Aspen locals upbeat despite scant early snow

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
With the terrain at the top of Aspen Mountain not yet open, the Little Nell lift at the base whisked a steady stream of skiers and riders up the slope to a connection with the Bell Mountain chair Monday afternoon, Nov. 26. The two lifts access limited terrain where snowmaking has provided skiable runs.

ASPEN – It was slow on the streets of downtown Aspen on Thursday, a mere week since the partial opening of Aspen Mountain to skiers and snowboarders on Thanksgiving Day.

But an afternoon survey of business operators and employees revealed nervous optimism that the dry conditions and lack of weekday visitors will give way soon to fresh dumpings of powder, more foot traffic and a pre-Christmas financial bonanza for all.

Ed Garland, co-owner of the Stapleton Sports shop at the corner of South Spring Street and East Durant Avenue, said business is definitely slower this week compared with the post-Thanksgiving week in 2011.

“Things are definitely a little slower than they were at this time last year because of the lack of snow,” he said. “Things just really haven’t taken off. People don’t want to buy skis yet.”

Garland’s shop rents and sells skis and snowboards and also does hand-tuning. He was stocking gear Thursday, getting ready for when business picks up.

“We’re all just waiting for the snow,” he said. “We’re optimistic. I’m a little nervous that we won’t have snow for Christmas; that’s my biggest concern.”

He said early-season sales are important because that’s when customers are more willing to pay the full price for gear. The period spanning from the week before Christmas through New Year’s week can make or break a season. Discounts occur as the season progresses.

“You have to be positive,” Garland said. “We won’t worry about anything (negative) until it happens.”

At the Popcorn Wagon across the street from the Wheeler Opera House, Jaz Calderon said foot traffic was sparse.

“During the day, it’s been pretty slow,” he said. “There’s only a handful of people walking around at any given time. I work in the restaurant industry, and the more people there are, the more money I can make.”

Last week wasn’t bad, though, Calderon said.

“Thanksgiving weekend was pretty decent,” he said. “As soon as Sunday hit, it was nonexistent, and we went right back into an offseason feel.”

Peggy McCafferty, who for 18 years has managed Roots, a men’s and women’s apparel store near the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall, said Black Friday was the biggest in the history of the Aspen location. Roots is based in Canada.

“People were just streaming into the store,” she said. “We just had a huge weekend, and the founders in Toronto called and said, ‘That’s fabulous.’ Maybe it was because of Thanksgiving, World Cup and Black Friday all mixed together.”

She said the store has been aided by its large number of repeat customers, including female World Cup racers.

McCafferty said she’s a little worried about the lack of snow but pointed out that business was outstanding last year even though the overall snowfall was lackluster.

“We’re a ski town, and we worry a little bit,” she said. “But we’re a big company, and they understand up in Toronto the situation with the snow. They are understanding about our goals. We’re not like a mom-and-pop; we have the big company behind us.”

Brad Higginbotham, a bell attendant at the St. Regis Aspen, said he’s looking forward to some better snowfall from a snowboarding and a financial standpoint. Around 2:30 p.m., he had just finished making a few runs on Ajax.

“It was nice once I was up there,” he said. “It’s a little slushy, but there’s definitely some snow. Not much is open, and the lifts take forever to get up. I took the Bell Mountain lift. It’s just slow.”

Higginbotham said crowds were extremely light.

“And the snow cover was a little better than it was at Snowmass, in my opinion. I went to Snowmass on Sunday,” he said.

Corey Enloe, general manager of the Sky Hotel, said the lodge had a good Thanksgiving weekend, with occupancy of around 80 percent Friday and Saturday. The hotel’s bar, 39 Degrees, also did well, he said.

This week is significantly slower, he said.

“We’re behind a bit compared with last year,” Enloe said. “Early December is soft, just like anywhere around town. The holiday bookings are continuing to pick up. We have a handful of rooms left to sell.”

The “snow hangover” that experts in the hospitality industry have been talking about is real, he said. Because last season was subpar in terms of overall snowfall – despite the good start – many would-be visitors are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“They are waiting to see if and when we will get snow,” Enloe said. “I’m still optimistic that this season is going to shape up. We’ve got a little bit of snow in the forecast. It’s going to come together.”

February bookings look solid, he said. January is slightly behind last year’s pace.

Enloe said he had a “fantastic” time skinning up the mountain and skiing down on Thursday.

“It was way better than I expected,” he said. “It’s amazing what (Aspen Skiing Co.) is able to do with the snowmaking.”