Aspen Skiing Co. says pandemic hit harder than anticipated this season
One year after pandemic struck, Aspen Snowmass licking its wounds
Everything was going perfect for Aspen-Snowmass on Saturday, March 14, 2020. The snow was super soft from recent storms. An early wave of the spring break crowds filled chairlifts, restaurants and shops. Skier visits for the season were running on par with the record set in 2018-19.
Then the reality of the pandemic crashed down. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski areas to cease operations barely more than 24 hours after he had applauded them in a news conference for taking precautions in order to stay open.
The closure was initially scheduled for a week to gauge the situation with the coronavirus. It lasted all season.
The aftershocks are still being felt this season. One year after the pandemic struck, Aspen Skiing Co. is reporting that business is down significantly this season, though it cannot share exact numbers at the moment.
Skico officials figured prior to the season that skier visits — the use of paid lift tickets or season passes for any part of the day — would be down 20 percent in 2020-21.
“We’re down more than that,” Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications said Thursday.
It was impossible to forecast what the exact effect of the pandemic would be. “We had to make up a number,” Hanle said.
Aspen and Snowmass Village are destination resorts, where customers typically come from out of the area for an overnight stay. International tourism is a big part of Aspen’s winter business, especially with tourists from Australia and Brazil in January.
“That business was pretty much decimated,” Hanle said.
International tourism has been pretty much limited to visitors from Mexico and a handful of folks from various countries with second homes who are riding out the pandemic in the states.
Skico’s domestic tourism from outside the Roaring Fork Valley also tanked this season. People have not traveled as much during the pandemic. Plus, Pitkin County’s restrictions on indoor dining and previous requirements for travelers’ online affidavits that they were COVID-free may have discouraged travel.
The one area of business that is “on par” with the prior winter is season pass use. Skico used carrots and sticks to spread pass holders out across the week. It offered the carrot of a new weekday-only pass as well as a seven-day pass. The stick was a $320 increase in the price of a premier pass with a chamber of commerce discount.
There are definitely still plenty of dedicated skiers. Fifty-seven skiers and riders qualified for their 100-day pins on the 100th day of the season (which was March 4), Hanle said. Statistics weren’t available on the number from prior seasons.
Hanle said it is his hunch that there will be fewer 100-day pins awarded by the end of the season, simply because there aren’t as many skiers and riders hitting the slopes. Some people shied away from downhill skiing because of anticipated crowding and the possibility of a reservation system at the Aspen resorts. A reservation system was never implemented.
Skico, like other ski areas, is requiring social distancing in lift lines and packing chairs with fewer people, so that’s resulted in longer lines than usual at times.
“Big powder days still bring people out,” Hanle said.
Hanle said Skico hired as many people as ever this season and opened as much terrain as it could despite anticipating a drop in business. The Campground section of Snowmass opened late due to a lack of snow.
Lack of preseason snow and social distancing requirements forced the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol to utilize fewer boot packers to solidify the base layer on the steepest slopes. That hindered the ability to get some of the terrain open in Highland Bowl.
Hanle said roughly the same number of ski instructors was hired this season.
“We’re down across the board,” he said. “While we had all our instructors, they probably weren’t as busy.”
Instructors without students were plugged into other duties to make sure they got a paycheck, he said.
Hanle said the business outlook has improved a bit in recent weeks.
“We’re seeing things pick up in March,” he said, “but it’s not going to make up for the rest of the season.”
Colorado Ski Country USA does not announce results of the season until its annual conference in June, so it’s unknown how the state ski industry has fared. Other resorts in the state that rely more on day-skiers from the Front Range are faring better than Aspen Snowmass, Hanle said.
Nevertheless, Skico extended the season by adding a week of skiing at Snowmass. It will close now on April 25. Aspen Mountain will stick to its April 18 closing. Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk will close April 4.
Meanwhile, Skico’s sales crew is working hard to sign up international travelers for 2021-22.
“We’re in full recovery mode for next year,” Hanle said.
Summer is usually when international travelers book their trips. Skico has told tour operators in Australia that their customers will get full refunds on their packages if travel is still prohibited next season, according to Hanle.
“All in all, we stayed open all season. That’s a plus,” Hanle said. “(But) it’s a year we never want to repeat.”
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