Stone: Aspen is not a game of three-card monte
A Stone’s Throw
A couple of weeks ago, Mike Kaplan, head guy at Aspen Skiing Co., wrote a guest column that ran in both of our local dailies. (When the Skico CEO wants space, he gets space!)
That column was partly extremely reasonable and partly (sorry, Mike, I think you’re a heck of a nice guy, and I really do like you) extremely unfortunate — either devious or careless, take your pick.
Let’s start with the reasonable part.
Kaplan noted that many people are expressing dismay over how crowded town gets at peak season.
Understandably, given his position, he carefully never says we’re “too busy.” The most he can bring himself to admit is that “we are at a significant level of busyness.”
I know a lot of people who would snort with derision at that evasive characterization, but OK — Kaplan is more or less required to soft-pedal the overcrowding.
In any case, he goes on to make the reasonable point that we can handle more visitors if we even out the load, boosting business during the low points in the tourist season.
That was, if you recall, the original point of Winterskol — a mid-January event to pull in visitors during a traditionally flat spot.
I need to note that he claims we’re only really busy one week in the entire ski season — Christmas week — and I think a lot of people might disagree with that. (Hmm. Maybe we could move Christmas to February; things are mighty slow then.)
He argues that we need to stay competitive by upgrading what we offer our visitors — primarily better hotel rooms (unfortunately using the hideous term “tourism infrastructure,” but again, I guess that goes with his job).
So far, so good.
But then he veers cleverly (or, as I said above, perhaps just carelessly) into very different territory.
Even as he seems to be suggesting that we need to upgrade, he slips in the idea that what we really need is to expand.
He disparages efforts to “choke off growth” that involve rejecting “a new hotel or even a substantial remodel of an existing property.”
See what he did there?
One minute he was talking about leveling out business by building up the low spots and maintaining our position by upgrading that “tourism infrastructure,” and then suddenly he’s bad-mouthing those who oppose “a new hotel.”
New hotels don’t do anything to even out business by filling in low spots. They increase the crowds at peak times.
And then he warns that if we don’t “collaborate with developers … we’ll become even more exclusive, more gentrified, busier during the peak.”
But we’re already full to the brim during the peak, so we can’t get busier … unless we “collaborate with developers” and build some new hotel rooms.
And, by the way, let’s not forget: We are already set to get a bunch of new hotel rooms, adding to our “hot bed inventory” (another frighteningly ugly term, reminiscent of “hot sheet motels,” which are … well, you can imagine). The Lift One Lodge and Base Lodge are already approved. And the Gorsuch Haus seems well on its way to an approval, even though the road is a little rough right now. (Gee … now that I think of it, you don’t suppose that’s why Mr. Mike wrote his opinion piece, do you? To build support for a project Skico desperately wants? Nah, he wouldn’t do that.)
And along the way, Kaplan finds time to sneer at those who “would suggest a gate at the entry to town that says, ‘Sorry, we’re full,’” which he doesn’t think is “desirable, let alone feasible.”
But, in fact, that is exactly what Kaplan’s hotels do, isn’t it? When The Little Nell or the Limelight is full, it doesn’t ask people to double up and accept a family of strangers into its deluxe suite. It doesn’t try to cram people onto couches in the lobby. It says, “Come back when we have room.”
In fact, putting up that metaphorical “Sorry, we’re full” sign is really what he seems to be suggesting at the start of his piece, when he says we don’t want to increase capacity — we want to bring people here when we’re not “full.”
Which means sometimes we will be full.
When a hotel is full, it puts out the “No Vacancy” sign. When a parking garage is full, it puts up a sign. When your mouth is full — your mother tells you to stop talking until you swallow.
And when your stomach is full, you stop eating — unless you want to be sick. Or fat.
And I don’t think we want Aspen to be either sick or fat. Do we?
But somehow, the part of Mr. K’s column that annoys me almost the most is his suggestion that “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.”
I know that just sounds like harmless bureaucratese (as if bureaucratese could ever be harmless), but when you start talking about assessments of internal and external factors and servicing demands efficiently, you’re talking about turning the whole deal over to experts and consultants — and that’s where real concern and spirit and passion go to die.
Everyone will die of boredom — except the money guys, who never get bored — and then the town will die of overcrowding.
We don’t need a “clearheaded assessment”; we need to face obvious reality: Our current peak capacity is too high. We cannot add to it. Period.
Hey, a Four Seasons hotel sounds great — but so does a hot fudge sundae. Sometimes you just have to stop stuffing yourself.
In the end, we need to find the courage to say it just this simply: Nothing new unless you tear down something old. Refurbish, renovate what we’ve got, and replace it if necessary, but you just can’t add to it.
Sorry. We’re full.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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