Record sales, visitor numbers mean impacts on Aspen employers, workers
Ryan Summerlin August 21, 2014
Talk to almost any Aspen worker — service industry or otherwise — and they’ll tell you it was a busy summer, one that came quickly on the heels of a similarly hectic winter and a short spring offseason. Many employees have more money in their bank accounts than usual, but they are stressed out and in some cases, physically ailing, from long hours and what may have been record numbers of visitors in the Aspen area since December.
At least four Aspen bartenders and restaurant workers can be seen wearing support boots, either at work or away from the job, because of the large amounts of time they spend on their feet while serving customers.
The city’s monthly consumption reports — which contain gross sales figures based on sales-tax forms submitted by local retailers — help to explain their aches and pains. June is not the biggest month of the year in terms of Aspen sales, but it’s the start of the summer tourism season. City retailers reported $51.6 million in gross revenue during the sixth month of this year. The figure is 15 percent higher than June 2013’s 44.8 million, 27 percent greater than June 2007’s $40.2 million and 76 percent bigger than the $29.4 million recorded in the same month of 2004.
Aspen is fully invested in ski season during the first three months of the year. Retailers garnered $208.3 million, 7 percent greater than the $194.4 million recorded in the January-to-March period last year and a record when looking back at data from the last 10 years. During the first quarter of 2012, retailers reported $183.2 million.
Employers and economic observers say that Aspen’s workers, including government and professional salaried employees, may be overworked to an extent, but the extra business is a good problem to have. Generally, they admit that the stress of having more people in town is having an impact on the workforce, but they believe their employees can take it.
“Obviously, more people and more economic activity adds to the workload of the city,” Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said. “And the need for additional employees occurs whenever the demand for services begins to exceed our capacity. Either the timeliness or the quality of services suffers past the trigger point.”
Maintaining the town’s public areas is but one example, he said.
“If you get more people in town, and there’s more trash in the cans or on the ground, the current employees will keep doing their best to keep up with it. If they can’t keep up with it, then it becomes noticeable, and we start talking about adding new employees.”
Barwick said the city has fewer employees on its payroll than it did just before the Great Recession, even though economic activity in the last two years has been rebounding strongly, in terms of construction and retail sales. To deal with extra demands stemming from increased development, the city recently added a handful of employees in its Community Development, Engineering and Building departments, whose workers closely deal with commercial and residential builders and planners.
“That trend will probably continue,” Barwick said, referring to extra employee needs in departments being inundated with development and building applications.
But the local government workforce is handling the situation pretty well, he said. “The stress levels are definitely rising for some employees,” he added.
Warren Klug, general manager for the Aspen Square condominium hotel and a board member of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said he believes that local hospitality workers are handling the extra business just fine. The hotel and lodge workforce hasn’t increased all that much in recent years, he said.
“This past winter was a nice increase in business over the year before,” he said. “All of the snow helped. Revenues are up, and we are happy to see it. But when you talk about stress, I think, ‘Are you kidding? I’m stressed when business is down.’”
The stress during busy times comes with the search of finding qualified workers during a booming economy, Klug said. With more industries in the area profiting again and adding workers, the ability to find the right people becomes more difficult.
“I don’t think we’re working people any more than we have to,” he said of the stress on workers at Aspen Square. “We have the people we need. Overall it’s been a wonderful year, and the summer has been good.”
While the town may seem busier than ever before, local hotels always have more rooms to sell, he said. “We’re certainly not 100 percent through the whole summer,” he said.
Klug later acknowledged that his workers have had to put in some extra effort because of the increased business this year.
“Sure, everybody’s a little busier,” he said. “I don’t see it as a stressful situation. It’s just been busy, and we’re doing well. It’s just been a challenge trying to get the people we want. I think for every hotel, every restaurant, that’s been the case.”
Similar to Klug’s comments, Dan Blankenship, CEO of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said the improved economy along with the demand for more services has definitely had an affect on the regional public-transit agency and its workforce.
The starting pay for a bus driver is $17.22 per hour. RFTA has had some difficulty replacing retiring or terminated drivers, because it’s competing with other industries for qualified workers, including the construction and energy sectors.
And the issue comes at a time when RFTA is seeing phenomenal growth in ridership, he said. Systemwide, the transit system is on pace to serve 4.8 million riders this year, which equals pre-recession figures.
Regional service, reflecting Highway 82 routes between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, is up considerably, from 2.24 million in 2008 to an estimated 2.68 million for 2014, Blankenship said. Much of that increase is due to the popularity of the faster, more efficient VelociRFTA service, he said.
Some drivers are picking up extra shifts and becoming slightly fatigued, Blankenship said. RFTA officials will have to look at new ways to recruit drivers in the near future, perhaps creating special compensation packages and other incentives, he added.
“We’re working on concepts for creative hiring that we need to keep us sustainable,” he said.
Part of the problem is that RFTA has special scheduling issues, dropping to fewer employees during the offseasons and then ramping up for the busy periods. And those who haven’t been employed very long don’t get the best schedules — there’s a seniority system that gives longtime workers choices of work hours and routes, meaning that some employees leave the agency simply to get stable hours of their choosing.
“We don’t have unlimited resources, as a public entity, and to some extent we’re bidding against other employers, and they are bidding against us, and the combination of that tends to ratchet up what everybody has to pay,” he said.
For other evidence that the city is as busy as it’s ever been, one only need to take a look at the market for retail spaces. Commercial broker Karen Setterfield of Setterfield & Bright said that less that 1 percent of the market’s total square footage is currently vacant. During the offseasons, there is always a shuffle of businesses moving into and out of retail units, but during the high seasons there is hardly any availability.
“Everything’s booming,” she said. “Everything seems to be ramped up. The pulse of the retail climate is fast.”
Setterfield said she only knows of one or two vacant spaces right now, but they may be too small for some retailers.
“I just find it exciting,” she said of Aspen’s economic rebound of late. “My office is always stressed and crazy busy, but we don’t complain about it. We just go about doing what we do. We’re happy.”
Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, said that what’s happening in the local tourism market is being mirrored by other mountain resorts across the West.
Resort tracking firm DestiMetrics of Denver reported recently that projections for the 2014 summer, which includes May through October, are that occupancy for Western mountain resorts will be up 4 percent and revenues will post a 6.9 percent gain compared to last summer.
The figures top the all-time summer record in Western mountain destinations that was set in the summer of 2013, DestiMetrics said. July was a strong contributing month to the projected record-breaking numbers, with a 3.4 percent increase in actual occupancy compared to July 2013 and a 9 percent increase in revenue.