Aspen employers concerned about lack of staff, guest services heading into summer

Lack of ground transportation to and from Sardy Field highlights the holes the Aspen/Snowmass guest experience, officials say

Taxis and hotel shuttles wait for guests’ arrivals at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport on Friday, April 1, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Employers across business sectors in the resort community recently lamented the effects the labor shortage is having on the guest experience, particularly the difficulty getting people from the airport to town and vice versa.

One by one, business and resort representatives told their labor shortage war stories from this past winter at last week’s Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors meeting.

Many of those stories originate at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where the demand for ground transportation far exceeds current infrastructure and services.

ACRA board member Charlie Bantis relayed two stories of people vacationing here in recent weeks. One flew his family into Eagle and paid $500 to get here and felt fortunate he paid only $200 for a rental car to get from Aspen back to Eagle. The other person waited 90 minutes to get a cab ride from the airport to a hotel in Aspen.

“In the age of social media and people tweeting every five minutes about what is happening in their lives, this is probably not a good look for Aspen,” Bantis said. “If you can’t take care of your visitors when they get off the plane, what is their impression going to be for the rest of the stay?”

Jeff Bay, managing director of HayMax Hotels, which owns Hotel Aspen, said he has “experienced a ton of issues with guests not being able to get to the airport.”

He told the board that High Mountain Taxi, the valley’s only taxi company, turned their phones off the other day and would not answer calls.

“They were so overwhelmed, and that was very challenging,” he said. “This is certainly an issue that probably needs some attention sooner rather than later, especially as we move into the summer season.”

Matt Cook, owner of High Mountain Taxi, said the company doesn’t turn off its phones, but when there is high call volume, dispatchers can’t always keep up with the pace of incoming requests.

“When everyone lands and people get done skiing, there’s a lot of demand,” he said, adding he typically has 60 drivers on hand for the season, and this year it was around 50. “We have issues hiring, like everyone else … but the problem is the efficiency getting into town … traffic plays a major part in this.”

Travelers exit the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport after landing in town on a snowy afternoon on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Couple that with a lack of alternative ground transportation like Uber and Lyft, as well as the departure of what was formerly known as Colorado Mountain Express, which was a shuttle service to airports and mountain towns from the Western Slope to Denver.

Bill Tomcich, a local liaison to the airline industry and consultant to a group called Fly Aspen Snowmass, said he personally had a bad experience with an Uber driver who declined to take him up the Fryingpan Valley because he realized how far away it was.

“Getting people that last mile from the airport into town is still a really tough situation because of the whole employee shortage,” he said, adding that Epic Mountain Express, formerly CME, vacated the market just before the beginning of the winter season and left a significant void that was more substantial than industry officials realized at the time. “This is a high priority already for Fly Aspen/Snowmass group … and I am pleased to say that there are two companies that have expressed very strong interest in serving local markets to fill that void that was left by Epic Mountain Express.”

Cristal Logan, vice president of community programs and engagement at the Aspen Institute, as well as ACRA’s board president, said as part of the taskforce on transportation and mobility, she and others will present at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee retreat later this month and advocate for ride sharing and hailing apps so locals who are driving can pick people up at the airport.

Bay suggested that the city-subsidized Downtowner be expanded to serve the airport.

Bantis said it’s is an issue that he encourages ACRA staff to look at.

“I think there is a free-market solution to this as opposed to trying to throw more government money at it,” he said.

Cook, of High Mountain Taxi, said often his drivers give limo companies business when demand is too high at the airport.

He said if taxis and other shuttles could use the dedicated bus lanes coming in and out of town, it would increase trips back and forth three-fold.

However, he understands there are limitations on the use of those lanes, as they are part of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Record of Decision on the entrance to Aspen.

Cook said he expects this summer to be as busy as last year and hopes he can meet the demand as he continues to operate in a challenging environment.

He said he had only two inquiries this winter to an ad for a dispatcher, even though he pays a competitive hourly wage.

Currently High Mountain Taxi’s dispatch center is outsourced to Serbia between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., and then is locally staffed from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“Hopefully that changes soon,” Cook said, adding he hopes to have an all-local roster by the summer.

Staffing challenges plague the restaurant industry in Aspen as well, said ACRA board member Michael Goldberg, owner of Matsuhisa restaurant and the live music venue Belly Up.

He told the board that restaurateurs he has spoken with are having a record year.

“So we are all scratching our heads a little bit trying to figure out what we do about labor wars,” he said. “I know restaurant owners who won’t talk to other restaurant owners because people keep stealing each other’s labor force.”

Goldberg predicted that the problem is only going to get worse as more restaurants come online, which he noted are not locally serving or least local friendly in terms of their menu prices.

He added that he is paying over $30 an hour for a security guard at Belly Up.

“We are still finding that we don’t have enough people to staff on the normal nights,” Goldberg said. “We have plenty of customers on the restaurant and music side, but it is certainly a challenge to open every single night, and I don’t know where this stops frankly.

“We are looking forward to summer with the same problems.”

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