An Ikonic winter for Aspen
SKICO SKIER VISITS
Source: Aspen Skiing Co. Sustainability Reports
This ski season will be remembered for longer lift lines than Aspen-Snowmass skiers are used to, the invasion of the Ikoneers and snow, snow and more snow.
Snowfall totals were about 120 to 130 percent of average at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk, according to Aspen Skiing Co. Aspen Highlands was the big winner, with 366 inches from Nov. 1 through April 28. Snowmass received 329 inches.
It wasn’t just how much it snowed that made for a great season, it was how it snowed. Instead of big dumps and then long, dry periods in between, it regularly snowed in small amount for the first two-thirds of the season.
“Up through the end of February, we had the perfect timing and quantities to be skiing freshies every week,” said Katie Ertl, Skico senior vice president of mountain operations. “Then the 65 inches in early March — wow, that brought huge smiles and tired backs. We were all thrilled to have it snow like we remembered it could.”
The powder enticed skiers and snowboarders.
Skico Vice President of Communications Jeff Hanle said final numbers aren’t known yet. It’s too soon to say if any individual ski area or the company as a whole had a record season, but the total visits will compare favorably to the five- and 10-year averages. The season started strong with an early opening of Aspen Mountain. Skico never looked back.
“This is going to be a strong year that exceeds both those numbers,” he said. “All the mountains had big years — way up over last year.”
Ertl disclosed at an Aspen-Snowmass Rotary Club gathering in early March that local ski season-pass use had jumped 40 percent from the previous season at that point. Meanwhile, the new Ikon Pass accounted for 9 percent of Skico’s total skier visits, with use heaviest on Fridays and Saturdays. Hanle said those trends held through the season.
Alterra Mountain Co., a ski conglomerate tied to Aspen Skiing Co., is selling the Ikon Pass. The Crown family, who wholly owns Aspen Skiing Co., is a partner in Alterra.
The full Ikon Pass offers unlimited access at 14 destinations and up to seven days at 24 additional resorts. It’s good for seven days total at Skico’s four ski areas. It’s on sale now for $1,049.
A less expensive Ikon Base Pass offers unlimited access to 12 resorts and five days at 26 other resorts, including Aspen-Snowmass. The pass currently costs $749.
Hanle said the Ikon unquestionably helped drive business to Aspen-Snowmass. The big unknown, he said, is whether Ikon users came to Aspen because it was such a good snow year or if they intended to come anyway and it happened to be a good snow year. In other words, will they come in droves again next season if it is an average winter for snowfall?
“We don’t know. It’s a brand-new product,” Hanle acknowledged. “We thought it was a successful first-year launch. I met a lot of people who hadn’t skied here before. That benefits us.”
It’s a given that local skiers use their passes more when the snow is good, Hanle said. So more locals combined with new Ikoneers combined to create occasional lift lines longer than people are accustomed to.
“We’ve all gotten spoiled, including me,” Hanle said.
Skico officials contend the lift lines were overblown and they insisted Ikoneers shouldn’t be blamed. Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan addressed the issue in an op-ed piece in early March.
Going into the second season of the Ikon, Skico didn’t take any steps to ease the influx of Ikon Pass users through steps such as establishing blackout dates on busy weekends. Instead, it took steps to placate some of the hometown complainers. Anyone who purchases a Premier Pass at Aspen-Snowmass will get an Ikon Pass as an added value starting next season. That will let Aspen skiers and riders invade resorts such as Jackson Hole and Alta.
Hanle said Skico is working on various means to reduce lift lines, some of which can be discussed and some that cannot at this time. Lift lines at Snowmass are typically experienced in the morning before skiers and riders spread out among the expansive 3,332 acres. Skico is looking into adjusting Ski/Snowboard School meeting times and programming to alleviate lift line crowding. Hanle said Skico is looking into more buses and shuttles and better information about parking availability to assist customers coming to the mountains.
Vail Resorts provides an app that tells skiers and riders how long the lift lines are at its mountains. Hanle wouldn’t say if Skico is working on a variation of that app.
Discussing long lift lines is opposite from this time a year ago. Aspen suffered a down season for business, largely because of below-average snowfall. That prompted Skico and other Colorado resorts to apply to the U.S. Forest Service for expanded snowmaking systems. Skico’s proposal to add 53 acres of snowmaking at the top third of Aspen Mountain was approved. The company plans to start, but not complete, that expansion this summer. It will guarantee top-to-bottom skiing even in lean snow years.
Skico, like much of the ski industry, faced headwinds coming into the season. Advanced reservations prior to the season were slow. Industry officials attributed it to the “snow hangover” effect — travelers were wary of making reservations after last season’s lack of snowfall. They wanted to gauge the weather.
Skico also faced difficulties luring foreign skiers, in large part to unfavorable currency exchange rates from many top overseas markets. A loss in international business was offset by gains in domestic business, Hanle said.
Aspen and Snowmass Village’s lodging industry combined for an increase of 4.7 percent in paid occupancy this winter compared with last winter. March set a record for the month for paid occupancy and that helped produce a record-breaking ski season, November through April, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations business owned by Skico.
The U.S. ski industry as a whole looks to improve from a lackluster season in 2017-18. Cumulative ski visits were on a rollercoaster over the past decade — from a high of 60.54 million in 2010-11 to a low of 50.97 million a season later. The 10-year average is 55.64 million. In fact, the 2018-19 season was the fourth-best ever for the U.S. ski industry, racking up more than 59 million visits nationwide.
Above-average snow in many parts of the country indicates it should be a strong year for the industry.
“I think we’ll see some solid numbers in terms of visitation this season,” said Adrienne Isaac, marketing and communications director for Denver-based National Ski Areas Association.
Preliminary numbers will be released next week during NSAA’s national convention.
When asked if the ski industry’s health is simply dependent on snowfall, Isaac replied that snow is definitely the primary driver of visitation, though too much can deter or prevent skiers from hitting or reaching the slopes because of factors such as road closures.
“Overall, the industry is healthy,” Isaac said via email. “But there is a need for growth in the industry, especially as baby boomers age out of the sport.”
NSAA’s Growth Committee and its members are working on ways to grow the sport. Indications are that mega-resort ski passes are helping draw people into the sport and onto the slopes more often.
In Aspen, the ski season officially ended Sunday on a final day of the extended season at Aspen Highlands. But that might not be the end. Skico still says it will assess conditions for possible skiing on Aspen Mountain for Memorial Day Weekend. That would be a cherry on top of an epic season.