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Guest column: On busyness and the resort economy

Mike Kaplan
Guest column

We’re too busy. We’re full. Turn off the people spigot already; this place is maxed. In the upper Roaring Fork Valley, those statements are an increasingly common refrain. You hear them from locals who’ve lived here for 40 years. You hear them — with little irony — from residents who’ve been here for two. And when you read stories about nearly 500 people being on the Four Pass Loop a few weeks ago, when you see the line of cars creeping into Aspen, it’s easy to understand the sentiment.

But as with any reflexive position, it’s also worth some levelheaded scrutiny. Are we, as a resort community, truly too busy? I think it’s reasonable to say that we are at a significant level of busyness — for nine weeks of the year: eight in summer and Christmas week in winter. The question then becomes, is that enough or even too much? It is if you are not dependent on the local economy to earn a living. But if you are trying to live and work here, it would benefit all of us to spread business levels more evenly across a longer season. That’s not to suggest making May as busy as July. It’s merely pointing out that deciding how our communities should function for 43 weeks a year based on how busy we are for nine is not the smartest way to plan.

The world is growing, the country is growing, adventure travel is growing, and Aspen’s attraction to the traveling population is unlikely to decline. National parks set an all-time record of 305 million visitors in 2015, and 2016 looks to be even bigger. Is it because gas is cheap and the economy is strong, or are Americans reacting to the public-service messaging around the need to get outside, experience nature and exercise? Overall this is a good thing, but it’s certainly a broader issue that bears managing, which is why the U.S. Forest Service and Park Service are considering more restrictive land-management policies.

Those are macro issues that affect Aspen, factors we don’t control directly. So how to deal with them? Some would suggest a gate at the entrance to town that says, “Sorry, we’re full.” I don’t think that’s desirable, let alone feasible. The best path to solutions will involve making a clearheaded assessment about internal and external factors. From there, we can find a way to thoughtfully manage demand and then how to service that demand as efficiently and sustainably as possible.

One solution is to update our tourism infrastructure, particularly lodging in the core. Hotels in the core are the most efficient way to handle the demand that a destination as wonderful as Aspen is always going to have and that will likely increase regardless of our local land-use policies. Hotels spread out business levels through yield management, meaning they raise prices during peak times and lower them during slow times. They have salespeople whose sole job is to fill periods of lower occupancy and bring in customers from a variety of markets. Those efforts don’t amount to crushing busyness or an overemphasis on any single demographic. They simply make efficient use of infrastructure and capacity.

On the employee side, hotels don’t make major changes in staffing levels based on occupancy. They hire for the season and at a level of staffing that will provide the best service at stabilized occupancy. On the guest side, hotel visitors are less likely to rent cars or to bring their own. And because hotels bring in guests throughout the year, they support a more vibrant, varied and compelling community by allowing restaurants, shops and cultural programs to sustain themselves with a steady flow of business rather than having to rely on a few big spenders or donors who come for a short period of time, typically during those busiest nine weeks.

As a community, we lament growth, we resent the influx of “big money,” and we hate traffic. But our continued downzoning of the urban core has pushed the demand for “time in Aspen” outside the core in the form of second homes, Airbnb and downvalley commercial services. This increases our reliance on a smaller and smaller group of customers who have an outsized impact on town in the form of traffic trips generated per visitor. It’s a classic case of unintended consequences: When we attempt to choke off growth by saying “no” to the proposals to which we can say “no” — such as a new hotel or even a substantial remodel of an existing property — while not denying those things in which we don’t have a say at all, we give ourselves a false sense of controlling our destiny. On the contrary, we may end up locking ourselves into an even less desirable trajectory.

By resisting development of high-occupancy-turnover beds within Aspen, we cut off access to the next generation of skier, snowboarder and mountain adventurer. If we don’t upgrade our airport and collaborate with developers and existing lodges and condo owners to find ways to rebuild our hot-bed inventory, we’ll become even more exclusive, more gentrified, busier during the peak nine weeks and slower during non-peak. While it’s easy to simply say “no” to everything, every action has a reaction, and this is actually the future we are embracing if we don’t find a way to say “yes” to rebuilding our resort-economy infrastructure.

It can be done, but it requires reflection, fact collection, rational dialogue and ultimately a vision that puts density where it belongs, and that minimizes sprawl. The moratorium is the start of the process. Now we must find our way through not only to look back at what we don’t want to repeat but to look ahead and embrace a future that embodies our community’s core values and our desire to be the world’s greatest ski town.

Mike Kaplan is president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co.


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