Pandemic planning: Town and resort officials think through Snowmass winter season, 2021 budget
As summer starts to wind down, students get ready to go back to school and the date gets closer and closer to the start of ski season, Snowmass Village government officials are starting to craft next year’s town budget and ideas for this winter season during the continued COVID-19 crisis.
According to Clint Kinney, town manager, this is usually the time town staff begins to plan for what the next year’s revenue and expenses will be, working with every department and taking an overall very fiscally conservative look at what money will come in and what money needs to be allocated.
“We think about what the town’s priorities are, what Town Council’s priorities and goals are and look at how we can put our money where our mouth is,” Kinney said. “Traditionally, every year we overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues just to be as fiscally safe as we can, … and those years of doing that has put us in a good position.”
Although Kinney feels the town is in a good place financially, the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and how fruitful this winter season — the bread and butter of the village economy — will be for Snowmass is proving to be more difficult than usual to predict, Kinney said.
As of late August, the town was working through various contingency plans related to the winter season and how the town can continue to provide a good level of service to locals and visitors no matter what happens.
Overall, Kinney said Snowmass is working with an anticipated 20% to 25% decrease in overall sales tax revenue in 2021 compared with 2020, and a $1 million structural deficit, or difference between revenue and expenses, in the general fund as part of the 2021 budget plan. Staff is currently looking at what it can do to shrink this deficit and adjust for revenue losses as much as possible without cutting personnel, Kinney said.
“It’s difficult to maintain the same service level with reduced revenues,” Kinney said. “So we’re looking at all the options before us to reduce that structural deficit so that we can be in a strong fiscal position moving forward, … but I’m not looking to cut personnel, period.”
Specifically, Kinney said the town is looking at how it can be more cost-efficient with the extra cleaning of village buses due to COVID-19, which has been a key cost in 2020, and trash services; will not look to give raises to employees in 2021; and is looking at cutting contract services and professional development expenses back to the town’s 2019 level, among other things.
The town also anticipates receiving some one-time revenue from proposed developments like those planned in Base Village over the coming years, which would help with any structural deficit but is not something the town can rely on long-term, Kinney said.
From a tourism and marketing perspective, the town also is looking for ways to get creative in how it can portray Snowmass Village as a fun, safe place for people to visit longer-term this winter.
During the August “Tourism Talk” with Snowmass area stakeholders, Snowmass Tourism Director Rose Abello shared a few of the town tourism department’s working ideas and initiatives for winter, including inspiring people to stay longer at Snowmass, working and learning from the village remotely; potentially creating a localized version of a GrubHub-like food delivery service, and other to-go food incentives; continuing to shift events and activations to be smaller and more socially distanced, not drawing large crowds; and facilitate and encourage other winter activities and sports like hiking, sledding and fat-tire biking, just in case skiing isn’t an option or capacity is restricted.
“None of these ideas are fully fleshed out,” Abello said. “We’ve really just been throwing ideas out there to see what makes sense and how government will fit in to help.”
Looking forward to winter, the most recent findings of an ongoing American travelers’ sentiment study conducted by Longwoods International shows 73% of people planning to travel in the next six months will change their travel plans due to coronavirus, with 42% expected to cancel their trips completely, Abello shared during the virtual meeting.
More local data also shows that Snowmass’ January 2021 bookings are currently down 55% from last year, which Abello said is concerning, and many of the town’s lodges are reporting zero bookings from Australia so far.
“We are all fearful of our international visitation this year, either because of fear or travel restrictions or quarantines, and all the rest of it,” Abello said during the Tourism Talk.
Aspen Skiing Co. also shared an update on its continued 2020-21 winter planning efforts during the virtual August “Tourism Talk.”
Rich Burkley, senior vice president of strategic planning, and Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations, talked about Skico’s overarching goal of “operating in a manner that protects the safety of our guests, employees and the greater community” this winter, while still providing as much skiing and snowboarding to all users as possible.
The company will be tracking local public health and COVID-19 case data very closely, and Skico staff is working hard with local public health officials and other ski resorts and stakeholders to come up with the safest, most consistent way to operate this winter. That means looking at things like what mandatory hygiene and safety protocols will need to be in place, and pinch points at parking lots, at bus stops and lift lines, as previously reported.
Food and beverage outlets are still set to open this winter, but the company is looking at how it can expand indoor seating and potentially provide covered, heated seating outside, Ertl said. The ski and snowboard school also plans to operate and offer small group and individual lessons, she said.
On top of its operations, Skico also has been tracking “external agencies and influences,” including what’s going on with ski areas in Australia, New Zealand and South America, acknowledging that most resorts in these locations were not able to open or stay open for their winter seasons; other resort-like areas like Disney World, which is operating at about a 30% capacity; American shopping malls, which are operating at reduced capacities; and the overall national COVID-19 case data trends.
“Our goal is really pretty simple, and that is to get open and stay open,” Burkley said during the Snowmass Tourism Talk, noting that the goal is to open Nov. 26.
“We have a team now that we’ve assembled that includes the county leaders and metropolitan areas and we’re looking at every component to this moving forward because we do not operate in a vacuum and all of these pieces have to work to function as a resort with that goal of maintaining a healthy community.”
Burkley and Ertl also mentioned that they’ve been able to look at how to shift and adapt operations in Aspen and Snowmass on a smaller scale this summer, which has gone relatively smoothly and is helping Skico solidify plans for this winter.
While area officials acknowledged that much about the coming months isn’t clear yet and flexibility will be key, the main goal is to keep the town’s service levels up and support the local community as much as possible.
Kinney said town staff is looking at opportunities to help Snowmass locals get through the upcoming offseason, like providing rent assistance and other financial support similar to what it did in March and April, and that he is confident the town will be able to continue to remain fiscally strong and stable in the months to come.
“Because of years of the type of fiscal management we’ve had, we’ve put ourselves in a good position. We’ve got a strong savings account we can depend on for a little while if we need to,” Kinney said. “We need to find that sweet spot and I’m confident we’re going to get to a spot that’s fiscally sound and still provides the level of service we need to.”
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