Amid what many are calling the busiest summer in Aspen’s history, the keynote speaker of an annual real estate gathering on Thursday warned that the city is actually losing visitor market share to other resorts.
Mark Harmon, founder and managing partner of Auberge Resorts, which owns and operates the Hotel Jerome, attributed most of that loss to the difficulty and expense travelers face just trying to get to the upper Roaring Fork Valley. He was speaking at the 2014 Aspen/Snowmass State of the Real Estate and Tourism Economy Symposium, sponsored by real estate firm B.J. Adams and Co. and held at the Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows.
“The competition is getting stronger out there,” Harmon said. “There are other properties in locations that are easier to get to. It’s easier to get to Salt Lake City and fly in (there) from around the world. Aspen is losing its market share. That’s not a good thing.”
A quick check of Internet airfares Thursday showed that the cheapest round-trip flight from New York City to Aspen on Dec. 23 and returning on Dec. 30 is $638 per person. That rate involves changing planes in Denver or Chicago.
The least expensive flight on the same dates from New York City to Salt Lake City — which is located near many popular ski resorts, including Park City — is $467. That’s a nonstop flight.
He asked the audience to consider the cost of round-trip airfare to Aspen for a family of four during the Christmas holidays.
“We’ve self-qualified into a very, very narrow market,” he said.
Before the Great Recession, what Harmon described as “aspirational” visitors came to Aspen because “they thought this was the thing to do.” Since the recession, those aspirational travelers have cut back on their visits to places like Aspen in lieu of resorts where their money stretches farther, Harmon said.
Aspen has to do a better job of telling its story to the outside world of why it’s a great place to visit, he said. It has to go beyond mention of the four ski resorts in the area.
“I think Aspen has to get back into the feeling that it’s OK to come back here because there’s many things you can enjoy,” Harmon said. “It isn’t just about the physical things that are here. It’s about the cultural and the spiritual and the adventures that you can have in this town.”
That aside, he said that while interest rates are low, it’s a good time for the town to spruce itself up by reinvesting in its properties, just as the Hotel Jerome did in 2012 with a massive renovation. He said the ordinance passed by the Aspen City Council earlier this week to provide incentives to spark development and redevelopment of hotels and lodges was a positive step.
“This is a wonderful community where the values are about ‘How do we get better? What do we do to get better?’ I think there’s an openness in this community, there’s a sense of sharing ideas and there’s a lot of debate, very lively debate.
“But at the end of the day, the cultural and intellectual underpinnings in this town are second to none. And, that in my opinion, is really driving the value. It’s the experience here, not necessarily the hardware.”