Aspen gets the ‘affordable’ message out | AspenTimes.com

Aspen gets the ‘affordable’ message out

ASPEN – The extra $200,000 that the Aspen City Council gave chamber officials to market the resort this summer has been turned into the equivalent of more than a half-million dollars in public relations value.

Since May, the message that Aspen is affordable – and not just a destination for the rich and famous – has reached millions of people, mostly through newspaper articles. Based on circulation and those publications’ ad rates, Aspen Chamber Resort Association officials estimate those articles were the equivalent of $170,000 in advertising alone. Between the Internet and newspapers, Aspen received about $515,000 worth of coverage, according to marketing officials.

The public relations and marketing plans were shaped by the council’s assertion that the world needs to know that Aspen is accessible, and offers many low-priced deals and free activities.

While ACRA officials say they’ve always tried to tell that side of the story, they said recently they’ve had some landmark successes in getting the “affordable” message to a vast cross section of people.

Most notable is the pitch made by Maureen Poschman, a public relations specialist hired by ACRA, to Denver-based travel editor Catherine Tsai. Her story about Aspen being affordable and the resort’s special package deals was picked up by The Associated Press, and has appeared in more than 100 newspapers. It’s currently being picked up at an average of three a week, according to Alex de L’Arbe, account manager at Promo Communications, Poschman’s PR firm.

Poschman said she sat next to Tsai at a meeting in Denver when she pitched the angle to her. She sent her the “affordable Aspen” press release, along with information on the discounted deals, then followed up with her a few times and helped convince her to write the story.

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Standards in the industry have set the value of editorial coverage at three times more than the cost of an advertisement because an article is viewed as more trustworthy, Poschman said, so getting a story picked up on the AP wire is the ultimate payoff of a pitch.

“Affordable Aspen is not an oxymoron … it’s always been an important element in our message,” Poschman said. “We very much want to keep the Aspen brand intact, but we felt the value proposition was effective because of how the travel industry is right now.”

Resorts like Aspen have taken severe hits in their economies as a result of the recession. Aspen is down more than any other Colorado ski resort, a statistic that City Manager Steve Barwick noted earlier this summer.

Since May, the “affordable Aspen” story has appeared in several of ACRA’s targeted markets – the Front Range, Texas and Los Angeles.

The story got a lot of play on the Internet as well, particularly on travel and news websites. Bloggers wrote about it, and it was on Facebook and Twitter.

“We did grassroots, low-tech to tech-savvy,” Poschman said. “We’re using every medium possible.”

The city’s money also went to hosting 42 Colorado welcome center employees for a weekend in June. Many of them had never been to Aspen, and they told ACRA officials that they rarely get invited to resorts around the state.

Educating those people is key because they are in direct contact with tourists and are suggesting to them where they should visit, said Julia Theisen, ACRA’s vice president, sales and marketing.

“They talk to [more than] 1 million people during the summer,” she said, noting that 80 percent of tourists who drive to Colorado welcome centers haven’t made up their minds as to where they will go.

The group was provided with complimentary rooms in a cross section of hotels and lodges throughout Aspen, from the St. Regis to the Limelight to the Mountain Chalet and private condominiums.

They attended a welcome event at Aspen Square and were treated to a performance by Theater Aspen in the conference room at the Limelight. They also took a hike and ate lunch at the Maroon Bells, and were given free gondola passes up Aspen Mountain.

Several nonprofit groups like the Aspen Institute and the Music Associates of Aspen spent considerable time in front of the group, explaining all the low-cost and free activities that happen throughout the summer in Aspen, and shared their calendar of events with them.

“We got amazing feedback from them,” Theisen said. “They told us that they didn’t realize that Aspen was so friendly and affordable.

“They commented about how kid- and dog-friendly it was.”

Theisen said she heard back from one welcome center staffer who had been in contact with a tourist after the staffer’s trip to Aspen and was able to give the visitor directions to the John Denver sanctuary along the Roaring Fork River because he had gone there just days before.

ACRA’s cost to host the group was between $7,000 and $8,000, Theisen said, adding that’s the equivalent of a full-page print ad. The weekend would have cost more, but the hotels and lodges provided rooms for free, and other participants like the Aspen Skiing Co. offered complimentary items.

Without the city’s additional dollars, that event wouldn’t have happened because it wasn’t in ACRA’s $600,000 annual budget, which is funded through a 0.5 percent sales tax.

“It definitely wouldn’t have fit in our budget,” Theisen said. “That was money well-spent.”

Money also was spent for online advertising, promoting three deals: 50 percent off Wednesdays; buy three nights, get the fourth night free; and the Aspen Summer Pass, which offered discounts at participating merchants.

ACRA paid for a supplement that was inserted into The New York Times in 10 markets, an effort which reached 165,000 households. The piece contained Aspen’s summer events calendar and the promotions.

Hits to ACRA’s website doubled days after The New York Times distribution, Theisen noted.

Although it’s difficult to quantify or track how much business Aspen received this summer as a result of ACRA’s efforts, the exposure helped keep the resort on the map.

“Our hope is that we are doing what we would have done [before the recession] and better than our competitive set,” Theisen said of Aspen’s summer business.

Bill Tomcich, president of the reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, said 10 percent of the bookings on his website are a result of ACRA’s marketing push.

“Our business is down but certainly it would have been even more down,” he said.

Theisen said this latest marketing effort demonstrates what additional money can do for the resort. ACRA is proposing a local marketing district that would levy a 1 percent tax on nightly lodge rates within specific boundaries in town. The proposal will likely be on the November ballot.

“The $200,000 has illustrated that we can increase our marketing campaign and reach,” she said. “It’s a good tee up for getting more money and where to spend it.”

csack@aspentimes.com

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