Skico eyes turnaround |

Skico eyes turnaround

Carolyn SackariasonAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Coming off a less-than-stellar winter season, Aspen as a resort is in recovery mode.That was the picture local ski industry officials painted Thursday during the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual meeting at the Sundeck.Last year’s ski season was a flop on many fronts, particularly with the numerous debacles the airline industry experienced. There were 332 flight cancellations because of inclement weather, problems with barometric pressure, challenges of a new airline service flying a new aircraft into the resort and an employee shortage in the industry.”An unprecedented number of people were affected,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the local liaison to the airline industry. “Almost all winter there were challenges.”Tomcich estimated that 15,000 inbound guests were affected by last season’s problems. Aspen Skiing Co. Senior Vice President David Perry said about a third of Aspen’s guests were negatively affected in one way or another.”Airline service is our economic lifeblood,” he said. “We ended up with a tough, tough year.”But we need to turn our largest negative into our largest positive.”So, the marketing push this year is a mass campaign that explains to returning guests and new customers that things will be better.The Skico has produced a special insert that will be placed in the upcoming editions of Outside and Ski magazines that points out the strengths of air travel into Aspen. About 375,000 copies will reiterate that Aspen has America’s only slopeslide airport, and is only five minutes from downtown. The airport this year also has 200 flights per week coming in and out; has additional direct service from Los Angeles and Chicago; and is convenient for one-stop continuations into the airport.And then there’s the anticipated announcement that Frontier Airlines will be coming into Aspen from Denver. But because of governmental red-tape, the announcement – which was expected months ago – has yet to come to fruition.”The fact that they have purchased an aircraft that is suitable for our region. … It’s the worst-kept secret in aviation history,” Tomcich said, adding he had a promising conversation Wednesday with Frontier’s senior vice president. “It is no secret that we are on their list, as well as other resort communities.”We are closer than we have ever been to an announcement.”Operationally, things are looking up in the airline industry, Tomcich said.Skywest and United Airlines executives came to Aspen last month and personally guaranteed they would work on better service into and out of the resort. Also, new nonstop flights will be added this year – a third daily flight from Chicago and a second daily flight from Los Angeles.Perry called upon all business leaders at the luncheon to spread the word that Aspen is back on track.”We need to tell the story about those operational improvements,” he said, adding a marketing blitz through more than 1 million e-mail messages to return guests and an international campaign will aid in the effort. Despite the bleak picture, the ski resort is coming off four strong years, said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan. And not only that, Aspen remains a No. 1 brand name throughout the world.That’s what worries him.”What keeps me up at night? That success. That legacy. That lead position,” he said, adding the biggest threat is feeling comfortable, the community resting on its laurels and riding the wave without thinking about the future. “We’re feeling pretty fat and happy and that scares me.”But even though Aspen appears to be successful, it is susceptible to outside forces, as well as local challenges. Kaplan pointed to the continuous drop in skier visits since the height of the 1997-98 ski season, which saw 1.55 million skier visits. The following consecutive years experienced a decline and industry officials came up with all kinds of excuses as to why: Bad snow, the Y2K scare, the recession, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War.”The nice thing about those excuses were that none of them were our fault,” Kaplan joked.It’s only been in the past few years that skier visits have been on the upswing, but no where near where they were a decade ago.Locally, the challenges are many. The disappearance of thousands of rental rooms since the early 1990s hasn’t helped and the enormous shortage of affordable places for employees continues to escalate the Skico’s problems.”That definitely is keeping me up at night,” Kaplan said.He added that Aspen is a community that raises prices in nearly every industry – from airline and lift tickets, to meals to lease rates.”From a sustainability standpoint, that scares me a little bit,” Kaplan said.The Skico will look for growth in the international market but it’s dependent on many factors that present challenges, Kaplan said. Travel into the U.S. remains difficult, the exchange rate fluctuations are unpredictable and there’s increasing competition from other resorts in China, Russia and Europe.Back on the marketing front, the Skico will attempt to attract people based on its leadership role in protecting the environment. Television commercials and print advertising will focus on the past 10 years, the Skico has dedicated to reducing its carbon footprint, its future plans on environmental sustainability and calling upon others do the same.In that effort, the Skico this fall is sending 42,000 energy-efficient light bulbs to its loyal guests.”We want them to understand what we are doing and be like-minded,” Perry said. “We want to align our values with theirs.”Last year, the Skico launched its “Save the Snow” campaign, which sent the message that global warming will eventually melt the world’s winter playgrounds away. Perry recognized that it was a bit alarmist but it got people’s attention, particularly from Aspen’s competitors who thought it was a bad PR move.The Skico doesn’t see it that way and plans to bring back the campaign this year with high-profile Aspen athletes like skier Chris Davenport and snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler as spokespeople talking about climate change.Aspen was one of the first ski resorts that committed to offsetting 100 percent of its carbon emissions. Now, 59 ski resorts offset a portion of their emissions, Kaplan said.Carolyn Sackariason’s e-mail address is