Aspen electeds reluctant to open economy but approve $500K loan for marketing

Aspen City Hall.
Aspen Times file photo

As Aspen’s elected officials voiced their reluctance to reopen the local economy in favor of public health and safety, City Council on Monday agreed to loan the chamber of commerce $500,000 for its new marketing plan in a COVID-19 world.

The loan for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association is coming from the agency’s reserves and the city’s general fund toward what’s being called a “restorative destination marketing” plan.

“We are bringing this forward with the community in mind,” said Eliza Voss, the director of marketing for ACRA. “We don’t want Aspen to fall off the map.”

ACRA’s strategic plan provides a road map for phased recovery, based on local public health orders, which restrict commerce and gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“This is the easiest decision that I’ve had to make in the last eight to 10 weeks,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein during a work session Monday.

He added, however, that council and others involved in the response to the COVID-19 crisis are in the “impossible position of saving businesses and saving lives.”

Mayor Torre said he was concerned that the community is entering the great unknown with the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the messaging should be focused on visitors cooperating with social-distancing protocols.

“I don’t think Aspen is going to fall off the map,” he said, adding that he predicts the resort community will be even more desired in a post-COVID-19 world. “I want the message to be Aspen is the safest, the cleanest and the most enjoyable.”

Prior to agreeing to the loan and the marketing plan for ACRA, council members expressed concerns about opening parts of the local economy per the current plan by the Pitkin County Board of Public Health, which is considering easing restrictions on restaurants and lodging later this month.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said the county does not have a plan in place for testing and contact tracing, or funding its “box it in” strategy.

She and other council members have asked members of the county’s public health team to be available for its next work session May 18 to answer questions and explain their strategy for reopening the economy.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she believes that opening more of the economy is premature.

She wants to see what the data show of whether increased cases occur after the recent public health order allowed retail stores to open this past weekend.

“Let’s see what happens in the next three weeks,” she said. “Once we start bringing in visitors that is going to have an impact on us.”

In her opening remarks, City Manager Sara Ott said the community should expect a much different Independence Day celebration, with likely no parade and no crowds lining the streets.

The Saturday Farmers Market also will be drastically different, and will have to follow public health orders of limited gatherings, which by the summer could be 25 or 50 people.

At the outset, the market may be limited to just fresh produce and no social gathering activities like live music, Ott noted.

Also, paid parking will likely go back into effect June 1, as the majority of the downtown core’s 700 spaces are currently being used as people take advantage of it being free.

But going back to paid parking will be done in phases, Ott said, adding that perhaps the parking garage will remain free and so will residential zones for a while.

The city also is looking at ways to open the streets to give retailers and restaurants more space to operate and maintain social-distancing protocols.

Ott said questions will be posed to the public later this week about expanding areas in the downtown core to allow for outdoor dining and social gathering spaces on its homepage.

Last week, Breckenridge Town Council gave the go-ahead for planning to close Main Street to allow more space for pedestrians and outdoor restaurant seating, according to the Summit Daily News.

ACRA’s tourism recovery marketing plan is designed to build upon the successes of previous steps taken by decision-makers to open Aspen’s economy.

The short-term plan includes a summer version of Winterskol, also known as “Summerskol.”

The marketing campaign is focused on driving business into town, pointing out ways to spend local and offering promotions for dining out, retail shopping, arts and culture pop-up events, and kids and family activities.

The mid-term vision is centered around education and communication, sending the message to visitors that Aspen is a leader in safety and what measures are in place, as well as expanding ACRA’s “how to” campaign, which will include what travel here looks like during the COVID-19 crisis.

ACRA will offer videos of what dining, shopping, lodging and recreating look like in the “new normal” of Aspen.

The resort association also will provide marketing help for businesses in order to amplify the promotion of Aspen, since many had to cut their marketing budgets. ACRA also plans to provide resource kits that have information like what businesses are open, any events that may be taking place and other key messages.

The long-term plan zeros in on the visitor experience, offering guests gift cards at check-in that can be used at local restaurants, shops and activities.

That plan also connects local guide companies to hotel guests so visitors can experience the outdoors.

ACRA will be providing face coverings for guests through a partnership with a local company, Corbeaux, and will hand out hand sanitizer made from Woody Creek Distillers.

People who will be targeted in the long-term campaign include second-home owners, frequent guests and first-time visitors in regional drive and direct-fly markets.

The campaign will be rolled out through paid target advertising, website content, social media, local influencer collaborations, public relations and group sales tradeshows and sales missions.

The city’s $500,000 loan will be partially achieved by accessing the $300,000 held in reserve within the city’s 130 Tourism Promotion Fund. The fund is supported by three-quarters of the 2% lodging tax and, under current forecasts, will see new revenue fall short of last year’s collections by 40%, according to City Finance Director Pete Strecker.

The remaining $200,000 will come out of the city’s general fund, and will be allocated as part of the $6 million relief and recovery package that council approved last month.

In 2009, the city loaned ACRA nearly $500,000 during the Great Recession. It was paid back within five years at zero interest.

Voss said the marketing plan is centered on “keeping the dream of travel alive” and asks people what they miss about Aspen.

She said she recognizes that ACRA will have to be flexible as conditions continue to change in a constant state of flux with the virus and the resulting economic crisis.

“It’s definitely a delicate balance of starting the economy and public health,” Voss said.

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