Hurt by 9-11, yes ? but we will survive | AspenTimes.com

Hurt by 9-11, yes ? but we will survive

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For a destination resort dependent on travelers flying to town, the Aspen/Snowmass economy has fared surprisingly well since last September 11.

“I don’t see the local economy in any kind of negative trend,” said Howie Mallory, executive vice president of Community Banks in Aspen and Basalt. “It is solid and moving forward.”

It is true that skier visits were down, that local sales tax revenues were down, that real estate prices dropped, and that plenty of local businesses had to pinch pennies. But the winter and summer tourism seasons were still better than many had feared in the immediate wake of last year’s terrorist attacks.

“In the time leading up to December, the bookings were basically at a standstill,” said Brett Huske, president of the Snowmass Village Resort Association. “But around the 10th of January, the dike broke and we saw an onslaught of reservations.”

And, though terrorism experts fully expect another attack of some kind on U.S. soil, the airline industry is teetering on the edge of solvency, and war with Iraq seems likely, it could still be a relatively routine winter ski season.

“The booking pattern is closer to normal this year,” said Huske.

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Today, the 9-11 attacks seem to be viewed, at least in a business context, as an accelerator to trends that were already in progress. The economy had already started to soften, the “funny money” pouring out of the stock market and into Aspen real estate was slowing, and people had been waiting longer and longer to book vacations.

But there was no doubt that the attacks cut into some segments of the local economy much more sharply than others. Group and corporate business, for example, immediately declined after 9-11.

“The incentive travel and corporate entertaining business was significantly affected due to major corporations instituting a travel ban on all nonessential travel, for not only executives but managers throughout the company,” said Philip Whittingham, the owner of Ute City Productions. Whittingham’s company books group corporate business (including “incentive travel” for managers and sales representatives who achieve corporate goals) into Aspen/Snowmass.

But, Whittingham points out, that travelers still came to town last winter.

“Our numbers were not that bad as a town because the FIT, or frequent independent traveler, still came,” he said.

And many of the those independent travelers were risk-averse skiers and snowboarders, who had enough time to wait and see how things turned out before driving or flying to the resort.

“I think right after 9-11, as far as the tourism industry goes, the ski industry was in one of the better positions to be in,” said Kristin Rust, spokesperson for Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association for the state’s 24 ski areas. “We still had a couple of months before we opened. And while we saw a slowdown of reservations, we did not see an immediate and significant drop in visitors as did places like Disneyworld.”

And so Aspen/Snowmass had a ski season after all, albeit one also affected by the economy and a lack of snow.

This summer, the Aspen Music Festival struggled at first to meet its sales goals, but that was probably more a result of the fires around Colorado than 9-11.

“Our season started slow and it seemed to be directly related to the fires,” said Laura Smith, the director of marketing and corporate support for the Aspen Music Festival and School. By summer’s end, the festival’s sales were even with last year. And if anything, 9-11 may have given people more interest in the music festival.

“People are connecting more with the art form and finding solace in the music,” Smith said.

And this summer, while perhaps slower than years past, still saw plenty of people driving into the local high country.

“What happened in the summer was that perhaps because of the reduction in flights, the cost of the flights, or the fear of flying, we saw a greater percentage of visitors driving this year,” said Huske.

And today, Aspen is still vulnerable to the vagaries of the airline industry, especially as United Airlines is struggling to stay out of bankruptcy.

“A big concern for us is if United has a problem delivering people to Denver and United Express,” said Mallory. “It is not a great business model to have most of your business dependent on one airline.”

In the valley’s key real estate and construction sectors, 9-11 created an immediate lull and a slowdown, but the market is still fairly strong.

“The first thing we saw in the real estate market was pretty much a freeze for a two- to three-month period,” said Evan Boenning, a partner at the Aspen Real Estate Company. “People had to assess what they were going to do, whether they were going to stay in the cities. And meanwhile, the economy continued to go down.”

But there are still two large, local projects moving forward, the new Hyatt fractional-ownership project in downtown Aspen and the proposed Base Village project in Snowmass Village.

Either one of those projects could have stalled on the drawing boards in wake of 9-11.

“When it happened, it stunned everybody,” said Paul Shepherd, a vice president with Intrawest, which is planning to build Base Village. “And when we got back to work, we reflected, we counted our blessings, but we said let’s keep moving forward. We still feel bullish on Aspen/Snowmass.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]