Bringing back the budget tourist | AspenTimes.com

Bringing back the budget tourist

Carol Blomquist recalls the day, not really so long ago, that she didn’t need a marketing campaign for her small Aspen lodge.

“The people just came,” said Blomquist, who has operated the nine-unit Chalet Lisl with her family for 26 years. “Those days are over.”

Tougher times have befallen the small, charming lodges and bed-and-breakfasts that help set Aspen apart from many other resorts.

Norma Dolle, who has owned and operated the Snow Queen Lodge since 1971, recalled that a person could walk through Aspen during winters of the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s and see “no vacancy” signs hanging from all the lodges. Weeklong trips were so prevalent that lodges instituted seven-day minimum stays. A policy like that would be suicidal today.

Now many vacationers stay only for a long weekend, sometimes only one night, said Dolle.

She and Blomquist blame those changing vacation trends, the poor national economy and Aspen’s marketing direction for creating the small lodges’ ongoing plight.

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Exclusive marketing

The Aspen Skiing Co. launched a marketing campaign in the late 1980s that informally labeled Aspen as the Mercedes-Benz of ski resorts. One Skico president lost his job over the way the company presented the theme, but the theme itself survived as the cornerstone of the company’s marketing into the 1990s.

Skico officials of the time confidently repeated the mantra of “mass follows class,” insisting that building Aspen’s high-end image would attract crowds.

The town’s leading economic indicators show otherwise. Aspen’s four ski areas had more than 100,000 fewer skier visits in 2002-03 than in 1993-94. Business has been down or flat each year over the last decade, with the exception of a strong season in 1997-98.

The lodging industry has also taken its lumps. The number of “pillows” available to customers in lodges, hotels, condos and other short-term tourist accommodations has dropped from roughly 10,000 in 1994 to 7,800 now.

Some small lodges in Aspen have been converted into employee housing, others have been converted to condominiums or even high-end fractional ownership properties.

Won’t fall prey

Eleven small, independent lodges are determined not to fall prey to the changes. They have revived the “Gems of Aspen” program that first surfaced in the mid-1990s to promote the small properties.

The program was first launched through the central reservations office as a way to direct special attention to the small lodges. It was carried on by a woman who left central reservations and started her own reservations business, but it faded when she moved away.

The “Gems of Aspen” program has a better chance of lasting this time, according to Blomquist, because the lodges themselves are in charge.

“The lodges very definitely can work together,” she said. “We’ve always worked together informally.”

Blomquist credited Stan Hajenga of the Mountain Chalet for his persistence in starting and maintaining the latest “Gems” program. Hajenga, son-in-law of Mountain Chalet founder Ralph Melville, said he believes the older, more intimate lodges still have mass appeal, if people just learn about them. “Hey, there’s something that Vail doesn’t have,” he said.

Targeting the middle class

Blomquist said the small lodges have been somewhat forgotten due to the addition of high-profile large hotels. The Little Nell, St. Regis and Hotel Jerome often dominate news and travel stories about Aspen lodging.

Commission rates for reservationists and tour operators are also higher for the larger, higher-priced properties.

“We do find that we’ve been overlooked over the years,” said Blomquist.

Dolle said that’s also a product of Aspen’s marketing direction. Years of marketing Aspen as an exclusive playground created the image that it is affordable only for the super-wealthy.

“We’ve got to try to change the image of Aspen,” she said. The “Gems” are attempting to reach “people who are watching their budget.”

David Ledingham, Dolle’s son and the manager of the Snow Queen, said the 1990s marketing direction scared away the middle class. “They just don’t think they can afford to come here,” he said.

The confederation has established a toll-free telephone number and an e-mail address that potential customers can use to find out more about the member lodges. An Internet Web site is under construction and should be launched this month.

Fall blitz planned

Hajenga said the “Gems of Aspen” will gain exposure this fall through a brochure that will be available at travel and ski shows, and through advertising purchased both independently and in conjunction with the Aspen Skiing Co.

Banding together enables the properties to undertake a higher-profile marketing campaign than they could do individually, he said. The “Gems” is working from an initial budget of $20,000. More money will be collected for special marketing programs tailored to certain members.

Hajenga said members fall into one of three categories: Victorian bed-and-breakfasts like the Snow Queen and Little Red Ski Haus; European-style chalets like Chalet Lisl and the Innsbruck Inn; and a hard-to-define third category that can loosely be described as “old Aspen with a new style.” Think the Boomerang, which has parts of the old historic lodge with modern units.

The complete membership list includes the Snow Queen, Little Red Ski Haus, Mountain Chalet, Chalet Lisl, St. Moritz, Holland Haus, Tyrolean, Hearthstone House, Boomerang, Skier Chalet and Christmas Inn. New members must be approved by a vote of existing members. Lodges connected to a regional or national organization need not apply.

Hajenga said active participation is a requirement for belonging to the “Gems.” The organization holds each of its regular meetings at a different lodge, and members are required to tour other properties so they can answer questions about them or make educated referrals.

The members take turns answering the toll-free telephone line and checking the e-mail address. That demonstrates an unprecedented amount of trust and cooperation. “Probably before, people thought they were going to steal business from each other,” said Hajenga.

This system relies on cooperation from competing lodges. Potential customers will describe what they’re looking for, and the group relies on the proprietor answering the inquiry to give an unselfish assessment.

“We are trying to help ourselves,” said Dolle.

Ledingham is excited about the program’s prospects. It offers a chance to show people there is an affordable side to Aspen and, in the bigger picture, “there’s no ski town like it in the country.”

The toll-free telephone number for the “Gems of Aspen” is 1-866-770-8358. The e-mail address is information@gemsofaspen.com. The soon-to-be constructed Web site will be gemsofaspen.com.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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