Aspen, Skico looking for a comeback from COVID this winter | AspenTimes.com
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Aspen, Skico looking for a comeback from COVID this winter

Advance reservations are favorable but worker shortage looms

Snow cats groom the Little Nell ski run as snow blows from the snowmakers in preparation for opening day on Aspen Mountain on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. Although Aspen Mountain is is still not accommodating top to bottom runs as of now, they did increase the amount of terrain open to 104 acres. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After a ski season cut short by the state-ordered lockdown in March 2020 and the 2020-21 season limited by COVID-19 restrictions, Aspen Skiing Co. is hoping for something closer to normal this winter.

“I think we’re looking optimistically at this season,” said Katie Ertl, Skico senior vice president of mountain operations. “The city of Aspen and town of Snowmass Village are showing excellent occupancy and our ski school reservations are tracking very strong.”

Last season, international business was nearly non-existent because of global travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Aspen was hit particularly hard in January, when there is usually a swarm of Australian visitors staying for two or more weeks at a time.



While vaccines have brightened prospects for domestic and some international travel, restrictions remain in place for Aussies. January will be “in play” and necessary to fill in other ways, Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan told elected officials in Basalt in a recent meeting.

Skier visits at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk dropped about 3.5% last season compared to the shortened 2019-20 season.




There’s reason for optimism this season. Occupancy in December, February and March is up by double digits compared to last season.

The occupancy rate for November through April was 36.7% as of Oct. 31, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central bookings agency operated by Skico. That is 88.5% ahead of last year and 7% better than two years ago. The occupancy rate typically creeps up with time as many travelers choose to book closer to their travel times.

Skico is always looking to throw a party and hold other special events to spur business. This year will feature various celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the company and of the dedication of the original Lift 1.

“I do think we’re looking for a stronger winter.” — Katie Ertl, Aspen Skiing Co.

As long as it snows, the prospects for a strong recovery in tourism look solid. It’s other numbers that have Skico officials cringing on the dawn of ski season.

“I do think we’re looking for a stronger winter,” Ertl said. “What we’re struggling with is housing and how it affects labor.”

Skico has received a record number of applications from job seekers. However, it’s having unprecedented trouble converting applicants into employees because of an acute housing shortage. The company raised starting pay to $17 from $15 per hour this season and also boosted pay for second-, third- and fourth-year employees. It set the minimum salary for year-round, full-time employees at $50,000 annually. However, higher pay only goes so far when the few vacant residences are well out of the price range of hourly workers.

“We can’t buy our way out of this by wages alone,” Skico chief human resource officer Jim Laing said in a recent meeting.

Skico added 150 beds in its new Hub at Willits affordable housing project this year. The company will also rent a hotel in Glenwood Springs for affordable housing and provide bus tickets for employees to commute to the upper valley.

Even so, there is less housing available in the region for workers this season, according to Laing. Residences that were available in past years to workers who teamed up to cover the rent have been gobbled by people fleeing urban areas for the mountains. The urban refugees can afford to pay much higher rates.

“The beds have been evaporating very quickly from the valley,” Laing said. “They’re not going away, they’re just going to different people. There’s a lot of reasons for that. COVID is a big one. A lot of people came and they never left.”

While the housing shortage is a long-term problem, Skico and other employers face the immediate challenge of filling enough positions to deliver quality service.

“We really want to keep our service level high and how do we do that when we’re looking for staff?” Ertl asked.

Skico’s answer is to get creative. It will restructure some positions as “guest specialists.” The workers might start the day working at ski rental shops, then help out at on-mountain restaurants during the day and return to rental shops in the afternoon.

“We have to figure out how to do this with fewer heads, fewer beds,” Laing said.

COVID precautions

While social distancing requirements because of the COVID-19 pandemic have eased, some precautions will still be required at Aspen Snowmass ski areas this winter.

Aspen Skiing Co. is requiring all of its employees to show proof of full vaccination before they can work.

Guests who are age 12 and older will be required to show proof of vaccination to eat at full-service fine dining such as Cloud Nine, Alpin Room at High Alpine, Sam’s Restaurant sit-down service and indoors at Lynn Britt Cabin.

Skico’s lodging properties — Limelight Aspen and Snowmass as well as The Little Nell — require proof of vaccination at check-in.

All indoor locations will require masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests. “Gondola cabins and tent area (except when two or more sides are open) will be treated as indoor spaces and masks will be required,” Aspen Skiing Co.’s website said.

Masks will not be required in outdoor lift lines unless mandated by the Pitkin County Public Health Department.

Empty “ghost lanes” may still be utilized to encourage social distancing. Guests are encouraged to use online commerce for products and services whenever possible.

Skico’s full COVID-19 operating procedures can be found at http://www.aspensnowmass.com/safety/covid19-operating-procedures.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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