Airlines, lodging on Aspen radar screen
May 1, 2013
With a concerted effort to attract another commercial airline to serve the resort already under way, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors agreed Tuesday to focus its efforts on lodging.
Specifically, the chamber will push to "remove unnecessary barriers to the renovation of lodging and condominium units" — one of the goals identified in its recently released update of a 10-year-old economic sustainability report. Improving airline service was another challenge identified by the report.
The Aspen City Council already is contemplating an easing of regulations to help older lodges renovate; ACRA should do what it can to forward that discussion, the board agreed.
"I think we can put a voice to that," said Donnie Lee, board chairman.
Air service and the fortunes of Aspen's tourist accommodations are entwined, though, and Tuesday's discussion hit on that relationship.
"There is no question that higher airfares impacted tourism here this winter," said Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort's liaison to the airline industry.
Frontier Airlines pulled out of the Aspen market a year ago, leaving year-round service by United Express and seasonal, summer/winter service by American Airlines.
A consortium of entities, including local governments and tourism organizations and Aspen Skiing Co. are identifying other carriers that might serve the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and exploring the resources available to lure one here, Tomcich said.
Frontier had served Aspen year-round, and the competition resulted in lower fares. Nonetheless, for the year ending Sept. 30, 2012 — a period that included Frontier service last winter — the average airfare to fly in and out of Aspen was 18 percent higher than at other similar destinations, including Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, Steamboat Springs, Gunnison, Durango and others, according to Tomcich. More recent airfare data isn't yet available, he said.
However, he said, overall, average occupancy at Aspen and Snowmass for six months ending March 31 was 53 percent — 26 percent higher than other mountain resorts. The average daily rate local accommodations charged during the same period was up 38 percent over the other resorts, he said.
Local lodging occupancy for the winter, and skier visits, may wind up being flat or up slightly — a "pretty remarkable" achievement given the drop in airline seats serving the market, Tomcich added.
Finding another commercial airline to serve Aspen is "a higher priority than it's ever been," he said.
While the Economic Sustainability Report urged more diverse air service, its call for a new lodging property in Aspen's commercial core raised questions for board member Jeff Bay, general manager of the Molly Gibson Lodge and Hotel Aspen.
The occupancy numbers don't suggest the need for a new hotel, he said, urging a focus on helping the lodges that already exist. A development and renovation plan for Hotel Aspen is in the works.
Older lodging properties can be redeveloped more profitably as residential properties, noted Mayor Mick Ireland, an ACRA board member. He urged the board to encourage City Council to ease the path for renovating older lodging properties without turning them into luxury condos that aren't rented out for short-term tourist stays.
"I think you can go in there and say, 'Look, you have a lodging base that's threatened by conversion,'" Ireland said.
"We need to create an environment where people want to run a lodge and they can see a future and economic benefit in doing so," board member Helen Klanderud said.