In the second of a three-part series, California Rambling continues to contrast Whistler Blackcomb with Heavenly/South Lake Tahoe.
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From the first pulsing notes of the Black Eyed Peas’ Time of My Life amplified from a 12,000-watt mobile DJ station, 20-something skiers and riders atop the Gondola at the Heavenly Mountain Resort were dancing on the snow and pushing palms up, as Will.I.am sang, “We gon’ rock it to the top.”
Heavenly had just unveiled a first-of-its-kind DJ station on a snowcat that will entertain skiers and riders at lift lines and events. The high tech DJ station fits within a huge black box sitting on the back of a sleek black snow grooming machine and is marked with Heavenly’s gaming-inspired slogan, “Go All In.”
DJ Cat’s premiere is indicative of how the Heavenly Mountain Resort is positioning itself, and how that will affect South Lake Tahoe’s fortunes. In the first of this series, California Rambling raised the point that Whistler Blackcomb’s frequent ranking as “the No. 1 mountain resort in North America” begs asking how it got so good and why hasn’t Lake Tahoe, with its many assets, achieved similar renown?
Certainly, SKI Magazine, Skiing Magazine, Rand McNally, Trip Advisor, and Orbitz have all previously ranked Heavenly and Lake Tahoe as the nation’s best ski and travel destinations, though more often than not such rankings place them among the world’s top 10 or 20. Contributing to this is that Whistler Blackcomb was conceived and planned to be a destination mountain resort, whereas Heavenly/South Lake Tahoe has evolved through several identities and is again redefining itself.
Skiing came to El Dorado County as early as 1856, when John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson transported mail and helped rescue stranded people between Genoa, Nev., and Placerville. Recreational skiing came to El Dorado County in 1946 when Vern Sprock opened Sierra Ski Ranch (now Sierra at Tahoe) and to South Lake Tahoe in 1947 when Chris Kuraisa opened Bijou Skyway Park, a rope tow, on Ski Run Boulevard. In 1955, Bijou was renamed Heavenly Valley and lift operations were moved up hill.
Thereafter, Heavenly continued to grow and improve through a succession of owners: Hugh Killebrew (’64 – ’77) Bill Killebrew (’77 – ’90), Kamori Kanko Co. (’90 – ’97), American Skiing Co. (’97 – ’02) and Vail Resorts (’02 – present), in the process Heavenly has become, arguably, the largest mountain resort in California.
Today, the ski area’s 29 lifts serve 97 trails and 4,800 acres, 33 percent of which has been developed for skiing and snowboard riding. Heavenly gets an annual average of 360 inches of snow, though it also has the most extensive snowmaking system in the Sierra with 73 percent of its terrain capable of being covered with manmade snow. That has resulted in Heavenly earning the reputation, during low snowfall years, as having the best snow conditions in California.
Heavenly Vice President and COO Pete Sontag said Vail Resorts plans to continue investing to improve the area’s grooming and snowmaking, as well as upgrade older lifts (Galaxy) in coming years. He noted that Heavenly is faring better, so far, this winter than resorts that haven’t been able to make snow as extensively across their runs.
Senior Director of Marketing John Wagnon added that Vail Resorts has brought a standard of excellence to Heavenly that, with facilities and location, are serving to strengthen the resort’s perception among skiers and riders. “We survey 150 guests every day and compare the guest experience to what’s reported elsewhere within the Vail Resorts. We’re finding guest satisfaction levels that are among the best within the Vail Resorts, which is the pinnacle for guest service.”
Wagnon attributed such high praise to Vail Resort’s culture of providing “super high service levels and caring intrinsically about guest satisfaction. It’s a culture of fun that is managed from the top and filters down. They (employees) do it (provide enthusiastic service) automatically. It’s authentic.” He added, “Gone are the days when a sizeable percentage of our employees were from other countries. The vast majority of our employees are American. There has always been year-round work at Tahoe, though approximately 50 percent of our employees now live and work here, year round.”
Heavenly’s identity has always been tied to Lake Tahoe. No resort has more spectacular views of the lake and few mountain resorts anywhere can claim as spectacular a scene as the views of sapphire-blue Lake Tahoe. But, Heavenly is also a ski area whose intense nightlife matches its ski experience.
As such, Heavenly is striving to brand itself as the “highest energy ski resort on the planet.” DJ Cat is one manifestation of that, as is “Unbuckle,” Heavenly’s standing apres ski party at Tamarack Lodge (atop the gondola), complete with go-go dancers called the Heavenly Angels. This summer, Heavenly opens an extensive ropes course, to accompany two zip lines, a mountain bike park, guided mountaintop jeep tours and other high-energy entertainment.
Sontag said, “People who come to Lake Tahoe love to be outside. There’s a shift in how successful businesses here serve those customers. Today’s guests want to be active and engaged.” He suggested Fire and Ice, a trendy Americanized Mongolian barbecue-styled restaurant at South Lake Tahoe, as an example of this trend. Millennials line up to choose fresh vegetables, meats and fish, then group around a circular grill as they watch cooks tend their dinner. At Base Camp Pizza Co., diners can enjoy “killer” pizza outside, made all the more inviting by Lake Tahoe’s many clear and relatively warm nights (compared to the Rockies or Canada).
“Our ski and ride products are a guide and catalyst for other investment in town (South Lake Tahoe),” Sontag added. “We’re starting to see green shoots. Smaller properties are being renovated and rebranded.”
Steadily, businesses across South Lake Tahoe are picking up on Heavenly’s self-identification as: happening, edgy, active, youthful, family and high energy. They, too, are going all in.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.