Skico’s Kaplan urges Aspen to embrace Ikon Pass holders, quit blaming them for lift lines
Aspen Skiing Co. officials used an annual gathering of the local business community to revel in last ski season and urge a friendly crowd of a few hundred people to embrace Ikon Pass holders in coming seasons.
“We are going to bask a little bit in the glow of last year. I don’t know about you but I’m still savoring it,” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said at the Afternoon Blend, a popular mixer hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
He said 2018-19 was the longest ski season ever in Aspen at 168 days. Two skiers logged 167 days on the slopes, he said. One unnamed skier, not on the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, logged a record 115 laps in Highland Bowl.
Skier visits at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk also set a record. Visits were up about 20% from the prior season, but — as Kaplan pointed out — 2017-18 was “stinky” because of lack of snow.
Skico and the community worked hard to bounce back from a bad snow year by offering discounts and by making the slopes available to purchasers of the Ikon Pass, which is offered by Skico’s sister resort operator, Alterra Mountain Co. The Ikon Pass provided purchasers with five or seven days collectively on Aspen-Snowmass slopes, depending on the version. It also offered access to numerous other resorts.
Kaplan said opening access to the Ikon Pass “was not a reaction to bad snow.” He labeled it a “resiliency strategy” designed to attract the next generation of skiers and snowboarders.
He displayed a slide that showed 27% of Ikon Pass users were between ages 25 and 34 compared with 19% of Skico’s overall customers. In addition, 13% of Ikoners were younger than 18 compared with 3% of customers overall.
About 70% of Ikon Pass users were new to Aspen and many were from the Front Range of Colorado, according to Skico’s stats. The pass “was a success” and helped Skico achieve its objective of drawing a more diverse customer base, according to Kaplan.
Nevertheless, Ikon customers weren’t welcomed by everyone and were vilified by a vocal minority, Kaplan said. A slide showed the “Stop Ikonizing Aspen” sticker that appeared last season.
“I call this blatant snobbery,” Kaplan said. “This is not who we are.”
He contended Ikoners were unfairly blamed for weekend crowding last season. To prove his point, he dove into the numbers on the fabulous powder Sunday of March 3, when the Deep Temerity chairlift was swamped once the Bowl and other expert terrain opened. People complained about 40-minute lift lines.
Kaplan said there were 3,420 skiers and snowboarders at Highlands that day. Skico knows the mix of local passholders, Ikon Pass holders and skiers who purchased lift tickets, including those who showed up for a specific competition that day.
A 40-minute lift line equates to about 800 skiers at the Deep Temerity lift. Extrapolating the mix of customers that day, more than half were local passholders, Kaplan said, and 129 were Ikon Pass holders. The balance was buyers of lift tickets.
The lift line would have been 36 minutes without Ikon Pass holders, Kaplan said. Ikoners added four minutes to the wait on a day that anger spilled over against them.
“We’re all the problem,” he said.
Kaplan urged the audience to “embrace” Ikon holders “so we become their place of choice forever more.” He made the same plea last month in a presentation to the Aspen City Council.
Following are other tidbits offered by Kaplan and other Skico executives during about 45 minutes of a presentation:
• Kaplan said he couldn’t talk specifically about Skico’s plan to expand Aspen Mountain into the Pandora’s terrain because a quorum of Pitkin County Commissioners was present. They are reviewing the plan. The commissioners were deadlocked 2-2 last week on granting the zoning needed for that expansion. A formal vote was delayed until next week to let Skico assess its path. While Kaplan didn’t get into specifics, he hinted company isn’t giving up on the expansion goal.
“We can’t be moving backwards and shrinking our boundary on our four mountains,” he said.
• Kaplan also expressed hope that the Lift One Plan with lodges and relocated chairlift further down the mountain will come to fruition. “It is the best plan we have ever seen for that area,” he said. A key party in the plan has withdrawn from participation.
• Katie Ertl, senior vice president for mountain operations, said Skico would try several “ease of access opportunities” at its ski areas to resolve crowding. Tools include working with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on direct buses to Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk from the Brush Creek/Highway 82 lot; a parking app for smartphones that shows when parking at ski area bases is full and available; and installing more way-finding signs.
• Skico is looking at adding chairs to increase the uphill capacity of the High Alpine Lift at Snowmass and Cloud 9 Lift at Aspen Highlands, according to Ertl. Each lift’s capacity would increase from 1,200 to 1,800 skiers per hour. “It’s really exciting with High Alpine. We’ve got so much terrain up there,” Ertl said. The lift provides access to the Hanging Valley Wall area, which requires a short hike.
• Snowmaking was added farther up the slope at Buttermilk and pipe was replaced at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands. However, it looks doubtful that Skico will be able this summer to expand snowmaking at Aspen Mountain to cover the upper mountain, even if county approval is granted.
• Wi-fi will be available at every on-mountain restaurant except Up For Pizza at Snowmass.
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The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will scale back bus service for a second time this month on Monday. A proposal to temporarily cease operations was rejected by the board of directors on Friday.