Ski resort owners turn to steep discounts to draw customers

There's an adage in the ski industry that good snow conditions trump bad economic conditions, but the 2008-09 California ski season proved that even powder has its limits.

Skier visits to Tahoe-area resorts dropped 7 percent last season, and resort operators had to cut ticket prices, slash room rates and offer incentives to keep the lifts loaded. They're being forced to use the same strategy this year.

"People are looking for deals, watching the weather for the right ski conditions and in some respects waiting to make sure they still have a job," said Carl Ribaudo, the director of Ski Lake Tahoe, a coalition of the seven largest Tahoe-area resorts. "All the resorts are re-evaluating the value proposition. Folks want their dollar to go further."

Skiing is an estimated $600 million industry at Lake Tahoe, generating up to 4.2 million skier and snowboarder visits annually – more than half of the 8 million visits to ski resorts recorded annually throughout the entire state. Skiers and snowboarders don't just buy lift tickets and season passes – they take lessons, rent condos, go out to eat and gamble in casinos. The California Ski Area Association figures each skier visit generates about $150 a day for Tahoe businesses.

To keep the business rolling in, Tahoe resorts began selling season passes for the 2009-10 ski season last spring, offering some eye-popping discounts. Adult season passes as Squaw, once $1,500 to $1,900, started at $369 and ranged up to $949, depending on how many holidays were included.

Heavenly Mountain Resort on the south shore of Lake Tahoe dropped its preseason price to $329, $170 less than its former retail price, and is now selling it for $369.

In addition, Tahoe resorts are holding the line on daily lift-ticket prices, offering a dizzying array of ski-and-lodging packages and maintaining lean staffing levels.

They're also offering scores of deals: At Alpine Meadows and Homewood, college students can get season passes for $299 as late as Dec. 1. At Homewood, you can ski free on your birthday. Or you can get a reduced price on your lift ticket just for showing your season pass from another resort, even if that resort is in Japan.

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