Pointing out what has been apparent for years, resort-destination representatives used recent statistics to show just how far Aspen has fallen behind the competition Monday night during an Aspen City Council discussion on its lodge-incentive program.
A quick search on Kayak.com, a travel search engine, showed that Aspen rooms right now are running about $469 per night, while competitors like Vail, who have newer inventory, are running anywhere from $149 to $260 a night, according to Aspen Chamber Resort Association President Debbie Braun.
“Expectations are high, and I don’t believe we’re currently meeting those expectations with our older lodging inventory,” Braun said.
Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, said potential visitors are becoming more Web savvy, making the destination pool more competitive. Furthering Braun’s point, he said data from DestiMetrics, a Denver-based company that tracks resort business at 17 resorts, showed that last summer in Aspen, the average daily rate was $280 per night. That number was 51 percent higher than the average daily rate at the other resorts, which was $186 per night.
“Of course, you don’t have the guests who are paying those average daily rates (in Aspen) complaining publicly about how high those rates are,” Tomcich said. “But what they’re getting versus what they’re paying is out of balance. And I don’t have an answer for where the balance lies, but right now, I feel that the pendulum needs to swing back in the other direction.”
Local lawyer Maria Morrow, using stats from Economic and Planning Systems, said the problem is soaring land values in Aspen. Economic and Planning Systems concluded in 2012 that “land would have to be $40 per square foot to support a mid-range hotel. Aspen land prices at the time were over $500 per square foot.” The study also concluded that the cost of fees, permits and exemptions in Aspen was the highest in North America.
“The land is just too expensive to reinvigorate and get the lodges competitive,” she said.
Morrow added that she hopes the 90-page lodge-incentive package, scheduled for an official vote Aug. 11, will send Aspen in the right direction, even though the package has its criticism. One person speaking out against an aspect of the incentive program Monday night was Michael Brown, who owns the Molly Gibson Lodge, Hotel Aspen and the Mountain House Lodge with his brother Aaron Brown.
In particular, Brown took issue with the incentives proposed for lodge projects that include free-market residential components in the lodge-preservation overlay district. The current lodge-preservation overlay allows for 60 percent free-market with respect to 300-square-foot-room hotels, Brown said, pointing out that the proposed table allows 55 percent.
“I’m not sure how that is an incentive,” Brown said.
Long-range planner Jessica Garrow said the base percentage is 45 to 55 percent, depending on the density of the lodge. That can be increased by 5 percent through a planned-development review, so the lodge owner can get up to 60 percent.
Brown responded that getting back to 60 percent through a special review doesn’t sound like an incentive, and he also took issue with transferable-development-right requirements that are tagged on, calling them “punitive.”
Community Development Director Chris Bendon said it was not staff’s intention for the package to come off as punitive. He added that transferable development rights are intended to address concerns from community members about mass and scale, sometimes in small steps.
“Eventually a program will live or die, or be judged, on its overall contribution to the community,” Bendon said. “And mass and scale is a big part of it.”
“I really hope that Mike Brown is wrong,” Morrow said. “I’ll tell you, he’s not the only person that has said this program isn’t enough — that it’s watered down and has a lot of good components, but it might not do the trick. I really, really hope he’s wrong, but I feel we need to try something.”
Comment from the council came after press time.