Let it snow, let it snow

Ski bus tours continue to flourish

By Glenn Swain

“For northern Californians, Tahoe is the place to ski,” Brian McCooey says.

While warm weather lovers may see snow is an unnecessary freezing of water, to motorcoach operators who book winter ski tours it represents an avalanche of positive income. Along with leaf peeper tours, one- and two-day ski trips remain popular as ever — if Mother Nature cooperates.

For 16 years San Francisco-based Bay Area Ski Bus has chartered one-day ski tours to Lake Tahoe. Founder and CEO Brian McCooey says for northern Californians, Tahoe is the place to ski.

McCooey started with two buses his first year; last year he chartered a total of 320, 56-passenger Prevost, MCI and Van Hool motorcoaches to haul ski enthusiasts to the largest alpine lake in the U.S. Nearly all of Ski Bus’ tours are to Lake Tahoe. For about $100 a person, Ski Bus provides transportation, a lift ticket, a continental breakfast and afternoon refreshments.

McCooey and Ski Bus made the best of Lake Tahoe’s record-breaking 800 inches of snow last season. Even in July. McCooey says when a number of Tahoe resorts opened for the July 4th weekend, he sent a busload up two days before.

“Tours this year have been fantastic,” McCooey says. “It just keeps increasing. This past season we were up about 5 percent from the year before. As far as the economy, we have a nice little niche. People can still afford the one-day ski trip, but maybe not a weeklong or weekend trip.”

Fashionable snowboarders take advantage of generous snow near Lake Tahoe during a Bay Area Ski Bus tour.

For his tours McCooey uses a number of Lake Tahoe resorts, including Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood Mountain, Sierra at Tahoe, Sugar Bowl, Northstar and Squaw Valley.

Stephen Miller, owner of Warwick, RI-based New England Action Sports, says his ski tour business grows every year. Miller began booking ski tours in the Northeast in 1971. Although based in Rhode Island, Miller’s company books day, weekend and weeklong tours out of Boston, New York, Connecticut, and directly out of numerous ski shops. Miller also schedules bus ski trips in Austria.

“I think the first year we were in business we chartered 27 buses,” Miller says. “Now we charter 500 to 600 a year. We have about 30,000 people a year go on ski tours.”

Miller’s company buses skiers to all the major resorts in the Northeast.

“We sell them a bus ride and a lift ticket for less than the price of the lift ticket,” he says. “The lift ticket for a resort in Stowe, Vermont is around $90. We sell the transportation and lift ticket for $73.95. Stowe is my favorite because it’s the best skiing around here.”

One problem Miller has run into is working with union drivers with seniority in Colorado. In the past Miller used Greyhound. According to Miller, union agreements allow drivers with seniority to bounce local drivers, no matter where the senior driver lives.

“You may get a driver from Florida or places that never see snow, and they’re driving up these mountain passes in snow,” Miller says. “It can be scary for passengers.”

While many companies are thriving, some are not. Tammy DuChene, a spokesperson for Downhill Riders Ski and Travel Co. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, says tours were down last season. Blame it on the sluggish Canadian economy.

“The cause of the decrease was due to the economy not fully recovered,” DuChene says. “Groups planned only one event throughout the winter rather than several. But in 2012 we project we our tours should return to what they were two years ago.”

While ski tour trips can be easy for travel professionals, there are pitfalls. McCooey says the key to success is always using a dependable bus charter company that uses competent drivers and safe equipment. McCooey prefers to use the same companies so he can request specific drivers.

People aboard a New England Action Sports charter are all smiles.

One-day loop trips in the U.S. are easy, but overseas ski tours are not for the timid. Miller began planning ski trips to Innsbruck, Austria about 15 years ago. At first he made his share of mistakes because of more complicated logistics.

“If you’re setting up a trip to Europe it’s a little more difficult,” he says. “You’re a day off at all times, and that can be very tricky to plan perfectly. It can get complicated.”

McCooey says that not only are ski tours popular, they are even good for the environment.

“It takes maybe 30 or 40 cars off the road,” he says. “And it’s probably the safest and most economical way to travel.”