What the underwhelming winter means for Mammoth
On February 1, 2018, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced that Sierra snowpack was at only 30 percent of the historic average.
At the same time last year, the DWR reported the snowpack at 173 percent of average. At that time, the Associated Press called the announcement evidence of a “drought-busting” winter, and the department predicted the highest runoff levels in over 20 years.
Nevertheless, local business owners report that business in Mammoth Lakes was good in January, and over the Christmas holidays. John Morris, Director of Operations for Snowcreek Resort, told The Sheet on January 29 that “We have actually been slightly busier than last year [for November through January].”
Tom Cage, owner of Kittredge Sports in Mammoth Lakes, said that, although he’s never seen so little snow at this point in the season, business is better than during the peak of the drought. “The last two years were so good that people committed early with their reservations, and decided to come up [regardless of snow.” Cage said that the hype of one good winter bolsters business for the next year. “This is better than in the drought years, but that could change if we don’t see a weather pattern change here pretty quick.”
Morris and Cage’s observations are supported by Mammoth Lakes Tourism’s Occupancy Reports. Occupancy in Mammoth Lakes for Saturday, February 11, 2017 was 98 percent. Occupancy for Saturday, February 10, 2018 was forecast to be 82 percent, a difference of 16 percent.
Occupancy rates are much higher than at the peak of the drought (2014-2015), when Mammoth was only 61 percent full on Saturday, February 7. In contrast, occupancy rates for this Presidents’ Day Weekend were down only 2 percent from the same dates last year. On Saturday, February 18, 2017, occupancy was at 93 percent. It’s forecast at 91 percent for Saturday, February 17, 2018.
Lauren Burke, Public Relations and Social Media Manager for Mammoth Mountain, said that “while staffing and hours aren’t as demanding as last year with the massive snowfall, we will still require a lot of staffing [for the remainder of the winter season].”
Eric Clark, Chief Operating Officer for Mammoth Resorts, reported at the February 7 Mammoth Lakes Tourism Board meeting that skier visits to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area were down just half a percent as of January 27, 2018, from the same period in 2017. As of February 14, Mammoth Mountain reported having received a total of 83 inches of snow at Main Lodge for the season thus far.
Zach Yates, Co-Owner of Footloose Sports, said that his revenue is down slightly from last year, but that “the numbers are still good.” Yates said the local workforce actually needed a low-snow winter. “To be down from last year? That’s fine. It was the best winter ever, but it was a tough year for everyone in this community. We needed a break.” He said he is fully staffed, and that “if we don’t get snow in the near future, it will set the pace for the rest of the season… and bring numbers down.”
Christopher Teichert, Kitchen Supervisor at Sushi Rei, said he was working at Lakefront last year, and that “it’s like night and day, this year and last year.” Teichert said there’s still enough work to go around, although “last week mid-week was the slowest it’s ever been since I’ve been [in Mammoth].”
On Friday, February 2, Pork Chop, the Manager at Alpine Sports, showed off his mountain bike rental display. He said that his shop is fully staffed, but “If it stays dead like this… no snow, no hours, you can’t pay your employees. You keep the best.” In the 30 years that he’s lived and worked in Mammoth, Pork Chop said he’s seen the workforce leave if they can’t get the hours they need. “We hire mountain employees. If they get their hours cut at the mountain, they have to make them up elsewhere. If they can’t get those hours somewhere else, they’ll leave and go home. It’s a pattern I’ve seen many times.”
When asked if the Mountain plans to scale back its workforce this spring in response to low snow, Burke said, “We will adjust staffing levels to demand and always work to provide the best guest experience on any given day in any given conditions.”
Cage said that late season snow might not be enough to save business for the winter of 2017-2018 in Mammoth Lakes. He said that in his experience, at a certain point in the spring, Southern California’s residents turn to the beaches to meet their recreation needs—even if the snow is good. “This is no man’s land, uncharted territory,” said Cage. “We haven’t seen a winter like this since before the mountain was making snow. They’ve done such a phenomenal job with man-made terrain at the mountain… now people aren’t as hungry as they were in, say the Miracle March of ’91, when they hadn’t skied at all [at this point in the season].”
Yates said he’s already looking forward to the summer, when his shop does a lot of business selling and renting mountain bikes, and selling gear to Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. “A low snow winter can be a boon for summer. Those hikers are watching now, planning. Last year, they never even came into town because the Reds Meadow Road was still closed when the bubble [the bulk of the PCT traffic] passed through. We missed their business.”
Cage said Mammoth’s economy is built around cycles of boom or bust. “This winter is like any other, meaning it’s going to be different. We’ve seen big ones, small ones, and you chug along, run your business as best you can.” He said the key to success is being willing to adjust your business strategy to meet conditions. “Owners have to work real hard, have to think outside the box every season. It’s only be sheer determination sometimes… that lets people survive those cycles.”