LOS ANGELES — The nation’s ski industry suffered an epic wipeout last season, with the least snowfall in decades and one of the steepest drops in skier visits on record.
But instead of retrenching, resort owners are opening their wallets wide on upgrades and expansions. One of the biggest jumps in spending is taking place around Lake Tahoe, where resorts are in the midst of a spending splurge of more than $100 million over the next five years.
The flurry of spending began two years ago and includes a newly built on-mountain lodge at Northstar California and a mile-long terrain park at Alpine Meadows, plus new lifts and upgrades to snow-making equipment at several resorts. The Olympic House lodge at Squaw Valley resembled a tired, aging casino before it recently underwent a $2 million face-lift.
Although the nation’s ski mountains enjoyed bountiful snowfall in the 2010-11 season, last year they suffered the lowest snowfall in 20 years, forcing half of resorts to open late or close early. They drew only 51 million skier and snowboarder visits, a 15.8 percent decline from the previous season, the second-biggest year-over-year decline on record, according to the National Ski Areas Association trade group.
“We know the snow is going to come back, and we want to be ready and not have to play catch up,” said Nadia Guerriero, general manager of the Village at Northstar, who has managed a $3 million upgrade that includes new outdoor furniture, fire pits, and a concert stage next to the village skating rink.
Most of the expenditures come from the deep pockets of two Colorado companies: Vail Resorts, which also owns and operates popular resorts in Colorado and Wyoming, and KSL Capital Partners, a private equity group in Denver. Combined, the two companies own or operate five of the biggest resorts around Lake Tahoe.
Despite erratic snow seasons, Vail Resorts and KSL see Lake Tahoe as an underdeveloped gem.
Vail Resorts first moved into the Lake Tahoe area with the purchase of Heavenly ski resort in 2002. The company took over Northstar in 2010 and Kirkwood in February.
KSL acquired Squaw Valley ski resort in 2010 and took over Alpine Meadows in 2011, combining the operations to offer skiers 44 lifts and 270 trails on more than 6,000 acres of land.
For the last few years, Lake Tahoe resort owners have been discussing making a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics while making capital improvements crucial to winning over the International Olympic Committee, which chooses the host city for the Games.
But the U.S. Olympic Committee decided this summer not to bid on the 2022 games, opting instead to wait for the Summer Games of 2024 or Winter Olympics of 2026.
Even if Lake Tahoe doesn’t host a Winter Olympics, Vail and KSL officials say they see the resort upgrades as smart investments sure to pay off in the long run.
Only a year after Vail Resorts spent $63 million to take over operations at Northstar in 2010, the company began to spend upward of $30 million for a new lodge with 700 seats for drinking and dining, a new high-speed chairlift and two intermediate trails on the backside of the mountain. Snowboarding legend Shaun White was even tapped to design a 22-foot halfpipe.
At the new Zephyr Lodge, which opened last December, Bill Rock, vice president and chief operating officer at Northstar California, pointed to the self-serve salad bar, the food counter that serves Asian fusion dishes, and the wall of windows that look out on the snow-capped Sawtooth Ridge.
“Before we built this lodge there was no place to get food up here,” he said. “Our guest survey scores have been going up ever since Vail Resorts came in.”
Across the lake, Heavenly ski resort completed building a similar on-mountain lodge, Tamarack, in 2010.
The ski resorts are not alone in spending in Lake Tahoe. In 2009, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. invested $300 million to open a six-story, 170 guest-room luxury hotel at the Northstar resort, the only five-diamond, AAA-rated hotel around the lake.
Not everyone is happy about the big-money investments. Some longtime skiers fear the resort upgrades will lead to higher lift ticket and season pass prices. Those prices have already increased $5 to $50, depending on the mountain.
Ski resorts across the country are also doling out more on capital improvements, but not to the same degree as the Lake Tahoe resort owners.
In the 2011-12 season, the nation’s resorts invested a combined $300 million on capital improvements, an 8 percent increase over the previous year, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The potential dark cloud on the horizon for the ski industry is the potentially damaging effects of climate change.
Ski operators are taking action by cutting greenhouse gas emissions at their operations and investing heavily in snow-making equipment tp keep their mountains white when Mother Nature won’t cooperate.