Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
July 12, 2011
When I tell people I’ve lived in Aspen since the early 1970s, they often say, “Bet you’ve seen a lot of changes.”
Usually, I answer that most of the changes are at ground level. Just raise your sights, I say: The mountains are still the same.
That’s true, of course, but it neglects a larger truth, which is that Aspen has, of course, changed – changed almost beyond recognition in some ways.
Those street-level changes are obvious, of course: huge, glossy houses replacing ramshackle homes, multimillion-dollar condominiums filling in every vacant lot, national chain stores taking over big chunks of downtown.
But a conversation I had with a longtime local this week helped focus my attention on a different – and more profound – change.
I’m tempted to call it “the invasion of the corporations,” but that misses the point. It’s really the invasion of the corporate mindset.
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Corporations are, of course, always around, big and small, and there’s nothing automatically wrong with them.
Corporations are not necessarily evil – not necessarily.
But the bigger a corporation gets, and the more widely it spreads, the more likely it is to develop – and demand – that corporate mindset.
And that corporate mindset has triggered wholesale changes in the Aspen mindset, from something a little (at least a little) free-spirited and off-center, to something much more … well, corporate.
The man I was talking to gave a small example from his own life.
He had been working, for many years, for a local business that recently became associated with a major out-of-town corporation.
The local business wasn’t owned by the corporation; there was just an association, a connection.
The employees were all assured that the business itself would remain “very local,” just as it had always been.
Plans were already under way for a renovation of the building where the business operates, and my friend had been deeply involved in planning the changes for his area.
Then, suddenly, one day (as he described it), “This young woman in a short skirt and stiletto heels marches in, carrying a big bundle of plans and drawings for the new design. Everything was different from what we had been planning.”
He asked who this woman was and was told, “She’s the corporate director of design.”
And that was that.
My friend put his head down and started thinking where he might find a new job.
In fact, he actually considered a position at one of the major chain hotels in town. But he learned that employees there can’t walk in the front door – that’s for guests only. Employees have to come in the back, through the employee entrance.
No way, he thought. That’s not Aspen – and that’s not me. Use the servants’ entrance … my ass!
Asking around, he heard about a lot of other similar, small but enraging, rules: Employees must show up 15 minutes before their shifts begin, and they must leave the building within 15 minutes after it ends; they may not drink at the hotel bar (even on their days off) without special advance permission. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Maybe the rules are terrible in and of themselves, maybe they’re not. But they definitely are “not Aspen.”
Of course not.
They are corporate rules, imposed from outside, created somewhere else, by someone who deeply believes that you get better results with rules than with thinking.
The rules are devised to ensure that everything everywhere in the chain runs smoothly and strictly according to the corporation’s plans.
Just as every McDonald’s cheeseburger must be exactly the same as every other McDonald’s cheeseburger, so every employee of every hotel in this chain must act exactly like every other employee of every other hotel in the chain.
That means that a McDonald’s cheeseburger is never (well, almost never) wretched, but it also means that a McDonald’s cheeseburger is never (absolutely never, ever) brilliant.
And it means that hotel service might be pretty good, but the people providing that service are never free to be themselves – or, God forbid, enjoy themselves.
To be sure, as with cheeseburgers, that arrangement has its good side and its bad side for the customers.
But, for Aspen, it means slicing the soul out of the town.
Thirty or 40 years ago, service in Aspen was often a little slap-dash, a little haphazard. It was not smooth and slick. Definitely not.
But even if the ride was sometimes rough, the great enthusiastic spirit of the place almost always came shining through.
That spirit is still there, somewhere, but it’s harder for it to shine through the shroud of the corporate mindset that insists on those rules, written by someone far away who doesn’t know – and doesn’t care – anything about this once-special place.
I got a glimpse of a different facet of this same piece of expensive gaudy jewelry earlier this summer, talking to a musician who has been part of the Aspen Music Festival for many years.
We discussed the major upheavals of last summer, the battle between the heavy-handed authoritarian president/CEO of the Festival and many of the musicians.
The Festival exec, backed by a board filled with corporate heavy hitters, won the battle. A lot of musicians were fired or quit.
I asked if things had settled down this summer and the answer was, “Yes and the music will still be excellent. But the feeling that we once had is gone. We were a family. Not anymore.”
The Festival was something very special. It is still special – but its spirit is diminished. Perhaps even lost.
I suppose the wonderful music should be enough.
Just as the smooth, slick hotel service should be enough.
Just as, indeed, the unchanged and unchanging mountains should be enough.
And in many ways, they are.
But still we cannot forget the way things used to be.
Before the big guys came to town.