Plenty of rooms in Aspen for the holidays
December 6, 2008
ASPEN ” With less than three weeks before Christmas, it’s becoming clear just how tough the holiday season could be for Aspen’s tourism industry.
A sample survey of lodging properties showed some won’t fill for the holidays for the first time in years. Others will fill, but it was a tougher sell and they won’t have waiting lists like years past.
Chuck Frias has managed tourist accommodations in Aspen for more than 30 years and his company now handles hundreds of condominiums and single-family homes. He said this holiday season will be the worst he has witnessed since 1976, the drought year.
“This year we’ve got dozens and dozens of properties sitting empty,” Frias said. “If we ended up at 20 percent off, I’d be quite happy.”
That is a common finding at lodges, hotels and condo projects around town. The period between Christmas and New Year’s Day is typically swamped. This year, late arriving travelers gambling on finding discounted rooms could easily score them.
The next occupancy report for lodges in Aspen and Snowmass Village is expected to be released Monday. The last report, issued Nov. 15, showed this season’s advance bookings lagging significantly behind last season through Jan. 10.
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Travelers aren’t canceling holiday reservations, but the phones simply haven’t rang as often.
“We haven’t had any large cancellations for December,” said Mark Hoffman, controller for the 53-room Molly Gibson and 45-room Hotel Aspen. “We’re still light for December. Ballparking it ” we’re off 20 percent from last year.”
He noted that it isn’t a fair comparison because superb snow conditions boosted occupancy rates above normal last December. Nevertheless, business is below average for this month and the soft bookings carry into the holidays. This is the third year Hoffman has been with the hotels, and the first year he has seen open rooms between Christmas and New Year’s. The hotels had a five-day minimum stay in place for the holidays but dropped that requirement and offered discounts to try to fill rooms and increase revenues.
Unfortunately, Hoffman said, Aspen is a destination resort that doesn’t attract many travelers who drive in at the last minute. Frias agreed, noting there isn’t much of a chance of scoring last-minute reservations over the holidays for the condos and homes he manages. Families and groups would have difficulty finding affordable airfare and they typically need more planning time.
Frias said the rental market is usually stable and avoids volatile swings from one year to the next. The recovery after 9/11, for example, came relatively quickly. But this economic downturn is more severe.
“It’s affected the affluent travelers more than the others,” Frias said.
The number of calls coming in from travelers dropped off as the fall progressed, reflecting the steady diet of bad economic news, he noted.
The St. Regis Aspen hotel, one of the town’s largest, also is feeling a pinch this month, but not as severely as some other properties. General Manager Senih Geray said he is confident he will fill the 179 rooms and suites during the holiday period, between Dec. 22 and Jan. 3 ” but he won’t have waiting lists like prior years. Right now, he said he can count the vacant rooms during the holidays on both hands.
Geray noted that travelers are booking their reservations later than usual this year.
That is a trend that is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, he said. Numerous travel-industry observers have noted that vacationers are waiting longer to book their trips. They are assessing their financial situations, shopping for deals or both.
Geray said the St. Regis managed full occupancy during the holidays without slashing prices.
“We stand firm on the rates,” he said.
The hotel also has a 60-day cancellation policy.
Joe Raczak, general manager of the North of Nell condominiums, said his property also will be full during the holidays.
“I think with my location, I’m a little insulated,” Raczak said.
North of Nell is located at the base of Aspen Mountain, making it a popular choice. However, like the St. Regis, the North of Nell didn’t have much of a waiting list this Christmas ” something that Raczak said is unusual.
Raczak said North of Nell didn’t experience many cancellations for the holidays, but a fair number of Aussies canceled plans to come to Aspen in January after their dollar plummeted.
“A lot of them just had to bail,” he said.