Aspen Skiing Co.’s Kaplan assesses coronavirus hit to Skico and valley

Aspen Skiing Co. equipment moved snow away from beneath the Big Burn chairlift at Snowmass recently. Reducing the snow will allow the remainer to melt quicker and allow crews to replace the lift.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. plans to proceed with multiple capital improvement projects this summer despite losing a significant chunk of revenue due to the coronavirus crisis.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said in an interview Wednesday the replacement of the Big Burn chairlift at Snowmass, construction of a workforce housing project at Willits Town Center in Basalt and reroofing of the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain remain on the to-do list.

Those projects could infuse the middle and upper valley with much-needed capital at a time of economic uncertainty. The Big Burn replacement is estimated at $10.8 million, according to Skico’s Jeff Hanle, vice president of communication. The U.S. Forest Service granted approval in December to construct a six-passenger, high-speed chairlift. The current Big Burn chair was among Skico’s first generation of high-speed detachable lifts. After 33 years, it has reached its “operational lifetime,” the Forest Service determined.

Skico also has approval from Basalt to build a 43-unit affordable housing complex in Willits. Site work already has started on the project, which will provide 150 bedrooms. The cost of the project is about $19 million with construction and land acquisition, Hanle said.

Construction of affordable housing has a special exemption from a stay-at-home order Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued for the state.

Skico also has approval from Pitkin County to replace the roof on the Sundeck, a $1.8 million project.

Skico’s season came to an abrupt end March 14 when Polis ordered ski areas to cease operations to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Kaplan addressed the loss of revenue and other issues in an email interview.

Aspen Times: Do you have an estimate of how much business Aspen Skiing Co. lost because of the early closure, perhaps a range of percentages?

Mike Kaplan: The economic cost to our business has been massive. March typically accounts for more than one-third of our annual revenue. This year, because of an earlier Easter, the bulk of March business was going to come in the second half of the month, so this is worse than a bad snow year or a typical recession.

AT: Some ski area operators have been criticized for closing their seasonal housing complexes and advising workers to return to their more permanent homes. Has ASC allowed season workers to stay put?

MK: We have allowed our seasonal employees in Aspen Skiing Co. housing to stay put, and we’re not collecting any rent from them for the month of April, given the lack of available work. We’ve also allowed employees to break their leases without any penalties if they would rather leave.

AT: Uphilling has been popular and, with time, it appears people have practiced social distancing. Why was it important for company officials to continue to offer that option?

MK: We just couldn’t let all that good snow go to waste! Seriously, skiing and riding is our passion, this is North America’s first and best ski town, and uphilling is important to so many of us who live and work here. These days, it keeps us all healthy — and sane — more than ever. This is a time of profound disconnection. Helping people stay connected to the mountains, to the snow, and to their physical, athletic selves is something I view as a moral obligation to the community. We believe in living fully and in honoring the place where we live. As long as it can be done safely and users heed the warning to be extra cautious remembering that the slopes are closed and there are no ski patrol on duty, and of course with the support of health care experts, we will continue to allow uphilling on our slopes. Independence Pass is already seeing more hiker/biker/snowmobiler traffic than I’ve ever witnessed. Imagine how busy it would be if people did not have the option to uphill. So, the more options for getting outside here, the better. As long as people stay safe and give each other space, and residents of other communities heed the governor’s urging to not travel here (and to other mountain communities) to recreate it’s a great thing to have available.

AT: The snow has been pushed away from underneath the Big Burn Lift. Is that in anticipation of moving ahead with its replacement? Does ASC also plan to replace the roof of the Sundeck? Does this affect pursuit of Pandora’s?

Kaplan confirmed that Big Burn and Sundeck roof will proceed as planned as well as the Willits affordable housing project. The pursuit of approval for Pandora’s chairlift and terrain will not be affected.

MK: We are very fortunate to be owned by the Crown Family, who takes the long view. They have demonstrated their commitment to this community, to the employees, and to the brand for decades, but it really shows when times get tough. I’ve been in close contact with them since the outbreak, and the question they always ask is, “What can we do to cushion the impact on our employees and the community overall?” Their posture is to keep pressing forward with our capital projects to ensure we continue to lead the industry in terms of the quality of the experience. We want every guest to leave here feeling transformed, and we are not shying away from our commitment to that promise. We hope that by continuing to invest in this community, it will help restart the economy and instill confidence in others to follow suit.

AT: No one has a crystal ball but what is your senior staff’s expectation for business this summer and the 2020-21 winter?

MK: It will depend upon how quickly the infection rate begins to drop and people regain enough confidence to travel. June is certainly looking soft with the loss of Food & Wine and Ideas Festival and the two-week delay in the Aspen Music Festival and School. We are hopeful for July and August, but they are likely to be down. It’s a question of how much. It’s really too early to tell what’s going to happen next winter.

AT: Will ASC refund season pass holders for the unused portion of their passes?

MK: Refunds are not likely, as season passes are not sold on a per use basis. However, we are looking at what we can do to recognize the season was shortened and offer value to pass purchasers. We also want to wait and see what happens the rest of spring and remain committed to reopening if state and local officials lift their orders and are comfortable doing so. That seems to be less and less likely, but we are maintaining our optionality for Highlands just in case things change. This entire shutdown and set of state and county orders are unprecedented and fast-moving. It’s hard to remember, but it’s still only April 1!

AT: Any idea yet how this season’s abrupt end will affect season pass prices for next season?

MK: We planned to go on sale with season passes in mid-March, but that was pushed back based on the COVID outbreak. The team is finalizing their plan so stay tuned for an update in the coming weeks.

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