Aspen Skiing Co. launches a new luxury division
ASPENX caters to wealthiest resort customers
Just when it seemed that Aspen had run out of strategies to cater to the uber-wealthy, Aspen Skiing Co. found a new way.
Skico launched a new division this season called ASPENX, which it bills as its “premium retail and experience brand.”
The company is selling exclusive winterwear it developed with Prada – the first in an envisioned series of partnerships with high-end fashion designers – as well as slightly less expensive ski clothing it developed on its own, launched with this winter’s inaugural Ajax Line of outerwear.
It’s offering a Snow Beach “club” at the top of Aspen Mountain on weekends through March. Customers basking in beach-themed cabanas can enjoy champagne served with paired courses every 30 minutes that range from caviar to black truffle pizza slices. “Package and reservation prices range from $300 to $4,800 depending on bottle selection and group size,” according to ASPENX promotional materials.
It’s offering wine-paired lunch at Buckhorn Cabin that includes first tracks on Aspen Mountain, guided tours with professional ski racers Wiley Maple and George Rodney and a decadent lunch and Burgundy wine tasting. “Following lunch, a snowcat will transport guests to the base of Aspen Mountain,” the ASPENX website says. The cost is $955 per participant.
The ASPENX store at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola and online provides a variety of brand products — from $18 plates to $95 pillows and a $125 Aspen Blondie’s cashmere pom stocking cap, all with Skico’s reworked aspen leaf logo.
Catering to the super wealthy isn’t anything new for Aspen or Aspen Skiing Co., but Skico’s prior efforts were “much more subtle,” said former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, who butted heads with Skico executives in the 1980s over ski pass and lift ticket pricing.
For example, the members-only Aspen Mountain Club was launched when the Sundeck was rebuilt in 2000, with memberships then ranging from $50,000 to $100,0000. But most people don’t even know the club – recently renamed the ASPENX Mountain Club – is there at all, Stirling noted.
ASPENX is more in the face of everyday skiers and riders. The red-and-white cabanas erected for the Snow Beach are hard to miss alongside the Sundeck.
“It sort of shouts what money can get you,” Stirling said.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said it is important to put ASPENX in context. It won’t define the company, he said. Instead, it’s a new effort in Skico’s quest to appeal to a wide customer base that ranges from people sporting duct tape to diamonds.
“It is a misstatement to say our marketing is overly focused or emphasizing the uber-wealthy,” Kaplan said. “It’s not what we do. I encourage you to look at our Instagram feed.”
Followers of the company on the social media platform, he said, will find a heavy dose of images touting Aspen Mountain’s 75th anniversary on Aspen Mountain this season, “a ton on sustainability” and several posts on the people of Aspen and equity.
“There’s one on Snow Beach,” he noted.
But Kaplan makes no apologies for Skico launching an initiative to appeal to the well-heeled clientele.
“ASPENX is really a diversification strategy,” he said. “Think of Aspen Skiing Co. as three main activities. One is Aspen-Snowmass — the resort operations and the ski school. That’s really the bulk of our marketing activities.
“The second is The Little Nell Hospitality Group.
“Third is new and it is ASPENX,” Kaplan said. “It’s something that’s been long talked about. How do we take our brand and our expertise and diversify beyond those two vertical (strategies) we’re in, beyond ski and hospitality? ASPENX is a place where we can experiment and diversify in a way that leverages who we are and our expertise.”
Skico is searching for a vice president and a marketing director for ASPENX. (Kaplan said the division would start with three executive level employees. Skico is also advertising for ASPENX call specialists, banquet servers and a social media and community manager. The business plan is a work in progress so there was no firm estimate of how many employees will be on the new division’s staff.)
“For now, it’s almost being incubated within the company,” Kaplan said. “As it develops it will branch out.”
Paula Crown, the wife of Skico managing partner Jim Crown, is “a lot of the energy behind” ASPENX, Kaplan said.
Crown, in promotional materials, said “ASPENX marks the start of a new era of innovation for the beloved destination.”
It’s not as though the wealthy just started coming to Aspen. There is an old, tired cliché that the billionaires chased out the millionaires. These days it would be more accurate to say the multi-billionaires are chasing the mere billionaires downvalley.
So, can Skico be faulted for trying to make a few extra bucks catering to a segment of its clientele that’s already coming to the valley? In the eyes of many locals of lesser means, the answer would likely depend on how it affects their experiences on the mountain.
Kaplan argued there is no adverse effect from ASPENX on less wealthy customers. The Buckhorn Cabin can still be rented for locals’ parties at a reasonable rate. No chairs on the patio of the Sundeck were sacrificed for the cabanas at Snow Beach. Skico is still committed to hosting free concerts at the base of its ski areas.
“We offer (experiences) in all sorts of ways and places with the duct tape crowd and we think there is opportunity to do some more of it for the diamond crowd that are looking for those experiences,” he said. “We think we can fill that opportunity in the marketplace in certain ways carefully and thoughtfully and in a way that meets a market need but does it our way — where it’s’ still the Aspen way, still sustainable.”
The Pitkin County commissioners granted approval in December for use of Buckhorn Cabin for what Skico vice president David Clark said would be “a handful of events.” Skico installed a temporary deck and spruced up the interior of the 160-square-foot, rustic cabin near the top of Aspen Mountain. Clark told the county commissioners that Skico’s use for the handful of ASPENX events would have “minimal” impact on rentals by the public for parties and gatherings. For the ASPENX events, Skico will haul in a food service trailer to provide a sanitary hand-washing station and it will place two portable toilets in the area behind the cabin.
Skico’s forays into high-end services have sometimes backfired from a marketing perspective. In April 1987, Skico announced that the next season it would charge the then-unthinkable price of $35 for a single-day lift ticket, an increase of 20% from the $29 it charged in 1986-87. Skico officials justified the increase by saying it considered Aspen Mountain the best in the industry so it should charge accordingly. Critics feared the high cost would drive away customers and labeled the move “Mercedes Benz” pricing. The label stuck, to the chagrin of Skico.
More recently, Skico raised hackles by closing a portion of the Silver Dip trail on Aspen Mountain in 2017 for exclusive use by ski school clients and a local real estate firm and its patrons. Half of the run was already occupied for the NASTAR course, but closing the remainder to semi-private use produced cries of foul.
The pricey Snow Beach club has already captured the attention of national media, in a not-so-flattering way. The New York Post cited the expensive club in one of its infamous Page Six items as an example of the “tony” Aspen resort.
In a Facebook post on an earlier Aspen Times article about Snow Beach, local resident Leah Fielding warned that Skico efforts to cater to the luxury market were moving away from what many visitors want here.
“A word to Aspen’s branding dept. — trying so hard to cater to luxury visitors is actually killing what has attracted the jetset here since the 50s. A chance to reconnect … with nature, with a unique community, with new outdoor adventures and activities,” Fielding wrote. “I still believe that’s the real reason why people come to Aspen. Creating an on-mountain VIP bottle service experience is just so cynical and so missing the point. Less is more.”
Stirling said he believes initiatives such as ASPENX have a “negligible” impact on average skiers and likely provides a benefit. Creating new programs for high-end clienteles creates another revenue stream for the company. But it also creates “super-gentrification,” he said.
“That’s the tradeoff,” Stirling said.
Kaplan emphasized the importance of raising revenues to fund capital improvements. The company has pursued an ambitious improvement plan the last couple of years despite reduced revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic. It spent $18.5 million to build the 43-unit affordable housing project in Basalt called The Hub at Willits.
This year it plans a $23 million upgrade to base-area facilities at Buttermilk and it will start the two-phase expansion into the Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain as well as a new chairlift to serve the terrain.
Kaplan also noted that Skico added $12 million to its payroll to increase the pay of all employees — those on salaries and wages — by $3 per hour.
“The $12 million pay increase for our staff comes out of this revenue being generated through all these experiences, especially these diamond experiences,” Kaplan said. “Not too much pressure on the duct tape experiences to generate all that revenue.”
Some locals might get queasy seeing Skico cater the uber-wealthy, but they would undoubtedly prefer to see capital improvements paid through offerings like the Snow Beach than hefty increases in ski pass prices.
Skico put the word out internally about ASPENX and its broader rebranding effort, featuring the new aspen leaf logo, during “Brand Camp” meetings for full-time employees in September. Kaplan estimated between 700 and 1,000 employees attended a session. He acknowledged there was some pushback along the lines of, “why are you spending money on these efforts when affordable housing has hit a crisis stage?” A significant amount of free market affordable housing has disappeared in recent years as it gets bought by second homeowners or rented short-term to tourists.
“I would say that feedback was housing, housing, housing and pay,” Kaplan said of the Brand Camp meetings. “We’re hearing that, but hearing it louder and hearing how acute it became definitely had an impact.”
The feedback helped lead to the $3 per hour pay increase, he said.
A veteran Skico employee, who talked on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, was aware of the company’s broader rebranding effort but not specifically about ASPENX. The employee questioned why the new initiatives are being pursued when there are so many challenges to provide people with a livable wage and challenges to cultivate a diverse workforce and clientele. The person noted that a Skico employee newsletter urged workers to take advantage of a local food bank if they were having trouble making ends meet.
Kaplan said launching ASPENX in no way detracts from its efforts to promote sustainability, diversity and equity.
“I don’t see it as a zero-sum game,” he said. “We have to work harder to be sure we’re not pigeonholed as ‘Oh, that place isn’t for me,’ whatever your skin color is or whatever your income level,” he continued. “That’s why we’re working hard on our Aspen Snowmass messaging. It’s not just the messaging but the substance.”
ASPENX appears to be here to stay but it is likely to evolve.
“What it becomes will become clearer over the next six to nine months,” Kaplan said.
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