TRUCKEE, Calif. — Meager snowfall in the Sierra has led to a sharp decrease in visits at Vail Resorts-owned mountains at Tahoe, and it’s forcing other ski areas to rethink employment strategies to weather the storm.
Visits from the start of the season through Jan. 5, 2014, at Northstar California, Heavenly and Kirkwood are down about 23.4 percent compared to the prior year (through Jan. 6, 2013), the company announced Monday.
“Unfortunately, conditions in Tahoe have been very poor with snowfall down approximately 85 percent relative to prior year, resulting in visitation and guest spending well below our expectations, which negatively impacted our overall revenue growth,” Vail CEO Rob Katz said in a statement.
Meanwhile, skier visits at Vail’s Colorado resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone) and Canyons in Park City, Utah — areas that have seen solid snowpacks so far this winter — grew 7.4 percent year over year.
Vail’s season-to-date lift ticket revenue across all eight mountain resorts is up 3.9 percent, aided by an 11.7 percent uptick in Colorado and Utah.
Lift ticket revenue for the three Tahoe resorts, however, were not included in the company’s announcement to investors.
“As a privately held company, we will not expand past the metrics we have shared with the investment community,” Rachael Woods, senior communications manager at Northstar, said Tuesday.
Katz said the company is confident strong revenue in Colorado and Utah will make up for a “challenging” winter so far in the Sierra.
“However, our confidence is predicated on more normalized conditions returning to Tahoe by our third quarter (January through March),” he said.
Outside of a 2- to 3-foot snow storm in December, precipitation this winter has been almost non-existent at Truckee/Tahoe, a trend that comes on the heels of 2013 being the driest ever in the Sierra, according to previous reports.
The conditions led to the indefinite closure last week of Royal Gorge Cross Country Resort on Donner Summit.
They’ve also fed rumors that downhill resorts like Squaw Valley may close, something that is completely false, resort spokeswoman Amelia Richmond said in a phone message last week to the Sierra Sun.
While conditions are not ideal, business at Squaw did well over the holidays, Melissa Brouse, a spokeswoman for Squaw and neighboring Alpine Meadows, said Tuesday.
However, with no guarantee of snowfall heading into the three-day Martin Luther King weekend, both resorts are curtailing on-mountain staff, although no one has been laid off.
“In an effort to maintain the current positions at both resorts, some employees have been asked to temporarily reduce their hours or take some time off,” Brouse said Tuesday. “Once the weather turns in our favor, we look forward to, and will have the need to, recruit new team members across multiple departments at both resorts.
When asked Tuesday if Northstar is considering staff cuts, Woods said, “We will staff to the appropriate levels to ensure we’re providing the unmatched level of service Northstar is known for.”
In Nevada, Diamond Peak saw an increase of 60 skier visits year over year from Dec. 12 to the end of 2013, General Manager Brad Wilson said Tuesday, and overall revenue was up 2 percent.
Figures are compared to eight fewer days last season, however, as the government-operated resort didn’t open until Dec. 20, 2012, last winter.
“While we’re very pleased with financials for December … the reality sets in in January when demand is not there,” Wilson reported last week to the Incline Village General Improvement District Board of Trustees. “We have curtailed staff quite a bit and are adjusting to levels of participation right now with staff.”
When asked Tuesday to elaborate on Diamond Peak’s roughly 200 seasonal and full-time employees, Wilson said the resort is not “laying anybody off or furloughing anybody at this time.”
“We will be reducing certain staff hours, say from five to six days a week to four days a week,” he said.
During the dry spell, Tahoe resorts have relied on cold temperatures to make snow in order to offer regular terrain. For example, Heavenly spokesperson Sally Gunter told the Tahoe Daily Tribune last week the resort had put in about 750 hours of snowmaking as of Tuesday.
Woods said Northstar staff have put in similar levels of work.
“Natural snowfall has been hard to come by this season, but with one of the West Coast’s largest snowmaking systems, Northstar has really been able to differentiate itself from the other resorts in the North Lake Tahoe region,” she said.