There is something depressing about a closed ski slope in winter. The trails are bare and grassy. The chairlifts just hang there, waving a little in the breeze. It’s like walking into an empty restaurant on a Friday night. That’s been the mood in Tahoe for much of this winter.
In the middle of February, I took a trip to the Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. It is a smaller ski area in Tahoe frequented by locals. Unlike the bigger resorts, Homewood sells lift tickets for under 50 dollars, and it isn’t filled with restaurants and retail stores. The base of the mountain starts right at the lake, a relatively low elevation that gives it beautiful views but not much snow.
Like many of the smaller resorts in the area, Homewood has been forced to shut down twice this season because of warm, dry conditions. General manager Kevin Mitchell says it has been challenging to keep employees and customers engaged. Looking around at the muddy trails, it’s not hard to see why.
Professor Daniel Scott studies tourism and climate change at the University of Waterloo. He says increasingly unpredictable weather favors companies with deeper pockets. They have resources to invest in ways that will mitigate the financial impact of unfavorable conditions — like snow-making machines and resort attractions aside from skiing and snowboarding.
“The problem with mom and pop resorts,” says Scott, ” is if you have two or three bad years in a row, your financial reserves are gone. You can’t make a go of it anymore.”
Scott says larger corporations are more climate resilient. They have capital reserves to ride out bad years, and they can diversify geographically. He says big resort chains are now buying ski areas across the country so they can cash in wherever the snow falls. Scott puts it this way: increased variable weather is hastening the trend toward consolidation in the ski industry.
It is already happening up in Lake Tahoe. Five ski areas there are now owned by either Powdr Corporation or Vail Resorts, both industry giants. And in the last few years, the private equity firm KSL Partners has merged two iconic Tahoe resorts — Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.
Some of the bigger resorts in Tahoe seem to be handling these bad seasons better than others. Squaw Valley is a much larger and higher elevation resort than Homewood. President and CEO Andy Wirth says Squaw has been able to “hedge” the challenge of climate change.
“We are facing the three driest years in 1200 years,” Wirth says. “But at the same time, we have increased season passes by 37 percent.”
Squaw Valley has ways to make it through these dry winters. It offers season passes that can be used at other resorts, so skiers and snowboarders can chase the powder — that is, if they have the money to travel. Squaw also has attractions besides the mountain: restaurants, retail, and a winter park with tubing. There was even talk of building a water park, a popular development now at bigger resorts.
So, is this the future for a smaller resort like Homewood? No, says General Manager Kevin Mitchell. “We don’t want to become one of the giant resorts in Tahoe,” Mitchell says, “We want to hold a lot of the character we currently have.” The resort is planning to build a gondola that will ferry passengers higher up the mountain where there may actually be some snow. In the meantime
But if the snowstorms don’t start coming to Tahoe, that could become harder and harder to do.
This story originally appeared on KQED’s “The California Report.”
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