On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, ski-area operators around Lake Tahoe were casting nervous looks at a bright blue sky, wondering how long it would be before the bare earth beneath the chairlifts would get a frosting of white.
"It was starting to feel a lot like it was going to be summer all year," said John Wagnon, vice president of marketing for Heavenly Lake Tahoe, one of the largest of 15 downhill ski areas around the lake.
Two weeks later, Wagnon and his peers were breathing a collective sigh of relief -- and even daring to hope that this ski season could be one of the best on record.
The series of winter storms that blew in between Nov. 23 and Dec. 4 has created midwinter conditions at a time of year when the skiing is usually limited, at best. But the really good news for Tahoe resorts is that, following Sept. 11 and its crippling impact on the travel industry, business is looking as strong as the weather forecast.
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"We may actually turn out to be that one contrarian in the travel industry's doom-and-gloom constellation," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. "I think the omens look quite promising for us this winter."
Increased consumer interest in destinations that can be reached by automobile, rather than by plane, is fueling the optimism, which can be heard all around the lake. Sales of season passes are up, holiday bookings are strong, and resorts that in normal years depend heavily on visitors from out of state are doing all they can to lure California skiers in their direction.
Roberts, who monitors consumer interest in California, nationally and abroad, said indications are that fewer European skiers will visit Lake Tahoe this season, while the Asian and Latin America markets "are virtually nonexistent at this point.
"But we have a huge market here in California and Nevada that can more than offset that," he said. "There's enough sense that people aren't going to live in their caves -- they're going to get out and move around. And certainly there's been a lot of value pricing; the resorts are doing everything in their power to stimulate local demand."
Tahoe's ski resorts stand to benefit more than others around the country from the new emphasis on driving vacations, he notes, because the lake is relatively close to large population centers. "We're cautiously optimistic that, as long as Mother Nature doesn't turn the faucet off, we'll be in good shape."
At Heavenly, which traditionally looks out of state and abroad for 60 percent of its trade, Wagnon said he expects fly-in business to be off by 10 to 20 percent. "But at the same time, we're seeing the possibility of business out of northern and southern California that otherwise would have flown to Colorado or Whistler (British Columbia, Canada) or Utah. Those people are also not wanting to fly, so we're seeing the possibility of them choosing to drive up to Tahoe instead."
Not all Tahoe resorts depend so heavily on out-of-state skiers. But even those that traditionally cater to the so-called "drive market" are reporting sunny prospects. "Before we opened right around Thanksgiving, we were 689 season passes ahead of that time last year," reports Megan Waskiewicz, spokeswoman for Sierra-at-Tahoe, the Highway 50 resort closest to Sacramento. "That's sort of our gauge of what our season is going to be like.
"Over half our market comes from Sacramento and the Bay area already," she added. "It's an extra benefit for us that more people are choosing to do more local driving this season."
Across the lake at sister resort Northstar-at-Tahoe, the signs are similarly encouraging.
"After Sept. 11," spokesman Toby Baird said, "we could only speculate about what would happen. We were optimistic that our market -- the Bay Area, Sacramento -- would still be here, and I think we'll find that we were right."
Baird said resort lodging reservations are strong for December, while "our Christmas is 97 percent booked -- most of it with drive-in business."
At Alpine Meadows, on the lake's western side, the push for regional business was taking shape even before Sept. 11, through a marketing plan called "Play in Your Own Backyard."
"It was responsive to the fact that we had a decline in our economy, and that we were anticipating a slowdown, said resort spokeswoman Rachel Woods. "We needed to give some sort of sense of security to our local customers, who come from the Bay Area, the Central Valley and the foothills."
The campaign includes billboards along Interstate 80 conveying the message that "You don't need to break the bank to have a fantastic ski and snowboard holiday," Woods said.
Tahoe businessman Bill Chernock, who operates Zephyr Cove Resort, the Dixie paddlehweeler and Zephyr Cove Snow-
mobile Center, hopes the ski season will echo what turned out to be a very strong fall.
Although business fell sharply after Sept. 11, he said, "October was an outstanding month, driven largely by good weather and the weekend drive business. November, in comparison to other Novembers, was also very good -- again, largely a factor of very pleasant weather."
Chernock and others who make their living around the lake have noticed another weather-related trend: Over the past few years, the planning cycle has gotten shorter.
"Instead of people making reservations two months out, or five weeks out, it's shortened even more, particularly in the wintertime," he said, crediting the trend to rising use of the Internet.
"I think we've almost trained our customer base in the drive market to take a look at the Internet, see what conditions are like and look at the immediate forecast. They'll look on Thursday, and if it doesn't look good, they think, 'Well, we can always come another weekend.' "
Weekend storms always cut into business. "So this year," Chernock said, "we've again placed the standard order: Tuesday and Thursday night snowfalls with clear roads and clear blue skies for Saturdays and Sundays.
"Maybe this time," he jokes, "our order will get fulfilled."
The Bee's Janet Fullwood can be reached at (916) 321-1148 or email@example.com .