LAKE TAHOE - An increase in early-season bookings for winter ski vacations has hoteliers and property managers in the Lake Tahoe region - who have struggled the past few years to fill rooms at profitable rates - optimistic about the upcoming ski season.
And a rise in bookings from international clients gives even further hope that tourism may be returning to the region.
Don Cauley, general manager of Vacation Station at Incline Village, says bookings are tracking up 10 to 15 percent this year compared to 2009. Reservations for the company's 100 cabins, condominiums and rental homes at Incline Village dipped between 35 and 40 percent beginning in 2008. Occupancy is running higher, Cauley notes, but profits still are down because of lower room rates.
"We are giving up revenues in order to get people to come back," Cauley says. "We are recovering somewhat, but we are nowhere near where we were two or three years ago."
Reservations for ski vacations also are on the rise at Resort at Squaw Creek. Les Pederson, director of sales and marketing, says December bookings are up 23 percent over 2009, while first quarter 2011 bookings are up 40 percent.
"That is encouraging," Pederson says. "Eventually snow will really get into the equation - this time of year we start to do the snow dance. But so far, so good."
Bill Cottrill, director of sales and marketing for Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe, located a stone's throw from the Heavenly Mountain Resort gondola, says bookings spiked with the arrival of snow in mid-October. Snowstorms typically result in a flurry of reservations, he says, and bookings tapered off with last week's warm weather.
"The pickup we got for the first quarter was amazing," Cottrill says. "There is a certain level of calls we handle, and when you throw a snow or rainstorm in there that will impact the wintertime. It brings a spike in phone calls. But as soon as it gets back to sunny weather, calls dip back down to a typical pace."
Cottrill says the increase in advance bookings helps Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe better plan for upcoming winter months, as well as decide what types of package deals it should offer to consumers.
Nicole Misfeldt, owner of Lake Tahoe Deluxe Vacation Rentals, which manages about 25 properties scattered around Lake Tahoe and at Squaw Valley, says the past two years her phone didn't even ring until snow was on the ski slopes. This year, Misfeldt says, she's been fielding calls for ski vacation reservations the past six weeks from vacationers making Christmas and New Year's Eve plans.
"It has been great," she says. "This year everyone has been planning. Things are much better."
Vacation rental managers and hoteliers also say that stays are getting longer.
At Resort at Squaw Creek, the average length of stay in 2009 was around 2.3 nights, while the first quarter of 2011 is averaging 2.9 nights. Pedersen says that's a low average by ski resort standards, but it's mainly due to the resort's "rubber-tire" business - clientele that drive up from Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area for weekend stays.
Cottrill of Embassy Suites say that although the property also does a majority of its business with weekenders from California markets, bookings for seven- and 10-night packages have boosted revenues.
"Selling longer stays, we make out better in the long run," he says. "We are well ahead of what we were last year, and we are optimistic for a strong first quarter; there are a lot of bookings still to be made."
Misfeldt says her customers also are beginning to book more weekly stays after several years of predominately long weekend vacations. However, Cauley of Vacation Station says average stays for his customers have dipped from 5.2 nights to 4.2 nights. Customers also are booking smaller properties too - Vacation Station manages properties ranging from one-bedroom condos to 10-bedroom, 10-bathroom homes.
Return visitors make up about 65 percent of the clientele booking through Vacation Station - and most are looking for a bargain, Cauley says.
As hoteliers and property managers were forced to lower their rates the past few years to counter lower occupancy, customers became much more savvy about negotiating for sweetheart deals. Cauley says the biggest response to the recession was made through reducing room rates to meet peoples' expectations for better value.
Misfeldt of Lake Tahoe Deluxe Vacation Rentals agrees that customers have gotten much better about comparison shopping - something she does herself to ensure her properties don't get beat.
"I go online to be sure we are in the same ballpark," she says. "It has become a real important part of pricing."
The decline in the value of the dollar also has spurred bookings from international clients. Squaw's Pedersen says that the rise in international bookings, primarily from Australia at his resort, are based on the perception abroad that an American vacation holds greater value this year than traveling elsewhere.
Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe's Cottrill also says the pace of East Coast and international business, brokered through wholesalers, is on the rise. "When that does well it tells us something about what is going on in the economy in the U.S., and when that is up that is a good thing," Cottrill says.