Resort officials high on Aspen Highlands |

Resort officials high on Aspen Highlands

Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Economics didn’t drive the Aspen Skiing Co.’s business decision to extend the ski season. Rather, company brass say it’s a gesture of good will.

And an expensive gesture, to be certain. It’s estimated that it will cost the Skico $100,000 to keep Highlands open the extra four days of April 19 and 20, and April 26 and 27, according to Rich Burkley, vice president of operations.

The Skico isn’t banking on a lot of new revenue to offset those operational expenses. Local ski passes will be honored and adult tickets will be $39 a day. Resort employees across the country will pay $12 if they show a picture pass.

But the lodging industry and the central reservations arm of the Skico, Stay Aspen Snowmass, will be marketing heavily to the Front Range to get travelers up here to enjoy the last weekend of the extended season.

Frontier Airlines will be making its debut into Aspen on April 26, which happens to be the last weekend of operation at Highlands. Fares are currently listed at $155 round-trip from Denver from that Saturday through Monday.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, said occupancy levels at local lodges are only 10 percent in April, leaving plenty of opportunity to capitalize on inexpensive room rates ” three times lower than an average daily night during the high season. Rooms are currently listed for as low as $109 a night and those are expected to go down in coming days.

“We are going to have some screaming deals,” Tomcich said, adding airline and lift tickets combined will be cheaper than what it would cost to rent a hotel room for one night during the winter.

Tomcich is currently working with lodging properties to offer packages for the April 26-27 ski weekend. An e-mail blast to all customers in the reservation agency’s database is set to go out soon highlighting the deals.

Tomcich said it’s a perfect marketing combination of low airfares, lift tickets and hotel rooms, along with record snow.

“We have the opportunity to accommodate people like never before,” he said, adding the first flight into Aspen on Frontier leaves Denver at 8:30 a.m. and arrives at 9:29 a.m. on April 26. “Just in time for Highlands to open at 10:30 a.m.”

The ski area will have three lifts open ” Exhibition, Loge and Deep Temerity ” from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Jeff Hanle, spokesman for Skico, will target Denver media outlets like The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, as well as the television stations, to get the word out that the resort is open for skiing.

“We will make a point to let them know we are open and have snow,” Hanle said, adding he keeps his relationships with Denver newscast meteorologists strong so they keep Aspen on the weather map.

Hanle recently attended a meteorologist meeting in Denver and routinely takes them out to lunch and dinner. They also come to Aspen where they are schmoozed on the hill with free lift tickets and other perks.

“It’s to keep them thinking about us first,” Hanle said. “If we get some visitors through editorial or the TV stations, that’s great because the money for marketing isn’t really going to pay for itself.”

Hanle said the Skico hopes to attract people from the Vail Valley with the $12 resort employee discount.

“We hope to get more people from the I-70 corridor who never have skied Highlands,” he said.

While the public relations will be a shot in the arm for Skico, it’s too difficult to quantify how much of an impact it will have on future business.

“That’s yet to be seen but it’s really about good will,” Hanle said.

Burkley said he put the proposal in front of Skico CEO Mike Kaplan in January with a full operational plan that involves everything it takes to keep the mountain running ” from ticket sales, food and beverage service, lifts, ski patrol, parking and much more.

It wasn’t until March 18 that the final decision was made.

“The month was still cold and snowy,” Burkley said. “The motivation was a thank you to the community and a celebration of snow.”

He added that it will take a lot of work during the week to keep the mountain in prime condition with tilling and grooming.

“You can’t just let the mountain sit,” he said.

Opening Highlands for two extra weekends will require about 60 people to keep the mountain operational. Most of the employees will be salaried positions and will come from Skico’s other three mountains, as well as Highlands.

“It’s a four-mountain mobilization,” Burkley said.

Skico executives will be serving food at the mid-mountain Merry Go Round restaurant, which will have a limited menu, focusing on barbecue outside.

Aspen Highlands will close as scheduled on April 6, along with Buttermilk Mountain. Aspen Highlands then will reopen for the last two weekends in April. Aspen Mountain and Snowmass Ski Area shut down their lifts April 13.

There will be a closing party on April 6 at Highlands. In true Aspen fashion, more parties are expected, which will surely be a boon for ZG Grill, located at the base of the mountain.

Burkley said for locals heading to the desert for an offseason excursion, Highlands is a solid detour.

“Take a left turn before you go to Moab,” he said.

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