As mountain towns diversify, what’s next? | AspenTimes.com

As mountain towns diversify, what’s next?

Lauren Glendenning
The Aspen Times

Ralf Garrison, founder and principal of Destimetrics, a Denver-based firm that analyzes mountain resort economies, speaks at The Assembly, a gathering of mountain tourism industry experts in Denver that coincides with the Snowsports Industries of America Snow Show.

There's a saying in mountain towns that locals came for the winters but stayed for the summers. Unfortunately for those in the mountain tourism industry, visitors don't always follow suit.

While ski towns that were once just ski towns have now become full-fledged, year-round mountain destinations, the mountain tourism industry continues to struggle with balancing out its business throughout the year. There have been major improvements in spring, summer and fall business over the past several years, but industry officials recognize there's more work to do.

Great minds in the industry will get together at the end of the month to talk about current challenges at The Assembly, a one-day conference put on by Destimetrics that coincides with the Snowsports Industries of America Snow Show in Denver. This year's theme at The Assembly is a mostly forward-looking analysis on how to manage the peaks and valleys of mountain tourism.

"We're leading the charge to see who we can get into a cooperative, who will think more about the present and the future and less about how it's always been," said Ralf Garrison, founder and principal of Destimetrics, a Denver research firm that tracks mountain-resort economics.

This is the fourth year for The Assembly, and the agenda topics prove that the challenge of year-round sustainability in mountain towns hasn't waned. There are the typical state-of-the-snowsports economy and economics discussions, but this year, many of the breakout sessions likely won't mention the word "winter" at all.

"It's not to anybody's advantage to continue to bring people (to mountain resort towns) during high times of the year," Garrison said, noting that many mountain towns are full or nearly full throughout the winter season.

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In Aspen, for example, occupancy was more than 90 percent during eight consecutive days around Christmas last month, according to the latest Stay Aspen Snowmass report. The industry has to turn its attention to the slower periods, when there's still plenty of capacity, Garrison said.

The notion of growing summer and shoulder-season business isn't new — mountain towns and resorts have been throwing money at summer marketing and special events for years — but there's more data about the habits of these visitors than ever, mostly due to Destimetrics' efforts.

"The more data you have and the more consistently it's organized and formatted, the more you can use fancy math to unlock the secrets," Garrison said. "The data is getting broader and deeper."

"Disruptors and enablers"

In one of The Assembly's morning sessions this year, "Tomorrow Land: Fundamentals for the Future," a diverse panel of experts will talk about market trends and "potential disruptors and possible enablers" strategic to the long-term health of mountain resort communities. Christian Knapp, vice president of marketing at Aspen Skiing Co., plans to talk about the challenges of offseason business as well as the affordable-housing crisis affecting Aspen and just about every other mountain resort town in the West.

Knapp said there's an interesting dynamic happening that involves short-term private rentals via sites such as Airbnb and others, a squeeze on affordable housing, wage pressure in the industry and unionization or talks of unionization in places like Beaver Creek, Telluride and Taos, New Mexico.

"Ski companies are being forced to raise wages, which is a good thing, but it's a challenge," Knapp said. "We're even seeing unionization happening, which is a byproduct of the affordable-housing issue."

The topic of summer wasn't as big just four or five years ago, Knapp said, noting that Skico has been "super focused" on growing summer business. Summer and offseason growth is important, but the focus on the major topic from last year's Assembly — building the next generation of snowsports enthusiasts — hasn't diminished, either.

Resorts must do that through affordability and technology, among other efforts, Knapp said. Millennials, for example, don't want stuffy hotels, he said. They're looking for fewer amenities and more self-service. They're a generation with smartphones in their pockets at all times. The industry has to focus on speaking to them through better technologies such as apps and e-commerce.

"The long-term challenges include appealing to (millennials)," Knapp said. "I'm not sure their expectations are being met right now."

As for summer, visitor expectations are all across the board, which is part of the reason it has been so difficult for mountain towns to effectively brand and market summer tourism.

Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer said the question of what's next is a pressing one.

"What's our real, overriding summer message? Is it events; is it cycling; is it all of the above? There's no one thing like there is in winter," he said. "In the summer it's much more disparate. When it's everything, is it nothing?"

When a destination or brand has two completely different products in winter and summer, it's hard to have a year-round brand, Romer said. Cruise lines, Disney World and beach resorts can promote one message all year.

"How do mountain communities bridge that gap?" Romer said.

It's these kinds of questions and topics that provide for a full day of mountain tourism enlightenment at The Assembly. And it's a rare sight to see a bunch of competitors sitting together to share their ideas and knowledge about how to grow their businesses.

That's one of Romer's favorite things about The Assembly.

"The theme across it is how to work together and learn from each other," he said. "We're all working for the same goal. It doesn't mean we don't compete like heck; we do — but it's unique. It's what makes this industry pretty cool."

lglendenning@aspentimes.com

If you go…

What: The Assembly, an industry-wide collaborative conference on year-round mountain tourism.

When: Friday, Jan. 29, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Where: Colorado Convention Center, Denver

Cost: $295

To register or to view the agenda, visit assembly.destimetrics.com.

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