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Aspen Skiing Co. working on system to keep skiers aware of parking, lift line congestion

Skiers get a treat as they wait for the Silver Queen Gondola on opening day of the 2019-20 season. Ski area operators are working on protocols for the 2020-21 season when social distancing will be required.
Aspen Times file

While a lot of protocols for ski season remain up in the air, Aspen Skiing Co. is positive about one aspect of running a resort during a pandemic.

“Communication is going to be key,” Skico senior vice president of strategic planning Rich Burkley said at a recent community meeting teleconference in Aspen. “Letting guests and employees know what’s going on is critical to any of our plans working.”

There will be pinch points this winter at parking lots, bus stops and lift lines, particularly in base areas, according to Burkley. To avoid bunching people together, Skico wants to provide information in real time, much like the Pitkin Alert texts and emails people can sign up to receive on public safety issues.

“I’ve talked to a couple of people at the county about how the county does its text alerts, some system along those lines so we could send it to a large body of people in a very short period of time, real time, so we can control where we’re creating congestion,” Burkley said.

Messages could advise people, for example, when the parking lot is full at Aspen Highlands on a powder weekend morning. Other messages could suggest skiers and snowboarders at Aspen Mountain ride Lift 1A because the Silver Queen Gondola is crowded.

Buses won’t be capable of delivering as many skiers and snowboarders as they have in the past. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is allowing a maximum of 15 passengers per bus to meet social distancing requirements. That’s about one-third or less of capacity. RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said last week his staff has been meeting with Skico to discuss skier shuttle operations for 2020-21.

Realistically, Burkley said, more people will be driving to the slopes this season. Or at least they will be attempting to drive to the slopes. Skico doesn’t have additional parking spots to develop. Parking is always a premium at Aspen and Snowmass Village and often at Aspen Highlands. Buttermilk-Tiehack has its own unique parking issues related to the setup for the Winter X Games.

Burkley said the company would focus on providing additional areas where vehicles can unload and pick up skiers and snowboarders without parking. It will attempt to use its communication system with customers to try to spread them among the ski area bases and to specific parts of the bases.

“We’re a very lucky resort. We have 13 base areas, so we’re probably going to be opening, for instance, Two Creeks (at Snowmass Ski Area) as early as possible to relieve pressure from (the Village Express lift) and (the Elk Camp Gondola),” Burkley said. “All of the areas that we have (will be utilized) so we can spread guests across the mountains.”

Skico also is working to eliminate pinch points at ticket offices and ski schools by encouraging use of advanced purchases and advanced completion of waivers. Menus at restaurants are online and the emphasis will be on grab-and-go food.

Skico officials have said their ski pass options and pricing for people eligible for chamber of commerce discounts will be released in September. That process is taking longer than usual because new options might be introduced as an incentive to get season passholders to avoid weekends, particularly in the busiest times of the winter.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has yet to announce specific guidelines for ski areas to follow this winter. Ski area operators are assuming chairlift capacity will be limited for social distancing. Skico has avoided loading unrelated parties into enclosed gondola cars this summer and that is expected to continue in winter.

Burkley acknowledged that plans are changing every day and will continue to do so. Safety of customers and employees is always the top priority, he said.

“We are really committed to providing as much skiing and snowboarding as we can,” Burkley said. “We know this is not going to be a normal season. We’re going to start asking for patience, flexibility and understanding because there’s going to be a lot of changes. It’s definitely not going to be business as usual.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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