STORY BY LIZ BOWLING, PHOTOS BY WADE SNIDER | Moonshine Ink

The coronavirus pandemic quickly erased months of planning and budget reserves, and halted a workforce rooted in tourism. In a series of virtual discussions hosted by the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, a clear picture of summer emerged that looks vastly different from anything we’ve known.

While the goal was to gather questions for health officials and develop business guidelines to support the reopening of North Lake Tahoe’s tourism economy, an underlying theme persisted across each discussion. It was a message of resilience, that despite our differences in industries and opinion, the best way to forge a path forward is together. My interviews with four North Tahoe business leaders show the difficult choices they’ve made and how they’re looking forward.

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POSITIVE ADAPTATION: The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to get creative with their models. That includes Sahra Otero of Wanda’s Floral & Gift, who’s finding new ways to sell her bouquets.

Sahra Otero

WANDA’S FLORAL & GIFT

If you’ve been by Sugar Pine Cakery & Café recently, you’ve seen the social-distancing hearts, Stronger Together messages, and stunning floral arrangements from Wanda’s Floral & Gift. Sahra Otero is the creator of these colorful bouquets, offering reprieve from an unsettling time. As Sahra reimagined her offerings and distribution channels amid the pandemic, she found ways to give back locally while also determining store policy changes for the future. As she reopens her doors to the public, I was curious about perspectives she could offer to other small business owners.

How has your business shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic and what have you’ve learned?

Like all retail businesses, we had to close our doors to the public and stop operating, and I thought we would just be closed. To offload my remaining (and perishable!) inventory, I made little grab-and-go bouquets, and made them available for purchase at Sugar Pine Cakery in Tahoe City. They sold out immediately. So, I kept making them. Then I added plants. The community couldn’t get enough; people were searching for ways to brighten their homes and bring new life into the spaces where they were suddenly spending a lot of time … I decided that I would begin offering no-contact deliveries and curbside pickup. Eighty percent of my business has always been delivery-based, so we just needed to make a shift to noncontact practices, and of course implement the protective measures to protect our customers and ourselves.

I have learned so much about my business and my community through this pandemic. I have discovered partnerships with other local businesses that will continue beyond our current situation. I have connected with so many people and discovered how much they value my business. I have been shown that I am a vital part of the community, and that sending love with flowers brings light and hope to even the darkest corners of our human lives.

Can you share some of your personal reflections on these past two months as you look forward?

Something I have been thinking about a lot is the positive effects of having to adapt our lives. Many households and communities are strengthening at the core. Businesses have had to get creative, think outside the box, and reimagine their business models. People have had to dig deep to find new reserves of patience, compassion, and resilience. The strategic collateral we are gaining while navigating through these unique times can only strengthen us as a society. This is an opportunity to grow in ways we have not considered before and to manage our minds and our actions to still create and live in a vibrant, connected world.

Caroline Ross

SQUAW VILLAGE NEIGHBORHOOD COMPANY

Squaw Valley cultivates a serious community vibe, and summer months are typically no different. Outdoor concerts and festivals with a range of themes and genres pack an award-winning event calendar at The Village at Squaw Valley, with most events benefiting a local nonprofit organization (last year alone, Squaw Village Neighborhood Company donated over $175,000 in proceeds). Caroline Ross has led a small, hard- working team for 18 years; they are the creative minds behind Bluesdays, Brews Jazz & Funk, Oktoberfest, and Made in Tahoe, among others. What does the future of events look like? While no one really knows, Caroline can certainly offer a tenured perspective.

The Village at Squaw Valley typically hosts 10 large events from April to September, along with the free 13-week Bluesdays concert series and other mid-week, smaller events. How far along was your 2020 event calendar when the COVID-19 pandemic hit?

We were very far in planning most of our events and then suddenly, we were forced to tackle each event chronologically. The cancellation of WinterWonderGrass was devastating. On Mar. 13 we postponed the Tahoe Truckee Earth Day Festival (scheduled for Apr. 18) to June 6, hoping things might be better by then. However, with the news of school district closures through the remainder of the academic year and still so much uncertainty around reopening guidelines, we canceled Earth Day and are now confirmed to host the event on Apr. 24, 2021. Next, we looked at Made in Tahoe, slated for Memorial Day Weekend. Due to the size, nature, and importance of this event to our local entrepreneurial community, we have taken a gamble and postponed the event to Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 10 and 11. We know this event can be as successful in the fall, if we are allowed to proceed.

If you were to send a message to our community, what would it be?

I would offer the acknowledgement that these are uncharted, difficult times. There is no experience or tenure to prepare for what we’ve been through and what lies ahead. For events in particular, we face many unknowns: budgeting, planning, risk assessments. We are used to throwing successful and fun events! All I know is that we will all need to adapt and work together to get through this.

It kills me to see the Village as it looked when it was first built: empty. We’ve worked so hard to fill the Village with diverse, year-round offerings that encompass the spirit of our region. Events are a big part of what we do.

I feel for our businesses that rely on them; I feel for the people who actively participate in them and count on them, and I can’t even think about the potential loss in proceeds for our nonprofit partners. We can’t rush into any decisions as there is still so much unknown. That said, we will continue to do whatever possible to support our community and look forward with optimism.

LIFE ON THE LAKE: Jim Phelan of Tahoe City Marina looks to what summer in Tahoe will be like if physical distancing recommendations are still in place.

Jim Phelan

TAHOE CITY MARINA

Marina operations are a key component to lake activities in summer months, ensuring motorized watercraft are maintained and regulated, service and fuel stations are staffed, and safety protocols are in place. As public boat ramps and private marinas around the Lake Tahoe Basin consider new strategies to open for the season, they are working together to help inform best practices and consistent policies. Involved in many community and local business sectors, I asked Jim Phelan to describe what the summer ahead might look like and how tourism and part-time residents impact his Tahoe City business.

What are the ways in which you have collaborated with the Lake Tahoe marina community, as well as local government across the Basin, to help outline guidance around reopening?

The Lake Tahoe Marina Association includes members from all the marinas around Lake Tahoe. We met to discuss appropriate measures around a reopening scenario. We learned that because of operational requirements to prepare boats for customer use, we were at various stages of our schedules. It then became necessary to try and understand when marinas could start operating in order for summer operations to become achievable. Each operation was asked to submit outlines of operating plans specific to COVID- 19 to keep both the public and their employees safe.

Tell us about the demographic you serve — how do visitors and part-time residents play a role in your business operations?

Lake Tahoe has been a destination for families ever since it became a recreation destination in the early 1900s. Tahoe City Marina primarily serves locals and part-time residents. Following is the repeat customer (visitor). I have personally watched three generations of families come through our business. The relation- ship with our part-time residents holds a great deal of importance with us because they have become part of the ‘family’ that we have grown up with over the years. You will probably find that most businesses here have a similar relationship.

NAVIGATING NONESSENTIAL STATUS: Jill Schott is keeping an eye on short-term rentals in Tahoe, working closely with local agencies and businesses.

Jill Schott

TAHOE MOON PROPERTIES

Understanding the composition of our North Shore community is eye-opening. For example, of the 25,569 housing units in eastern Placer County, nearly 70% are owned by part-time residents. We also know that 13.5% of homes are used as short-term rentals. At the onset of COVID-19 in mid-March, STR operators were at the center of many conversations, viewed by some as the primary demand source by visitors. Cell phone data and enforcement data tells us nonessential travel was down by 70%. I wanted to hear from Jill Schott of Tahoe Moon Properties directly to clear up some questions, and also understand her thoughts for how we move forward with unity.

Tell us how you have collaborated with other STR operators in the region.

… A group of women [property management operators] established a monthly meeting three years ago to keep the conversation fluid and it has been invaluable as we work through the different challenges we all face … As President Obama once said, “Diversity of the input creates a better output.”

How has your communication with guests and homeowners shifted as a result of the pandemic?

… There is so much information out there and things are changing daily, but there is also a lot we still don’t know. It really helps to talk to people and tell them that we are here, we are human, and we will do everything we can to help everyone as best we can. Our guests feel so much better when we can tell them about everything happening on a local level, from the meetings with NLTRA and Placer County, to the [Tahoe Talks] discussion groups with Moonshine Ink. We are planning to get together with our property management group next week (outside where we can socially distance), to discuss how we are going to meet all the new requirements for lodging and short-term rentals during these unusual times.

What have you discussed with your colleagues about the reopening of lodging in North Lake Tahoe and a few of the safety protocols that might need to be in place?

This is definitely one of the things that is changing daily. We have changed our cleaning protocols and brought in new protocols to keep our cleaners safe and also make sure the homes are disinfected properly ahead of guest arrival … We are also looking at implementing a 24-hour break between rentals, easy to do for our new bookings but an absolute nightmare for the back-to-back bookings we already have in place for this summer.

The other area is client communication, making sure that all of our guests understand what the protocols are if they visit North Lake Tahoe, such as social distancing, masks, and respect for the impact they have on the local community.

Regardless of how regulations play out, how do you foresee a significant decline in tourism impacting businesses around the region?

I actually don’t. I have attended so many webinars over the last month and the one general consensus is that as a drive market we will not see a decline, we may even see an increase. People really need to get out of their houses and going to Tahoe and staying in a vacation rental or other accommodations that do not have shared common areas seems like a safe first step. They are calling it Radical Localism. This is why all the local property managers have all been working so diligently with the NLTRA and Placer County to make sure that we send a very clear and strong message to our visitors about their responsibilities to keep everyone safe.

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