Tahoe area resorts prepare to close despite plentiful snowpack
April 21, 2017
If you're a skier or boarder in Northern California, or just about anywhere across the U.S. that has ski resorts, you've probably gotten used to hanging your gear up for the season around early to mid-spring — even if there's plenty of snow for smooth runs. But why?
This isn't an easy question to answer and a lot people in the industry don't have a definitive answer, but things like a natural business decline, retention of employees, profitability and permission to use land come into play. "Generally speaking, Easter and spring break, those are pretty good times for skiing," said California Ski Industry Association President Michael Reitzell. "People will target those time frames to go skiing so what happens is that you see pretty good attendance. But after that week is a pretty significant decline in visitors."
Reitzell said that this decline in attendance at resorts has been the case historically and that it isn't necessarily a lack of or an abundance of snow that either keeps people coming or dictates closing dates. Reitzell explained that there's also shift in activity that occurs around April where people start looking for other things to do. "People, in their minds, they're ready to do something else," said Reitzell. "If it's 80 degrees where you live, your mind isn't really on skiing and snowboarding." Reitzell explained that he's aware that many die-hard skiers and boarders would hit the resorts year-round if they could, but that interest doesn't warrant changing operation policies.
There's also the business side of things — where a resort has to consider what a longer season would mean logistically and financially. As far as attendees go, there's a certain level that needs to be attained. "There's a level at which resorts know how many people they need in order to actually break even or do better than that," said Reitzell. "If you're losing money, it simply doesn't make sense to stay open because you don't have the demand."
Sometimes it isn’t about planning, snow amount or demand at all, but having land to operate on. Many resorts, such as Sierra-at-Tahoe, operate on special permits from the U.S. Forest Service, which can impact operations.
Although most local resorts have either closed or will be closing within a week, some not too far from Lake Tahoe will be going strong. Mount Rose and Squaw Valley–Alpine Meadows are opting to stay open through May and even into June at some level. Even longer than that, Mammoth Mountain has decided to stay open at full capacity until July 4. Just because these resorts are staying open, however, doesn't mean it's an easy process. There's a lot of preseason planning that has to be considered. "Some resorts can't go into the season from an operations, employee and equipment standpoint thinking we're going to get 600-inches of snow and we're going to be able to have that snow for a long time," said Reitzell. "There are a lot of operational challenges that exist for certain resorts." Reitzell went on to explain that many employees at resorts work seasonally and have a certain time frame they typically are available.
There's also the transition time needed from winter to summer operations. Just because a resort is closed for skiing doesn't mean they aren't doing anything. Reitzell said resorts need time for that transition and it doesn't happen over the span of a day.
According to Reitzell, the majority of resorts closing in spring is almost a necessity for others to stay open longer. "If you want to ski, there are places to go," he said. "When there's a good amount of snow for the year, there's always a few resorts that are able to stay open. I think part of the reason they can do that is because the other ones do close."
Sometimes it isn't about planning, snow amount or demand at all, but having land to operate on. Many resorts, such as Sierra-at-Tahoe, operate on special permits from the U.S. Forest Service, which can impact operations. "We, and many other resorts, operate under a special use permit issued by the USFS," said Sierra's public relations manager Thea Hardy. "This limits the amount of time we are able to operate." Sierra operates on El Dorado National Forest-designated land.
Most everyone agrees that just because ski season ends doesn't mean you're left without anything to do, outside. As you've probably heard residents and tourists alike say, you come to Tahoe for the winters, but stay for the summers. "Here in California, we're a multi-season state," said Reitzell. "Tahoe is a good example of this."
Reitzell said he's seen many resorts all throughout California getting better at offering more summer activities and that having a designated winter and summer season can help create a well-rounded recreation experience for everyone to enjoy. This isn't to say that the possibility of a never ending ski season doesn't exist. For many resorts, it comes down to personal preference and how they prepare to stay open. In a recent interview with Truckee-Tahoe Radio, Squaw Valley CEO, Andy Wirth said he's planning on being open for July 4 and is considering having his resorts at continual operation. This may or may not happen, but a ski bum can dream.