All signs point to strong demand for winter ski travel – but are we ready?
Thoughtful visitor restrictions could be part of Aspen’s long-term strategy
Maintaining the balance between the quality of life for residents while also preserving the visitor experience is nothing new for our community, explained Eliza Voss, vice president of destination marketing with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
“Even pre-COVID, ACRA has been looking to destination management tactics in order to find the appropriate balance for our community,” she said. “By using sustainable tourism strategies like education, dispersion and collaboration, we believe we can be mindful about welcoming visitors back following a year of travel restrictions. But these approaches are prudent regardless of what extraneous factors are at play, and ensure resilience for our tourism based economy.”
Voss noted that the experimental foray into a reservation system for the Maroon Bells indicates that while there are still some kinks to work out to improve the user experience, those kinds of changes have been effective – and may stick around after the pandemic has passed.
“We imagine that the benefits of reservation systems that have mitigated impacts during COVID are likely here to stay,” she said. “Our role is to educate and manage expectations for both the visitor and year-round community, and as part of that ongoing effort we are engaging in a Destination Management Planning process with Destination Think! So we can reimagine tourism, and look at how it can actually have restorative impacts vs. negative.”
Snowmass also advocates careful planning
Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism, said that while there is much talk about pent-up demand, visitor demand is not guaranteed, and her organization’s tourism strategies will reflect that.
“In Snowmass and in Aspen we were hit hard with the decreased demand this winter season, especially in January and in February,” she noted. “As we look to summer 2021 and the future, we will continue to market Snowmass to our target audiences. We offer a great, world-class experience here and much of what we offer – access to the outdoors, wide open spaces, a wide variety of lodging and dining options – should resonate well as we transition to a new normal.”
Abello said that messaging will also continue to keep our COVID-era precautions in mind.
“As a tourism organization, our focus – once visitors are in-market – is to present a wide variety of options and activities that engage, and disperse, the visitors as necessary,” she said.
As we look forward, whether it be this immediate summer or more distant winter, post-pandemic demand will bring with it a few challenges. Some of these will be new and others reoccurring, but all can be anticipated and thus premeditated.
If the floodgates are thrown open in the name of economic prosperity, there is the potential for resident pushback and renewed concern for over-tourism. If the wrong re-opening and re-welcoming strategy is deployed, resorts run the risk of coming across as under-prepared.
Tom Foley, SVP of business process and analytics at Inntopia, explained the situation. “There are several ways to indicate strength for summer, but perhaps the most notable is by comparing current revenue gains.”
“We can also be encouraged by looking at data on rate strategy intention,” added Foley, “where the left side of the chart confirms a decline in properties intending to lower rates.”
With revenue up and lodging discounts down, will the good times continue into winter?
“Many in the industry are anticipating strong pent-up demand this summer. But you must ask what happens after that? Not all the market is ready or willing to travel. The immediate surge is just part of the market,” said Carl Ribaudo, president and chief strategist of SMG Consulting.
Other headwinds include newly discovered COVID-19 variants, vaccine distribution uncertainty along with newly announced side-effects and subsequent halt of distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, not to mention potential pushback against origin markets with high caseloads.
Industry response has been to limit supply in the name of visitor experience
Even as the industry aims to overcome uncertainty, many resorts have responded to COVID concerns by limiting physical access to the mountain, said Dave Belin, director of consulting services with RRC Associates.
“We’re hearing from many ski areas in different parts of the country that they are planning to continue some form of limiting capacity on peak days, whether through caps on weekend ticket sales or parking limits on busy days,” he said. “The explicit reason is to preserve the visitor experience, a concept that applies to many other tourism destinations like beaches, theme parks or national parks.”
Belin is of course mostly referring to the recent capacity announcement from Arapahoe Basin. For decades, a key strategy for Arapahoe Basin was to add more skiers. That is no longer the case. The ski area is now actively working to reduce the number of skiers on weekends and holidays.
Arapahoe Basin will measure success by reducing parking challenges, keeping lift lines and other service lines short and by seeing smiling skier faces. This approach is a big “tell” about their future strategy: manage fewer people, lower operational expenses and increase demand.
Fewer visitors may positively impact quality of place, but if resorts are successful in managing expectations they will still be faced with staff-shortages, which has the potential to dilute the visitor experience.
Preventing negative reviews is vital to bringing visitors back
When their experience is less than what they expect, negative word of mouth will spread on social media and other review sites – capping any efforts to promote the destination and welcome back travelers. Fewer visitors also have an impact on retail operations – less people walking past the stores mean fewer opportunities to ring the cash register.
For resorts that are able to add appropriate levels of staff, a new challenge awaits. “Another issue facing resort communities will be where to house the labor force,” noted Ralf Garrison, destination resort advisor with The Advisory Group, “especially if affluent visitors extend their summer stay into winter – depleting the available housing supply.
As travelers make decisions about where to go this summer and winter, the opportunity is ours. Getting the supply variables right is a step in the right direction to a positive visitor experience.
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace. TheInsightsCollective.com / email@example.com
Broadcaster Jim Williams of KSPN and KNFO is leaving the valley after eight years of serving as the voice of Aspen, Basalt and Roaring Fork high school’s sports.