Tahoe visitor economy gets wrong kind of publicity | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe visitor economy gets wrong kind of publicity

Susan Wood

Emma Garrard / Sierra Sun / Alex Chisholm, manager of the Burger Lounge, sprays water on the roof of the restaurant after the area was evacuated due to the Angora fire.

Lake Tahoe tourism officials have longed for the national and international attention they’ve experienced since the Angora fire broke out on Sunday. Reports featuring the resort destination have been published or broadcast as far away as Italy, Canada and even Australia.

But all the publicity comes at a price that compounds the personal tragedy.

The pictures show flames reaching the sky, smoke-filled conditions and people fleeing — not exactly images associated with a relaxing vacation.

Public relations specialist Phil Weidinger estimated the media coverage would amount to millions of impressions. In his world, news publicity equates to three to 10 times the value of a comparable amount of advertising because of “the credibility and third party endorsement,” he said.

But false, missing or late reports don’t help the cause of keeping the economy rolling, tourism officials contend.

“We heard the road was closed,” Farmers Markets Manager Jim Coalwell of Placerville said, referring to Highway 50 — which was temporarily closed Monday. Lake Tahoe Boulevard is closed near Sawmill Pond into the North Upper Truckee residential area, a point lost in the shuffle of media reports on the Angora fire.

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“In the calls we’ve taken, people do have the notion the town’s burning. We tell them the fire area is in a remote part of the city,” Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority Executive Director Patrick Kaler said this week, before the fire zone jumped Highway 89 on Tuesday afternoon.

Even the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association has fielded calls from a confused public about whether visitors can gain access to the lake.

That’s why the LTVA is applying for a public relations grant through the California Tourism and Travel Commission and plans to beef up its $680,000 advertising efforts by $30,000.

“We’re not out of the woods. But what we have to come to grips with is we’ve suffered a tremendous tragedy, but no one was killed. But we’ve had a difficult winter, and there are small businesses struggling,” said Betty “B” Gorman, executive director of the Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce.

She took heart in California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger telling tourists it’s safe to visit Tahoe during his tour of the fire zone Wednesday. But with winds in the forecast, is it a good idea to invite more people and vehicles into the South Shore?

“We don’t suggest anybody come today, but locals could get out and experience business,” she explained.

Lessons learned in the south

Lewis Murray, executive director of the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce, issued advice to Tahoe tourism and business leaders after his community endured the wrath of the Old fire in October 2003. More than 400 homes were destroyed in Lake Arrowhead, and even more in surrounding communities.

Murray estimated the damage and economic loss at $37 million for the Southern California mountain haven, which was closed off for two weeks.

“You can imagine the huge financial impact,” he said.

“We got a lot of bad publicity. We anticipated having a bad year, but we were surprised by how quickly we recovered,” he said. He mentioned morbid curiosity as one reason that visitors returned.

Murray said he hounded the regional media that showed images of devastation, insisting they do the same of the recovery.

“We had a ‘you-owe-it-to-us’ attitude,” he said.

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