Skiers-only policy not flying at Ajax |

Skiers-only policy not flying at Ajax

Reserving Aspen Mountain for skiers just wasn’t adding up anymore for the Aspen Skiing Co.

Statistics show that skier visits have dropped five of the last seven seasons at Aspen Mountain. Ajax has been hovering between 330,000 and 350,000 skier visits each season since 1993-94.

Performance during that stretch is considerably worse than 1991-92 and 1992-93, when Aspen Mountain had two of its strongest seasons ever – logging about 395,000 skiers each season.

And with snowboarding being the fastest-growing segment of the industry, the need to drop the ban was clear, according to Skico CEO and President Pat O’Donnell.

“For us it’s an economic decision of stocking the pond with loyal customers,” said O’Donnell. “Skier days are not increasing enough to justify a skiers-only mountain.”

The Skico management convinced the company owners, members of the Crown family of Chicago, to permanently drop the riding ban April 1.

The Skico racked up a record number of skier and rider visits at its four mountains in 1997-98, even without a strong performance from Ajax. Combined, the four areas logged 1,559,386 visits, even though Ajax had a mediocre season.

This season, Ajax has been the weak link in the four mountains’ performance, according to Skico Chief Operating Officer John Norton.

“The strength of the skier days that we’ve enjoyed at the other three mountains weren’t shared at Aspen Mountain,” Norton said.

Norton and O’Donnell said the Skico’s customer visits are up about 19 percent season-to-date over last season. They wouldn’t give an individual mountain’s numbers, other than Norton’s disclosure that Ajax lagged behind.

Skico officials and Jim Crown, managing partner of the company for his family, noted last week that they have been frustrated by an inability to make it clear that three of their four ski areas are open to snowboard riding.

The Skico has poured money into infrastructure at Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk and made snowboarding one of its marketing thrusts, but the riding ban at Ajax was creating a perception that’s difficult to overcome.

O’Donnell was particularly demoralized that none of the Skico’s areas showed up on a recent list of Snowboarding Life magazine’s top 25 riding mountains in the country. He said it was a “joke” that some of the areas on the list topped Snowmass or Highlands.

When Skico officials talked to folks at the magazine, they were told that many readers simply don’t realize riding is allowed at Aspen, according to O’Donnell.

That’s a position the company doesn’t want to be in. Norton said research from the National Ski Areas Association showed that half of all visits to the slopes among people under age 35 are from snowboarders.

NSAA figures show that riders accounted for 26.4 percent of the 52.2 million customer visits last season.

“Obviously, snowboarding represents a significant segment of the ski industry, not only in visits generated, but in lesson participation and equipment rentals as well,” said NSAA’s final report on last season.

“Shifts are also occurring in the demographic characteristics of snowboarders,” the report continued. “Rider profiles are becoming more diverse, reflecting the increasing tendency of traditional alpine skiers to cross over and participate full time or part of the time in snowboarding.”

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