It’s Aspen on the cheap
December 24, 2008
ASPEN ” Recession-stricken ski vacationers may be pinching pennies, but those who do open their wallets will find their dollars go further than usual this winter.
Aspen, like virtually every ski resort around the West, is taking unprecedented steps to lure tourists in a season that prognosticators pegged as a bust from the outset. The Aspen Skiing Co. predicted skier visits to Aspen and Snowmass would be down anywhere from 5 to 15 percent this winter, and some local business operators are predicting drops of 10 to 20 percent even as they hope for the best.
The result: As soon as the snow began to fly, so did the deals.
Lodging discounts and lift ticket/travel packages have proliferated at Colorado resorts. In Aspen, last-minute lodging and airfare deals for the holidays have been unprecedented, and retailers wooed shoppers with pre-Christmas sales that may extend well past the holidays.
The impact of the deals ” for both the consumer and the resort ” remains to be seen.
“In these times, I think many people are looking for a deal in order to get them over the hump, to make a decision to do something,” said David Perry, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s senior vice president, mountain division.
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If that something is a ski vacation, a lodging or airfare deal can provide the justification that would-be travelers are seeking. Hence the resort’s bring-the-kids-for-free deal, Perry said.
Aspen-Snowmass teamed up with Frontier to offer free airfare, lift tickets and lodging for kids, ages 12 and younger, for each adult who booked a minimum three-day, four-night vacation through Stay Aspen Snowmass. The package had to be booked by Dec. 23 and wasn’t valid from Dec. 25 to Jan. 4, Perry said, but its purpose was enticing visitors over “the hump.”
When Aspen’s retailers and lodges get on board, as well, it can only help, he added.
“I think it reinforces the fact that Aspen is in tune with the current economic impact and understands that some customers are looking for a bargain,” Perry said. “It definitely has a positive impact.”
And then, there’s the snow, which has been nothing short of stellar this month.
“I think what people are looking for is the definitive value and what defines the value is the quality of the snow,” said Michael Berry, president of Lakewood, Colo.-based National Ski Areas Association. “I think the thing that’s going to make the difference is if we have great snow in combination with some great deals.”
At this early stage, the ski season is shaping up to offer both.
Exactly a week before Christmas, Frontier and United Airlines dropped fares between Denver and Aspen for the holidays ” a time when visitors to Aspen are accustomed to paying a premium for travel, not to mention everything else. The unfilled seats, combined with head-to-head competition, resulted in one-way fares as low as $109.50 between Denver and Aspen through Jan. 5, with no advance purchase required.
“I’ve never seen fares this cheap in Aspen at Christmas,” said Bill Tomcich, president of local reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.
For travel dates extending into the rest of the winter, it appears the airlines are making continual adjustments as flights fill up, or don’t.
Locally, Aspen’s hotels and lodges appear to be taking a similar approach.
Last-minute deals posted on the Stay Aspen Snowmass website change frequently, but in a resort where hotels are accustomed to selling out for the holidays three months in advance, open rooms four days before Christmas produced some eye-popping prices.
A cabin at L’Auberge d’Aspen, with two queen beds, sofa bed and kitchen, available on Dec. 23-29, was listed on Monday, Dec. 22 among the last-minute deals for $389 per night ” a savings of $100 per night.
A standard room with two twin beds at the Hearthstone House, available Dec. 22-29, was listed on the website for $247 per night ” $82 off the usual rate.
A junior suite with two queen beds at Aspen Meadows, available Dec. 22-27, was listed at $150 per night ” a savings of $50 per night, according to the website.
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, the Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge offered various promotions ranging from free room upgrades and an extra night free for those who booked a stay of a certain length, to gift certificates to local restaurants, according to Kristen Atkinson, director of sales.
“We’re doing everything we can to get the last-minute traveler,” she said.
Everything includes lowering the price of a room. A deluxe room at the Hotel Aspen between Christmas and New Year’s could be had for $359 a night ” down from $419 last year, Atkinson said.
The Aspen Mountain Lodge, too, reduced its rates, said general manager Carla Karzen. On Dec. 15, there were rooms available between Christmas and New Year’s for $265 to $360 a night ” down about 20 percent from last season’s pricing, she said.
At the Sky Hotel, a Kimpton Hotel property, the focus has been on “value-added promotions” as opposed to rate reductions, said Alan Cardenas, director of sales and marketing. For example, Kimpton properties are offering a free continental breakfast for two for an extra dollar added to the price of a room.
Kimpton also boosted the commission to travel agents as an incentive to book its properties.
“We’re trying to retain rate integrity,” Cardenas said. “Aspen is what Aspen is.”
Nonetheless, members of the Kimpton in Touch rewards program had access to a week-long chance to book a stay at the Sky Hotel in February or March for $289 per night, he said.
Local restaurants, too, are protecting rate integrity, though many extended their prix fixe specials ” typically an offseason enticement ” into mid-December. Thanksgiving usually brings a halt to prix fixe deals that offer two- or three-course dinners for a set price, often less than $30.
“We extended it in light of the current situation,” said Samantha Cordts-Pearce, co-owner of both The Wild Fig and LuLu Wilson. “And we definitely didn’t do any price increases for this winter season.”
Dinner deals at one or both of the establishments later this winter may get consideration, but for Christmas, reservations are looking good, Cordts-Pearce said.
“We’re just wondering what the rest of the winter will bring.”
Rustique and Elevation, too, held the line on pricing and offered prix fixe specials for an extra two weeks, but the holidays won’t feature dinner discounts. The season is too important to the overall bottom line, said Tommy Tollesson, co-owner of both Elevation and another Aspen restaurant, Social.
“These next two weeks, that’s definitely time for us to charge full price,” he said on the Sunday before Christmas. “It’s kind of the time when we have to.”
Rustique, however, did drop the price of its New Year’s Eve menu, compared to last winter, said owner Rob Ittner.
Aspen retailers, on the other hand, have embraced the markdown like never before, combating the sluggish economy with pre-Christmas sales more typical of suburban shopping malls than swanky ski resorts. Even the high-end boutiques got in on the act ” Fendi marked down select items by 60 percent.
Boogie’s ran a pre-holiday sale for the first time ever ” 30 percent off everything in the store. The deals were slated to end sharply at 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 18, but two days before Christmas, the signs in the window read: “Entire store still 30 percent off.”
Longtime clothing retailer Pitkin County Dry Goods offered 30 percent off all clothing and 20 percent off accessories and leather outerwear. The pre-Christmas sale, still ongoing two days before Christmas, is unprecedented, said owner David Fleisher.
“It’s a very unique time, not just for retailers, but for everyone,” he said. “It has required unusual and unique responses ” hopefully for this year only.”
“I think every longtime Aspen retailer is definitely going to be looking at creativity this year,” agreed Heather Isberian, who owns Isberian Rug Co. with her husband, Stephan. Isberian has marked down some rugs by 70 percent and the rest of the inventory is marked down 20 to 40 percent.
“Having a sale seems like the correct thing to do at the moment,” Stephan said. “It’s going to be a winter sale. I don’t think things are going to be different next month or the month after.”
Aspen Fur and Shearling owner Mickey Alper is remaining optimistic, though his shop is offering markdowns as well, and not just on last season’s leftovers.
“I hate to run scared,” he said. “I don’t think the year is going to be terrible. It’s early for me to say it’s a disaster. I don’t really think it will be.”