Kaplan: Aspen Skiing Co. staying open with precautions ‘is the right thing to do’
Aspen Skiing Co. weighed the moral, legal and business implications of operating during a pandemic and decided its best course of action is to keep the slopes open, president and CEO Mike Kaplan said Friday.
Kaplan said he didn’t want to overstate the importance of skiing, but felt it could be a welcome respite for dedicated skiers and snowboarders from the Roaring Fork Valley and customers still coming from out of town during a tough time.
“We think it is the right thing to do,” Kaplan said. “We see it as a vital public service to stay up and running.”
He stressed that Skico is following expert advice from health officials on how to keep its facilities clean to prevent spread of the coronavirus. That includes daily disinfecting of the cabins of the Silver Queen and Elk Camp gondolas and allowing customers to ride the gondolas as individuals or small groups without sharing the trip with strangers.
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Kaplan noted that Skico’s operating assumption is, “If we can, we will.” That applies to opening early, extending the season and operating during tough times whenever possible.
There’s little doubt that times got tough with the disclosure that 10 people tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus this week and that a community spread is anticipated in the Roaring Fork Valley. One ski instructor said it was like flipping a switch this week — it went from busy to virtually empty starting Wednesday.
The timing is unfortunate because full-time instructors have reached the number of hours where future lessons pay them at a higher rate, the ski pro said. This is the time of year where they make the money that gets them through offseason.
Skico officials have said the number of canceled bookings leaped this week. The exact implications aren’t clear yet.
“It’s hard to forecast,” Kaplan said. “We were pacing ahead for the last two weeks of March and the first weeks of April.”
The cancellations started rolling in with the cancellation of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, scheduled to start March 29. The clinic has been held annually in Snowmass for more than 30 years.
In addition to bookings, ski school has seen a “significant” amount of cancellations, Kaplan confirmed. He doesn’t anticipate that business will be picked up.
Ski pros who want to continue working will be offered positions in other departments in the company, he said. Some openings will be created shortly by the departure of foreign workers here on J-1 visas. In many cases, those workers are students in South American countries.
Many of those workers must undergo two weeks of isolation once they fly back to their home countries, said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications. Their sponsors — the companies that Skico works with — are advising the J-1 workers to return home sooner than they planned so they can start school on time after their two weeks of isolation, Hanle said.
Kaplan estimated Skico has 100 J-1 workers in a variety of departments. Despite losing employees and customers, Skico’s intent right now is to keep all four of its ski areas operating until their scheduled closure dates.
Buttermilk is set to close April 5, Aspen Highlands on April 12 and Aspen Mountain and Snowmass on April 19.
“If we shut down, think of the impact to small business owners here,” Kaplan said of the prospect of pulling the plug on the season.
In a news conference Friday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis credited the state’s ski industry for taking precautions to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“Our ski resorts are taking steps to ensure that skiing parties are not mixed with other skiing parties in a close gondola and additionally, as feasible, taking that step on chairlifts,” Polis said.
He said enjoying outdoor recreation in Colorado remains “a great thing to do” during the virus pandemic. “We encourage that in coming days and weeks.”
Polis has drawn some criticism on social media for advising people 60 years and older to avoid the Colorado mountains. Kaplan said he had no beef with the comments by Polis and would defer to him and his experts in the health field.
The spread of the coronavirus is affecting the entire ski industry and putting an abrupt damper on what was shaping up to be a second consecutive stellar season. Overall occupancy in 300 properties was up about 1% in February and advance bookings were solid for March and April, according to DestiMetrics, which tracks occupancy and bookings trends for multiple clients, including Aspen-Snowmass. In addition, revenues were up 5% year-to-year through the end of February.
There would have to be a drastic collapse in business for the remainder of the season to reduce revenue below last year’s level, said Tom Foley, senior vice president for business operations and analytics for Inntopia, the company that operates DestiMetrics.
Occupancy, on the other hand, will fall compared with last season, he said.
Foley stressed that ski business might not tank because of dedicated day skiers and snowboarders that will still want to hit the slopes. Destination business — customers who come for an overnight stay — could be another story. Consumer confidence edged up in February, but conditions have obviously changed drastically since the last week of February, when the stock market started its rollercoaster ride.
Foley said he wouldn’t speculate on the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. DestiMetrics will compile data on occupancy trends next week.
Last season was a record for Skico and the Colorado ski industry and the fourth best for the national ski industry. This season was right on par. Foley said “the snow was fantastic,” particularly in places such as Colorado and Utah, “the economy was epic” and “visitation was great.” The only downside was dry conditions in the California mountains. Now, the great start to the season appears to be a long gone memory among the property managers, marketers and analysts he has talked to.
“To a person, I think the mood is chaotic,” Foley said.
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Aspen residents, workers up and down the valley and area businesses could benefit from the city of Aspen’s recently passed $5 million emergency relief and economic stimulus package.