ASPEN - The lead negotiator for Aspen Skiing Co. in its talks with ESPN over the return of the Winter X Games said Tuesday that Aspen has put together as "compelling" of a bid as possible to keep the event beyond this year. Now he is asking the lodging community to help seal the deal.
John Rigney, Skico vice president of sales and events, said he believes the negotiations will turn out in Aspen's favor, although it might take time.
"We've got 10 years of history and an incredible community on our side," Rigney said. "This should work out."
"I expect we will ultimately remain home to Winter X," Rigney later added.
Aspen has hosted the Winter X Games since 2002, but its current contract expires after this year's event, Jan. 26-29 at Buttermilk.
The town is abuzz with people wondering whether ESPN will choose to move on. "Everywhere we go, people want to know," Rigney said.
Rigney is one of Aspen's biggest community cheerleaders. He's always positive, and he's remained that way throughout the lengthy negotiations.
He wants some of that positive thinking to rub off on front-line workers in Aspen's tourism industry. He sent a memo to operators of Aspen's hotels, lodges and other tourist accommodations Monday to go out of their way to make ESPN officials and anyone associated with the X Games feel appreciated.
"While our future role with WXG (Winter X Games) is still to be determined, let's use this week to warmly greet ALL guests, and perhaps when you see a Winter X Games lanyard or jacket on someone - thank them for coming here," Rigney wrote in his email. "Let them feel important and appreciated. It's the little things that make a difference, and sincere recognition from our community will further elevate their Aspen/Snowmass experience."
A cover memo from Skico asked that Rigney's pep talk be shared with front office, guest services, bellmen, concierge and other staff at hotels and lodges. Skico also shared the memo with its employees.
Skico is looking for more than top-notch customer service. In an earlier memo to the lodging community, Rigney said Skico was submitting a bid for a five-year extension to ESPN. Skico sought additional room rate concessions from the lodging community to make the package more attractive to ESPN. Rigney's memo said Skico made a "significant increase in value" in the latest bid. The specific terms of Skico's increased offer wasn't disclosed.
The lodging community contributes about 6,000 room nights during the preparation, execution and clean-up of the games.
Chris Stiepock, vice president of ESPN X Games, said the sports network feels appreciated by Skico and the Aspen community.
"There's a reason we've been here 11 years. We've always felt wanted here. They get it and they understand our needs," he said, referring to Skico officials.
Stiepock said there will be no announcement during these X Games on future contracts. Aspen-area residents shouldn't read anything into the lack of a deal.
"I would ask them to be patient and let us work it out," he said. Talks will be held and a conclusion reached, one way or another, in about a month, he said.
Rigney said Skico has concentrated on trying to ease ESPN's financial burden of presenting the X Games. Despite the success of the event and its growth during a decade in Aspen, sponsors and advertising dollars are tough to come by in this economy, he said. Meanwhile, production costs continue to soar. Skico has made its bid more attractive in areas such as equipment and infrastructure support, according to Rigney.
Aspen's desire to keep the event is understandable. It's a big money-maker for the city's businesses and the city government's coffers. And it affects the whole valley.
Occupancy has soared to 98 percent in Aspen for the four-day weekend over the last decade. It's the busiest weekend of the year, bar none, said Rigney. Late January used to be "value season" when tourist accommodations had to hustle to fill beds. The 30-year average occupancy prior to X Games was about 69 percent, according to Rigney.
"When every bar and restaurant has a line out the door, that's a good thing," Rigney said. Last year, 114,000 people took in the events live at Buttermilk.
The city of Aspen Finance Department tried in 2007 to quantify the economic boost the X Games provided. Retailers estimated that business was up about 11 percent in 2007 above the average activity level.
Chuck Frias, co-owner of Frias Properties, which manages about 200 homes and condominiums in and near the Aspen core, said the event is huge for Aspen, both as a driver of business during the games and in the bigger marketing picture.
"It gets massive exposure and exposure in the right demographic - the one we're all interested in," Frias said.
Skico has always maintained that the X Games exposes Aspen to millions of younger skiers and riders. In theory, that will inspire them to take trips to Aspen and Snowmass at a later time.
However, there is no concrete evidence that hosting the X Games has reduced the average age of Aspen's winter visitors. Intuitively, a hip event such as the X Games helps attract a younger crowd.
"The branding - there's a huge value on that. I don't know how you put a figure on it," Frias said.
Rigney said 25 hours of the Winter X Games at Buttermilk were watched on television by 40 million people in the U.S. last year. The number of international viewers isn't known.
If Aspen doesn't land an extension, Frias believes it will eventually hurt business in January. He said some people in the community feel that Aspen and Snowmass could make up the loss of X Games with increased sales to overseas travelers. Aspen is swamped with visitors from Australia and Brazil in January, when they are on their summer break.
But Frias said a big part of the success with those guests is the weak dollar. Economic factors could change, returning January to "value season" status, he said, so retaining X Games is important.