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Mammoth airport may draw away Tahoe skiers

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series.

Can Lake Tahoe become the West Coast’s premiere resort destination as city fathers envision? A lot will depend on getting commercial air service back into the South Lake Tahoe airport.

And by the way, Tahoe should hurry with that concept. Mammoth Mountain may not be a big competitor right now, but Tahoe’s Sierra neighbor has brought in a hired gun to devise a commercial air plan for that community. And if that gets of the ground soon, it could spell trouble for Tahoe’s economy.



When the Intrawest Corp. increased its ownership of Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort from 33 to 58 percent early this year, the first thing that happened was a revamping of the Mammoth marketing department. Rob Perlman was brought on as senior director of marketing, and his first directive was to get an air program off the ground.

Perlman had done just that in a four-year stint with Vail/Beaver Creek Resorts in Colorado. Perlman spent the first 2 1/2 years at Vail as the communications manager. But he soon shifted to marketing, where he was instrumental in developing the Direct Air Program – linking 12 major cities to the Eagle County Airport via direct flights.




With this program in place, air travel to Vail increased from 210,000 seats per season to 320,000 seats – an important part of the town’s master plan to get the economy jump-started.

Now Perlman seeks to work the same magic at Mammoth, which, nestled just southeast of Yosemite National Park, is only a three-hour drive from South Lake Tahoe.

“We don’t really consider ourselves a competitor with Lake Tahoe,” said Perlman, who lived and worked here for a summer after graduating from college.

“That’s not our focus. Tahoe is a different sort of vacation destination.”

Perlman should not be believed, said Mindy Johnke of Oasis Aviation, which is the fixed-base operator at Lake Tahoe Airport.

“I know Rob Perlman, and he doesn’t think small,” Johnke said. “If Mammoth gets air service, of course they will be a major competitive threat.

“I’ve been keeping my eye on resorts such as Vail, Telluride and Mammoth, and it is a critical time for (Lake Tahoe) right now,” Johnke said. “These other resorts are making huge strides (in re-development and promotion), and we need to keep pace. At this point Mammoth is not much of a threat. But after what Perlman did at Vail … yes, we should be worried.”

Perlman instituted a program which included both working with the major airlines (American, Delta, Northwest, United, Continental and America West) on scheduling, and promoting those flights in the various cities.

“I saw my mission as finding a way to promote awareness of the Vail Valley,” Perlman said. “And that awareness did grow, by 100,000 (airline) seats.”

Working closely with Marketing Director Kent Meyers, Perlman devised a strategy which included direct mail, radio, and television advertising and Internet sales to put Vail back on the map. The resort had slipped from first to sixth as a national destination resort from 1993 to 1997.

With that success on his resume, the Evergreen, Colo. native was lured to Mammoth in July of this year, where he is employing a similar air strategy with the town of Mammoth Lakes and the Mammoth Lakes Airport.

“We’ve made significant investments in the airport,” said Mammoth Lakes community development director Mike Vance, who has helped coordinate a series of community workshops to hammer out specifics of the city’s dream – to become a mammoth presence in the destination resort market.

“Mammoth gets about 22,000 skier visits per day currently,” Vance said. “And that’s without having a commercial airline serving us.”

But Intrawest – a Canadian development corporation which also owns parts of other ski resorts such as Squaw Valley and Whistler, British Columbia – is investing heavily in Mammoth. The company is planning several projects at Mammoth Mountain, including a 174-room condominium/hotel which should be completed in 1999.

There will be problems – the Mammoth Lakes Airport is hemmed in by mountains, even more so than is South Lake Tahoe’s airport, so flying commercial jets in and out will be a daunting task. Also, Mammoth does not have the “year-round destination” appeal of Tahoe.

But Perlman thinks it can be done.

“The timing is conducive to getting a major airline in here,” he said. “The resort is in a position financially for the airlines to take us seriously. We’ve already had a series of informal discussions with contacts I helped establish in Vail.”

The airlines are vitally important, according to Perlman, because people who arrive by air tend to stay longer than drive-in tourists.

“It’s what they call ‘warm beds’ in the resort business,” Perlman said. “Weekend visitors are crucial. If we want to be a major force in the ski industry, we have to draw from a wide base.”

While Perlman was attending the University of Arizona, he spent a summer living in South Lake Tahoe, working at Lakeview Sports, a boat rental shop.

“I love Lake Tahoe; I’ve gone skiing there several times,” Perlman said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. As an overall resort experience, you’ve really got something there. But how it is marketed is the key to how successful you will be.”

Johnke agrees.

“The potential is great right now to get a commercial airline in here,” Johnke said. “The industry is strong, and they’re beginning to look at the smaller communities. We should have an advantage over other resorts in that we’re a year-round destination. But instead, we find ourselves lagging behind. I’m no expert, but the longer we wait, the further behind we’ll be.”

The future of Lake Tahoe Airport could also be at stake. As it stands now, the airport only caters to private planes. Oasis, which sells fuel and provides other services to the airport, only has three full-time employees. In 1991, the last full year that American Airlines serviced the airport, Oasis employed 10 people full time.

“That obviously impacts the economy,” Johnke said. “The airport is key.”

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