DESTINATION: CALIFORNIA MAMMOTH, LAKE TAHOE ARE SPENDING BIG TO ATTRACT MORE BIG-SPENDERS.
Besides its killer skiing, Aspen, Colo., has world-class restaurants, some of the top-rated hotels in the country and nightlife that can leave you as exhausted as a day on the mountain.
Park City, Utah, is where Joe Skier can hit the slopes with the stars during the Sundance Film Festival in January.
And while Mammoth Mountain and the resorts in Lake Tahoe have their share of snow, celebs and party places, things have been different.
``The resorts in Colorado and Utah have for a long time had the cachet of being destination resorts, and for years California was known for its weekend and holiday phenomenon,'' said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association.
Resort operators in the Golden State want to change part of that perception, and they're working to attract vacationers who will stay longer, bring their money and not be afraid to spend it.
``We're under-serving the people who want more than just the athletic challenge of skiing,'' said Rusty Gregory, Mammoth's CEO. ``They don't always want to have one of the family members at home cooking in the condo. They don't always want to go skiing. They want to do other things.''
Of course, that's less of an issue in Lake Tahoe, where big casinos like Caesars and Harrah's offer diversions unavailable at most resorts.
Still, when Ski magazine asked its readers to rank the top resorts in the U.S. and Canada, Mammoth, at No. 9, was the only California location able to break into the top 10. Heavenly Mountain Resort finished 12th in the survey and was Lake Tahoe's highest entry. (Deer Valley, Utah, was first; Vail, Colo., was second; and British Columbia's Whistler/Blackcomb was third.)
``The resorts in Colorado and Utah really had to build destination mousetraps, if you will, because they don't have the population in Denver and Salt Lake City that we have,'' Roberts said. ``So they, for a much longer time, have been out there trolling in these deeper waters. Now we're saying, 'Move over, guys, we're going to cast our line in this water, too.' ''
Mammoth and Lake Tahoe are big with the commuter crowd who fill the slopes when they're not working but leave them relatively deserted during the week. At Mammoth, the contrast is particularly stark - about 5,000 skiers and snowboarders are on the slopes Monday through Friday, and triple that number often show up on Saturday and Sunday.
Attracting a bigger share of the destination business, which would help even out those numbers, takes money. That's where Starwood Capital Group, Intrawest Corp., Vail Resorts and other major industry players come in.
They were really busy this off-season, with more money changing hands on some days than it does during an entire winter on the slopes - even at resorts with $70 lift tickets. Leading this year's activity:
--An affiliate of Starwood acquired a majority interest in the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area for $365 million from its 90-year-old founder, outdoorsman Dave McCoy. It was a record-breaking deal that gave Starwood the right to develop 60 acres around Mammoth Lakes with Canadian resort operator Intrawest, which has been in town for a decade and built the 2-year-old Village at Mammoth.
--Bear Valley was purchased by a new ownership team that includes Dundee Realty USA LLC, which transformed Colorado's Arapahoe Basin in 1997. They've already started improving and expanding the existing facilities at the resort, located between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, and also plan to run a ski lift from the village to the lodge near the top of the mountain.
--A partnership of San Francisco Bay Area developers purchased Royal Gorge in Soda Springs, about 20 miles west of North Lake Tahoe. With 90 trails spread over 9,000 acres (including 5,000 leased from the U.S. Forest Service), it's already the largest cross-country ski resort in North America, and the new owners hope to improve on that foundation.
Beyond those deals, Lake Tahoe's Northstar last month opened phase one of its new village, built in conjunction with East West Partners, the Colorado company behind the well-received village at Beaver Creek. Northstar's village comes with a year-round ice-skating rink and 213 condominiums (plans call for 100 of them to be open this winter).
It joins new villages at Heavenly, Kirkwood Mountain Resort and Squaw Valley USA, giving Lake Tahoe visitors a range of choices - from spas and pubs to shops and pizza - just steps from the slopes.
Vail Resorts pulled out its checkbook and spent another $10 million at Heavenly, pushing its four-year investment there to $36 million. A lot of this year's money laid the groundwork for planned upgrades that will include an on-mountain lodge and new lifts coming in the years ahead.
``Heavenly has some nice but small and somewhat dated on-mountain facilities,'' said John Wagnon, the resort's vice president of sales and marketing. ``For us to grow as a resort, we need larger facilities and certainly more modern ones. A lot of our future planning has to do with the quality of the on-mountain experience.''
By just about every measure, the California resorts are coming off a record season. There were 8.2 million skiers and snowboarders last year, beating the old mark by 600,000. Leading the way was Mammoth, where 1.5 million people hit the slopes during a snow season that started before Halloween and didn't wrap up until the Fourth of July. No. 2 in the state was Heavenly, with 1 million visitors.
An extended season isn't in the cards this time, as drier conditions forced resorts to struggle even to open by Thanksgiving. And since a shorter season will likely result in the sale of fewer lift tickets, each visitor becomes that much more important - whether it's a skier who tries to eke out the best deal possible on a season pass, or a wealthy foreigner who thinks nothing of spending hundreds of dollars a day.
``Let's face it. Not everybody is going to stay in a Ritz-Carlton or a Westin,'' Roberts said. ``People of all means in Denver and Boulder drive up to Vail for the day. It's just that if you don't have a building that says Ritz-Carlton or some other high-end brand, you're probably not going to get a certain segment that's going to default and go to Vail or Aspen.''
That issue should be taken care of in Mammoth before the start of the 2006-07 winter season. A 230-room, $140 million Westin Hotel - which is part of the Starwood family but was under construction before the sale - will be open, along with the exclusive 80/50 Mammoth residence club, a $105 million fractional-ownership property.
Also expected by the end of next year will be direct service to Mammoth Yosemite Airport from Los Angeles, although it will be with 80-passenger jets or smaller due to the size of the airport's landing strip. Still, it will give Southlanders another way to reach Mammoth besides schlepping up Highway 395. And, later, round-trip service from Mammoth could be expanded to San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Despite the emphasis on the ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' crowd, don't think those with more limited means are being left out in the cold.
Mammoth's stay-and-ski packages start at $92 per night this month and $99 a night in January. And, along with the bargains, the comfortable feel of the place is here to stay. McCoy, who started the resort with a single rope-pull in the late 1930s, and those who continue to run Mammoth, will make sure of that.
``What people will see 10 years from now are a number of new hotels, restaurants, increased convenience and pedestrian orientation in a town where the vast majority of visitors are staying right at the slopes,'' said Gregory, who started at Mammoth as a lift operator in 1978. ``And they'll also see the same kind of funky, laid-back Southern California mountain lifestyle that's here now.''
That reaching out to new skiers while not ignoring the base appears to work the same way on the slopes as it does in big-tent politics. If you have something for everyone, there's a better chance that everyone will come.
``If you really want to spent $600 a day in Tahoe, it's easy to do. But if you want to brown bag it, that's pretty easy to do, too,'' Roberts said. ``What you're going to find at both Mammoth and Tahoe is they will continue to use a lot of creative marketing, like those early season passes, to keep their markets loyal.''
After that, it becomes a matter of getting the word out to destination vacationers that they're also welcome.
``Resorts in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth are definitely marketing themselves nationally and internationally that they have developed more destination-style ski resorts,'' said Wagnon, who also serves as the president of Ski Lake Tahoe. ``Our resorts - and certainly Heavenly - are as much of a destination resort as any resort in Colorado.''
(1 -- 2 -- color) Skating rinks like this one at Lake Tahoe's Kirkwood Village are luring families, but downhill purists aren't being forgotten, notably at Squaw Valley USA, below.
(3 -- color) With a stylish village that entices visitors to linger at the base of the mountain when the day's recreation is done, Mammoth is seeking to shed its image as a commuter ski area. Next year, a new Westin hotel is scheduled to open.
(4) A fun park for snowboarders is among the amenities at Mammoth, which had 1.5 million visitors last season.
(5 -- 6) At left, skiers ride the lift from the main lodge at Mammoth, where the emphasis is on improving the experience both on and off the slopes and increasing weekday visitor numbers. The first phase of the new village at Lake Tahoe's Northstar, above, opened last month.
(7) The view at Northstar is one of the resort's most important attributes, but the 213 new condos will also be a draw.
Tina Burch/Staff Photographer
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Dec 11, 2005|
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