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Adopted tourists feel at home in Aspen

ASPEN – A group of mostly Texans who were officially “adopted” by a local resident through a city-sponsored program are nearing the end of their seven-day vacation here with a generally positive impression of Aspen.

Houston resident Rick Duran, the organizer of the 10-person group, signed up on the city’s “Adopt a Tourist” Facebook page earlier this month hoping to get an inside line on how things work around here.

The city’s communications specialist, Sally Spaulding, matched them up with local resident Gail Mason, who registered to adopt a tourist.

A resident of Aspen Village, Mason is an on-mountain ambassador for the Aspen Skiing Co. – one of four jobs she holds down when she’s not looking after her teenage son.

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She met up with Duran’s group last Sunday, the first day of their trip. They are middle-class people in their 40s who are predominately from the Houston area; one also comes from Florida, another New Jersey.

The group was dining at a restaurant in Snowmass Village when Mason called Duran to touch base. The next thing they knew she was sitting at the dinner table telling them all the ins and outs of the bus system, ski transfers, where to ski and where to eat.

“I said, ‘you actually came over here?'” said a surprised Val Williams, a longtime friend of Duran’s and a member of the group.

Mason skied with the group Monday at Snowmass and then took them to Mustang Restaurant on the Hyman Avenue Mall, where they were treated to free appetizers and drinks. They were welcomed by Mayor Mick Ireland and Spaulding, both of whom skied with part of the group and Mason on Aspen Mountain Wednesday.

The Mustang is one of a growing list of establishments that are offering discounts and deals for official “adoptees.”

“I think it’s really cool … I’m thinking of adopting,” said Mustang managing partner Mimi Lenk.

Other participating establishments that offer discounts for “adoptees” who have their laminated ID cards is Victoria’s Espresso and Wine Bar, the Wheeler Opera House and Main Street Bakery.

“Adopt A Tourist is a simple concept based on that old idea of goodwill and pride in your town,” said Aspen local Paul MacFarlane, who submitted the concept as part of the city’s “Mining Aspen for Ideas” campaign in late 2009, when more than 30 marketing and special event ideas were considered for monetary support by the government.

Spaulding said 30 locals have signed up to adopt a tourist since the city of Aspen launched the social media matchmaking movement earlier this month on Facebook. Those locals are waiting to be matched up with their soon to be out-of-town friends.

Spaulding is currently looking for a match for an Australian woman who will be here in March and wants to ride horses. A family from New York with 6-year-old twins also will be here next month and is looking to be adopted.

Like any resort town, locals here can get worn down by tourists and sometimes they want to tell them all to go back to where they came from. But from where Mason sits, that’s not what Aspen is about and that’s why she signed up to adopt.

“Even Hitler loved his mother and these guys were smart enough to choose Aspen so they must be cool,” she said. “And they are a riot.”

The majority of Duran’s group has skied together for the past nine years at resorts all over North America during Mardi Gras week. So serious are they about the holiday that they had $500 worth of Mardi Gras beads shipped here prior to their departure.

It was the first time any of them have visited Aspen/Snowmass.

“We’ve skied everywhere and we thought Aspen is where all the rich people are,” said Williams, who expected snooty attitudes, and a lot of glitz and glamor. “But everyone has been so congenial.”

Added Duran: “We expected to see a lot of people with their noses in the air,” but they soon realized that the general populace is pretty laid back and Mason’s involvement with them had a lot to do with it.

“She’s been wonderful,” he said, adding they’ve leaned on her all week to navigate through the maze of activities, restaurants and logistics of the resort.

Mason said she was happy to do it.

“I picture myself in a position where I’m in a town I don’t know,” she said, adding that she’s enjoyed hanging out with the group and showing them around. “It’s not a big time suck and it’s really appreciated.”

The cost of getting to the resort had been a barrier for the group in the past, but $350 round-trip airfare from Houston to Aspen made it more enticing to give it a try.

And being adopted by Mason made the trip even more sweet.

“It’s a good concept,” Duran said, recognizing that the program is just getting started and will be better once there’s more discounts offered at local businesses.

But one thing Duran and his group did notice is that the Skico does a good job of handing out the schwag – everything from sun block, Ricolas and hot cider.

“There is a lot of free shit around here,” Duran said with a smile. “You don’t find that at other places.”

His group also is impressed with the ski transfer service and the free bus system; however, the dial-a-ride system in Snowmass “can definitely improve,” Duran said of the late and inconsistent service.

And while Duran said he ranks the resort’s guest services “pretty high,” the cost of staying and skiing here is pricey compared to other resorts they’ve visited.

That’s despite the efforts of Mayor Mick Ireland and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association in recent months to let the world know that Aspen is affordable through a variety of marketing messages.

The group rented a five-bedroom house in Snowmass Village for $6,500 and Duran estimates that each person dropped between $2,500 and $3,000 this past week. That includes drinks, food, groceries, ski rental, lift tickets and other ancillary expenses.

Duran said he’d prefer to stay in Aspen where the action is but that was out of the group’s price range, and Snowmass’ Mardi Gras celebration was the main attraction anyway.

But is Aspen and Snowmass special enough for Duran’s group to return? Maybe. On Friday morning, the group was discussing Jackson Hole, Wyo., for next year’s trip.

Asked to rank in order of preference his top three ski areas, Duran said Breckenridge is at the top because the resort as a whole is more affordable and has a great mountain for the group, who are intermediate skiers who like blue cruisers. Aspen comes in a solid second and Whistler is third.

“For the most part, we have had a great time,” he said, adding that on their first day on Snowmass, an on-mountain ambassador led them around the entire day and they never had to stop and look at a map wondering where they were.

“It was great hospitality. The group says everyone was very informative and they enjoyed the ‘Adopt a Tourist’ program,” Duran said. “We would definitely do it again.”

The group made one final note about their day with Mayor Ireland on Aspen Mountain. Ireland paid for them to race on the Nastar course and he competed against Todd Estabrook, a firefighter from New Jersey. While Ireland claimed victory, witnesses saw him miss a gate and therefore should have been disqualified.

“The mayor cheated!” Duran and his group declared.

csack@aspentimes.com


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