Aspen retail economy gradually improved during first quarter, kicking off rebound

Report: All metrics point to summer being quite busy in Aspen Snowmass

Financial and industry data for the first quarter of 2021 aren’t exactly a portrayal of a thriving local retail economy, but they also show that a recovery is in motion.

A report issued Monday by the city of Aspen’s finance department was a mixed bag. It showed the hardest hit retail sectors January-through-March were restaurants and accommodations, with their respective sales totals respectively down 27.1% and 27% from the same three months in 2020. On the brighter side, of the 12 other industries tracked by city, 10 saw sales increases in this year’s first quarter over January through March 2020, the report showed.

“While sales are pacing even with quarter 1 of 2020 in total, the city’s two largest industries — accommodations and restaurants — continue to lag behind, each down about 27% to date, and are being offset by the recoveries experienced in other industries,” wrote Anthony Lewin, who is the city of Aspen’s senior financial tax auditor, in the report.

Overall retail sales improved each month of the quarter. January accounted for $63.3 million, February rose to $70.8 million, and March’s haul was $105.4 million, according to the report.

That added up to $239 million in sales for the quarter, nearly even with the $241 million rung up in January through March of 2020. Each of those first quarters was impacted by pandemic-related health orders, travel restrictions and shutdowns. The first quarter of 2019, when there was no pandemic, recorded $268.4 million in sales, according to older city finance reports.

“In January and February, we rely on people from Brazil, Japan, Australia, and it’s such a big market that time of the year, and those people are coming for three or four weeks,” said Lisa LeMay, regional manager for Aspen T-Shirt Co. and also one of the retailer representatives on the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors. “Losing them dramatically impacted retail in January and the first half of February. The second half of February and March were strong, and going into this new quarter in April has been strong.”

Fewer and less restrictive health orders and an increase in the number of available vaccines will do that.

Pitkin County businesses, except restaurants, were under Red level restrictions starting Dec. 21; the Pitkin County Board of Health put restaurants in the Red zone prohibiting indoor dining starting Jan. 17. The color-coded restrictions have become less severe with waning case counts; Pitkin County currently is under Green level guidelines permitting restaurants to operate at full capacity.

Also on the rebound are commercial airlines, which are stepping up their game as restrictions loosen. Commercial travel was nearly nonexistent last summer. Not so for the coming summer, according to local tourism and airline consultant Bill Tomcich, who said this summer’s commercial flight schedule is as busy as it’s ever been at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

The busy-ness starts the first week of June, when American begins to offer five daily flights between Aspen and Dallas-Fort Worth, two daily each from Chicago and Los Angeles, and one daily from Phoenix, plus a new Saturday flight from Austin, Texas. United will have Denver service seven times a day along with two daily flights from Los Angeles and Houston, and one daily from Chicago and San Francisco.

The latest tourism summary from Stay Aspen Snowmass and Aspen Skiing Co., released Friday, said summer bookings made by this time of the year already have exceeded 2019, “which is a remarkable statistic considering all the events and groups would have been on the books this time two years ago,” the report said.

“All metrics point to summer being quite busy here in Aspen Snowmass and around the country. Vaccination rates and consumer confidence are on the rise,” the report said.

Recent economic data also show:

• The lodging occupancy rate in March was approximately 63%. That was 30% better than March 2020 and 14.7% off March 2019, according to Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

• Aspen lodges have the most expensive rates in Colorado, but they actually went down in the first quarter of 2021. According to the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, Aspen hotels charged an average of $687.97 per night from January through March, lower than the $731.05 in the same period in 2020.

• The number of overall Aspen short-term rental bookings in both January and February were lower than levels for the same two months in 2019 and 2020, according to the city’s report. March, however, showed short-terms rebounding with 11% advantage over March 2019 and nearly on par with the approximately 1,800 bookings in March 2020. Booked short-term overnights totaled about 55,000 in March, lower than the 60,000 overnights in March 2020 and 62,000 overnights in March 2019.

• Pitkin County collected $6.5 million in sales taxes in March, better than the same month in both 2019 and 2020.

• The county’s unemployment rate hovered around the 6% mark in January, February and March, a figure that has been closer to 2.5% in the same period in 2019 and 2020. The jobless rate peaked at 24% in April 2020.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly reported that Delta will have service to Aspen this summer. It will not.