Aspen ski prices don’t hit nerve they used to
December 3, 2007
ASPEN ” When the Aspen Skiing Co. charged $42 to ski a very humble amount of terrain on Thanksgiving weekend, anyone with a sense of recent Aspen history had to laugh.
Twenty years ago, the Skico’s pricing policies sparked a community uproar that drew hundreds of people to rallies and protests. Part of the controversy was the Skico’s decision to jack up its daily lift ticket price at Aspen Mountain to the unprecedented amount of $35. It was the start of a full-fledged effort to go for the high-end niche of the ski market.
The natives also were restless about a decision by the Skico brass to raise a validation fee to ski on Aspen Mountain from $10 per outing to $20. The validation fees were in effect 77 days that season, during Christmas week and much of February and March. The validation fee was tacked on top of a base season pass fee proposed at $475.
Ski bums went ballistic. Some lodge owners decried the pricing as a slap in the face of middle-class customers. Elected officials promised action. National, regional and local media derided the pricing as elitist. And eventually, a Skico president lost his job over the fiasco.
Ski bums organized rallies to voice their displeasure over both pricing decisions. Rallies were held at Copper Street Pier. T-shirts were printed with the universal “no” symbol over a Skico pricing sheet. Another design had a picture of an “Aspen skier” with a screw sticking out his back.
Organizers circulated a petition that declared, “We, the undersigned, agree that the elitist pricing policy of the Aspen Skiing Company is detrimental to the spirit and prosperity of the Aspen community.”
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Even before the pricing decisions, the Skico had a sour relationship with much of the community.
“There was a lot of distrust. There was animosity” during the mid-1980s, Jeanette Darnauer said last week. She was an Aspen journalist who was hired as the Skico’s director of public relations in 1985 to help repair the relationship with the community.
Aspenites bristled at the idea of living in a company town, she said. They openly criticized everything the Skico did, in letters to the editor and at public forums. “It was kind of like the Ski Company couldn’t do a lot right,” she said.
Darnauer, who now owns a marketing and public relations firm in Aspen, said she felt like she made progress repairing the relationship until the pricing controversy hit. She and a handful of others on the Skico management team in 1987 argued that the community wouldn’t accept the big change in the season pass price. The $35 lift ticket price would only be acceptable if the pass price was little changed from the prior year, she argued.
She was overruled. “I warned them that there would be an outcry and there was,” she said.
The furor was severe enough that the Skico reversed its decision on pass pricing in less than a week and admitted “a mistake was made.” The company reduced the base price of its season pass to $450 and returned the validation fee to $10 per day for the busy times of the season.
Skico officials wouldn’t yield on the $35 daily lift ticket price. They reasoned Aspen was the best and should be priced accordingly.
Despite the partial concession on pricing, the controversy kept simmering.
Bill Stirling, Aspen mayor from 1983 to 1991, was openly critical of Skico pricing, following arguments raised by former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Kinsley. They contended that there should be affordable skiing at resorts that use public lands since that property already belonged to the people.
Before the 1987 controversy, Stirling took a petition signed by thousands of Aspenites to a congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., to press for affordable skiing.
He recalled Thursday that the managing partner for the Skico at the time, Tom Klutznick, called him at his Washington, D.C., hotel the day Stirling was scheduled to testify and asked him not to do it. Stirling ignored the plea, but the congressmen wouldn’t intervene on the pricing issue. “We couldn’t get the political will,” Stirling said.
The mayor continued to be a thorn in the Skico’s side on pricing and was critical of the company during the 1987 debate. He argued then that the Skico’s pricing affected all of Aspen ” affordable pass prices create content employees, he said, and the single-day lift ticket price plays a major role in a resort’s image. The $35 ticket “gave the impression that it was too elite,” he said.
Stirling and other protesters weren’t content with the rollback in pass prices. They charged that the Skico management ignored the community and the owners, in Chicago, were out of touch with Aspenites.
Jerry Blann, then the Skico president, resigned by fall 1987 over the pricing brouhaha. The owners agreed to establish a 25-person community advisory committee that met twice per year to discuss issues and keep a dialogue with the Skico management.
Stirling, a member of the committee, recalled that it was intact for a few years before it dissolved. One result of the committee meetings was the two-day-per-week ski pass, which proved to be popular and remains available 20 years later. Stirling and Darnauer both said they lobbied for that pass.
Fast forward to 2007. Not so much as a whimper was heard in Aspen when the Skico announced its daily lift ticket price would be $87 or when it charged $42 at the start of the season to ski three runs on Aspen Mountain or lower Fanny Hill at Snowmass.
Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle, who is in his eighth year in his position, said he’s learned to expect an “initial hit” of scrutiny when the Skico announces its prices. “We have a couple of weeks of stories on it,” he said.
He said the Skico’s clientele doesn’t expect to pay the same amount as they would pay at a day-skier area. Nevertheless, publicity about the overall expense of a ski trip to Aspen ” including air fare, lodging and food ” “continues to haunt us,” Hanle said.
As for pass prices, he said there is general grumbling every season about an increase. But locals who ski a lot rave about its value, he said.
The Skico offers a wide variety of passes, perhaps as a result of the price war of 1987. The full-season pass was sold this season for $1,239 when purchased by the earliest deadline. The two-day-per-week pass was $879 at the most highly discounted rate.
The single-day lift ticket jumped $5 from $82 to $87. Discounts are available for multiday purchases.
That highest daily ticket accounts for about 10 percent of lift ticket sales, Hanle said. Yet it grabs the most attention. It is the marquee price, despite the best efforts of Aspen and other top resorts to divert attention from it.
While that high-priced ticket doesn’t account for a lot of sales, it is important from another aspect. “Everything else is based off of it,” Hanle noted.
That’s why the Skico isn’t willing to duck the bad publicity and offer a more modestly-priced high-season ticket.
So why doesn’t anyone care about Skico prices anymore, or at least not care enough to comment?
“It’s a different time. It’s a different company. It’s a different community. It’s a different relationship,” Darnauer said..
Darnauer wasn’t advocating that people protest prices, she was just noting the differences.
While Aspen-area residents might not exactly be immune to higher prices and a high cost of living, those aspects of resort life have become more widely accepted, she said.
Darnauer also credited the Skico for “reaching out to the community” better than it once did.
Then there are the changes to Aspen. Ski bums simply cannot make it here like they used to given the housing prices and general cost of living. “Maybe the old ski bums bought businesses or moved away,” Darnauer said.
Stirling believes locals are content. The pass prices are reasonable enough to placate them. They have easy access to the four ski areas on free buses. And they don’t have to stand in lift lines.
“They like how uncrowded it is up here,” he said.
Stirling and Darnauer also believe society as a whole is more docile and less willing to engage in activism. Darnauer pointed to the relative inactivity on major issues, like the war in Iraq and global warming.
“People just aren’t speaking out as much,” concluded Stirling.