and tons of sunshine.”

“A lot of the major resorts are great mountains for beginning and intermediate level skiers but … don’t offer the sort of jaw-dropping steeps that keep the real hard core skiers interested,” he said.

“You couple that with its scenery which is unlike anywhere else … and it is, quite frankly, probably on an international level one of the most underappreciated ski destinations in the world.”


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