Money finally freed Ajax.
The Crown family, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co., decided Thursday morning they will no longer ban snowboarders from Aspen Mountain. The ban will be lifted permanently April 1. No fooling.
“We’re holding back a tide we did want to address,” said Jim Crown, managing partner of the Skico for his family.
The opening of the mountain is “something the market really wanted,” said Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell. “We’re a customer-driven company.”
The Skico had previously announced that Aspen Mountain would be open for the last three weeks of the season as a sort of trial. But at the owners’ annual meeting Thursday, management pitched lifting the ban permanently, and the Crowns listened.
“Jim (Crown) and Pat (O’Donnell) argued about snowboarding on Ajax for years,” noted John Norton, Skico chief operating officer, while opening a press conference to announce the decision Thursday afternoon.
The three other local mountains – Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk – were already open to riders. Losing business Crown said the business arguments against the ban at Ajax were compelling. Up until now, a skiers-only mountain made good business sense because it attracted skiers and boosted ski school sales. But now, economics favors opening the mountain to the growing horde of riders.
“I see this as a balance that slowly tilted,” Crown explained.
O’Donnell wouldn’t disclose how much revenue the company has lost, if any, because of the ban. But the future of snow sliding sports is clear, he acknowledged.
Riders accounted for 26.4 percent of all visits to the slopes across the country last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Riders also tend to be younger, and they spend more time on the slopes. Norton said the Skico’s number is close to the national figure.
NSAA figures showed that 59 percent of skiers and 75 percent of riders are under age 25. The average number of days on the slopes per season is 8.3 for skiers and 9.3 for riders.
Norton said one-half of all customer visits from people under 35 years of age come from riders.
Although the change in demographics has been evident for years, the Skico owners stubbornly stuck with the ban. They were the last ski area in Colorado to ban snowboarders and one of only five major ski areas in the country to exclude riders.
The ban has been revisited annually at the ownership meeting of the Crown family. Norton said he figured chances were 50-50 this year that the Crowns would approve ending the ban.
Crown said his family unanimously decided to overturn the policy.
“I sensed it was coming at some point,” he said. “Two years ago, would I have picked this year? No. I would have said snowboarding is coming to Ajax eventually.” Not bowing to pressure O’Donnell couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for lifting the ban at a joint press conference with Crown.
“We’re happy. We’re all happy,” said O’Donnell, who spends more time on a board then on skis. “I guess I’ll be visiting (Aspen Mountain) more often.”
O’Donnell claimed protests waged by snowboarders didn’t weigh into the company’s decision.
“The answer is no. We make our own decisions,” he said.
An organization called Free the Snow has lobbied and staged publicity stunts to try to open Ajax; Taos, N.M.; Alta and Deer Valley in Utah; and Mad River Glenn, Vt., to riders. The organization distributed the “Free Ajax” bumper stickers that are so popular around town.
“Hold onto the Free Ajax bumper stickers. They’re going to become a collector’s item,” said Crown.
He said the ban was never meant to show disregard for snowboarders as customers. The company spent significant funds on infrastructure and marketing directed at riders at the Skico’s other three mountains.
“We did everything we thought we could do to make everybody happy,” he said. Expect complaints Skico officials realize their latest decision won’t please everyone.
“I think it’s going to be a bi-modal response,” said Norton. Riders will love it; some skiers will hate it.
Crown said a survey of Skico customers last season could be used to justify the ban or argue against it, depending on how results were interpreted. Like Norton, he expects some die-hard Ajax skiers to be miffed.
“The business we’re in, we get complaints every year (about something),” he said.
O’Donnell predicted the integration of riders with skiers will be a “nonissue.” While the groups were at odds in the early 1990s at some ski areas, snowboarding is so mainstream now that it just won’t be a problem, he said.
The Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol was informed of the decision Thursday afternoon by Norton. “There was some disbelief – `Holy cow, I don’t believe they’re finally going to do it,’ ” said Norton.
Mike Kaplan, Skico vice president of operations, said the only difficulty he foresaw is explaining to people that the ban remains in place for now, but will be lifted permanently starting in April.
Norton expects a huge “PR surge” for the company over the move, immediately and again in April.
“I expect there will be a celebration the last week of skiers-only and a celebration (when the ban is lifted),” he said.
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I try to remember to give thanks every day I spend outside, whether it be floating the Colorado or Roaring Fork, fishing an epic dry fly hatch on the Fryingpan, or teasing up tiny brook trout on a remote lake or stream. We’re spoiled rotten here, so it’s easy to be thankful.