Aspen gears up for a domestic summer
Local officials break down travel industry’s rebound from pandemic
With all of the pandemic-related travel bans and restrictions, what Aspen lacked in international flavor last winter was replaced with more Texans, Floridians and other domestic guests.
And that is expected to carry over into this summer but infused with the gradual return of other types of travelers, with bookings rebounding sharply and closing in on 2019 numbers. Aspen is outpacing other markets in bookings growth over 2020 in July, August and September, according to industry data.
Tom Foley — senior vice president of business process and analytics at Inntopia, a firm that examines lodging and tourism trends in the mountain West — gave a preview of the summer numbers earlier this week during the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s virtual Business Outlook Forum. He pointed out that compared with May 2019, Aspen bookings are down 39.8%, while similar resort markets saw bookings in May down a combined 19%.
Yet the local numbers will shift in midsummer, he noted.
“We get into July, both the industry and Aspen are gaining versus two years ago and Aspen is outperforming the industry,“ Foley said. ”Overall, it’s almost a dead heat. They’re just about flat to two years ago, and Aspen is slightly down a little more than the industry is.“
Skico’s well of international visits was nearly dry in the winter due to travel bans and restrictions, which are gradually lifting throughout the globe.
Yet one international market coveted by Skico — Australia — remains virtually shut down to travel, while entry to the U.S. is expanding from most of Europe, as well as Brazil, China, South Africa, and other countries. But U.S. visitors came in droves to hit the slopes.
“We saw Texas way up in visitation over the winter. Also, Florida. California was up a bit, but not nearly as much as Florida and Texas and then finally, Illinois,” said Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan during Tuesday’s ACRA event.
Skico did see business from Mexico over the winter, which “hung in there pretty strong, but obviously Australia, Latin America (are) very important to us and the pace of booking in those markets remains pretty muted,” Kaplan said.
“And as we all know, especially Australia, they usually start booking for next winter now, and that is not happening. There’s talk that they’re going to be slow to open up. We’ll see, but I think we have to assume as a community that international is going to continue to be a challenge, and January (2022) is going to be a month that we’re going to have to work hard to drive occupancy into because we won’t be able to rely on that international business from two years ago — yet.”
Kaplan noted the rate at which vaccinations are being offered in other regions of the world is not helping.
“I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “I hope vaccines get rolled out more quickly that anybody’s anticipating and these spikes, particularly in Latin America, get addressed. But it’s looking a little rough right now from an international standpoint.”
Yet Aspen’s reputation for a buzzing nightlife and thriving restaurant scene, once dampened by the pandemic, is on the mend, said the Skico CEO. Events and group travel also are returning, he said.
“I think we’ll be back for next winter and we’re already seeing the benefits of that,” Kaplan said, adding that the National Brotherhood of Skiers has Aspen booked for February 2022, the Nastar National Championships will return next year, and the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, after missing 2020 and 2021, will return to Snowmass in 2022.
Travel restrictions also have had a reciprocal effect on tourism trends. Americans who enjoy vacationing globally have turned inward during the pandemic to such places as Aspen. The trend will likely extend into the summer, according to Ralf Garrison of Insights Collective.
“As international comes back and air comes back, I would expect them (Aspen) to be the beneficiaries of international coming around the corner,” he said. “Do we see it quite yet? I think not. In fact, it may be working to our advantage as U.S. travelers are reluctant to travel internationally, they may be traveling to interesting destinations in the U.S this summer. But winter? It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings back by winter.”
Through April 30, Aspen’s summer bookings dwarf figures from May and June of last year, but they trail the same months in 2019 when there was no pandemic.
Aspen’s occupancy rate in May was 19.2%, which was 1776% better than May 2020, when Pitkin County public health orders had closed hotels and lodges.
“It shouldn’t be any surprise that there are large gains,” Foley said. “What is more interesting is how Aspen is comparing versus the balance of the industry.”