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Challenging ski season ends

Sally J. Taylor

Ski resorts felt the slide of U.S. Highway 50 and the wrath of Ol’ Man Winter as they summed up their 1996-97 season.

The ski year “was a challenging season,” according to Monica Bandows, manager of public relations at Heavenly Ski Resort.

What looked early on like a record year turned sour with an onslaught of monster snowstorms, flooding and road damage.

Sierra-at-Tahoe fared the worst when U.S. Highway 50 closed twice, for a total of six weeks, due to flood and mudslide damage.

“We went from the best location to the worst location,” said John Rice, general manager at Sierra, which closed Saturday.

Compared to last year, business at Sierra decreased by 19 percent.

Without the “incredible support” from Tahoe residents, the numbers would have been worse, he said.

“Sierra finished in the black, but not far in the black.”

At Kirkwood Ski Resort, on State Route 88, business was little better. Revenue finished flat with visits down 5 percent, according to Tania Magidson, Kirkwood’s communications manager.

The Highway 50 closure did not benefit Kirkwood, nor did it hurt, she said. With erratic weather conditions and related disasters throughout Northern California, potential skiers just stayed home.

“Northern California, our primary market, was in shock,” Magidson said.

Kirkwood, the highest elevation of the three South Shore resorts, will stay open until May 4.

Through it all, Heavenly Ski Resort, which closed Sunday, was the least impacted of the three resorts. Thanks to increases in skiers arriving via Reno/Tahoe International Airport, business at Heavenly increased by 24 percent.

Several years of marketing the resort in distant locations, “is the sole reason the road closure had such a small effect,” Bandows said.

Twelve percent of Heavenly’s skiers came from other countries this year compared to only 1 percent in 1991-92.

The destination markets also helped Sierra.

“They became an important part of keeping us alive,” said Rice, who noted that lift-tickets sales at lodging properties increased 8 percent.

While business at Heavenly was decent, it wasn’t as good as expected.

“In one sense we’re frustrated,” Bandows said. “Every indication going into the holidays was that it would be our best year ever.”

The ski season began with high hopes. An early snowfall provided a good Thanksgiving start, then great business early in the Christmas holiday.

Then Mother Nature turned the tables.

The second half of the Christmas/New Year’s holiday brought monster snowstorms. Ski resorts closed lifts for several days.

The devastating holiday cost Sierra 100,000 skier visits, one-third what it should have been compared to last year.

“Once (holiday) business is gone, it’s gone forever,” Rice said. “You can never get back your holiday business.”

Hope for January drowned with severe flooding in Northern California and the closure of the flood-ravaged U.S. Highway 50.

The double whammy cost Kirkwood 60 percent of its usual business for that period.

“The odds are that we’re going to have one bad month every year,” Magidson said. “What we had was a bad Christmas and a bad month, costing more than the normal losses.

“We would have had a record year.”

When Highway 50 reopened on Feb. 21, economic conditions at Sierra improved.

“Business came back up (to the level of last year),” Rice said.

But the damage had been done.

“Next year, we’ll get back on track,” said Bandows.

“We don’t control the weather. We work with it and run with it.”


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