“Excuse me, will you take our picture?” asked Margarita Flores on Wednesday afternoon while standing on the refurbished gondola plaza at the base of Aspen Mountain.
“Sure,” came the reply. “Are you on vacation?”
“Yes, we are from Honduras and we are on our honeymoon,” Flores said, gleefully introducing her husband Eduardo Handal.
Flores was excited about taking her first-ever ski lesson at Snowmass Ski Area today and the couple, who are staying at the St. Regis, had booked a trip a month ago that includes stops in Las Vegas and the Bahamas as well as Aspen.
“First of all, I’ve never seen snow,” Flores said. “And I did my research and they said Aspen was one of the prettiest places to see snow.”
Well, what do you know? There are actually visitors in Aspen for this Thanksgiving holiday despite the financial woes rocking the world.
While the streets of Aspen were still nearly empty on Wednesday afternoon, there are in fact visitors in town staying at hotels, shopping in stores, and eating in restaurants.
“It does seem very quiet,” said Sherie Bartlett of Kansas City, Mo., who was strolling the Cooper Avenue mall Wednesday and is here visiting her son who works at Aspen Valley Hospital.
“I’m out trying to stimulate the economy, but there aren’t enough stores open,” said Bartlett, who is staying at the Little Nell hotel. “I couldn’t find an open bar today either.”
Within a three-block radius downtown, longtime local watering holes Cooper Street Pier, the Red Onion and Ute City Banque have all shut their doors in recent years (Cooper Street being the latest — it closed earlier this month).
The resorts of Aspen and Snowmass are reporting occupancy levels of 50 percent this week. Last year at this time, which was the week after Thanksgiving, the occupancy rate was 49 percent.
“This weekend is better than most for an opening weekend, and I think it is mostly because of World Cup,” said Bill Tomcich, president of central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass.
Helping to boost the numbers are the 93 women World Cup ski racers who are here to compete in a giant slalom on Saturday and a slalom on Sunday on Aspen Mountain. They bring with them 186 coaches, technicians and trainers for the weekend.
The World Cup crews help boost the occupancy numbers, but not necessarily the bottom line for local lodges, who often put up racers and coaches for free. Aspen Square, for example, is hosting the 44 members of the U.S. contingent this weekend.
Also helping Aspen tourism this weekend are some low hotel fares, Tomcich said, including a rate of $58 per person at the rebuilt Limelight Lodge, which opened last weekend after being closed for construction for two winters. The rate is a play on 1958, the year the Paas family, which has run the hotel for decades, first came to Aspen.
The new 126-room hotel is offering rooms for $116 a night through Dec. 18 and is about half full this weekend, according to General Manager Brady Wyatt.
“We’ll always have affordable rooms,” Wyatt said, although he added that the introductory rate may not be seen again soon.
Some visitors to Aspen are not sensitive to hotel pricing because they are second-home owners, such as Carlos and Cassandra De Queasada of Miami, who own a condo in Snowmass and are regular visitors to Aspen, although they don’t usually come for Thanksgiving.
“We love it here,” Carlos De Quesada said. “I can’t wait to see the World Cup.”
The De Quesadas are loyal to Aspen and Snowmass as their parents have a home in Two Creeks. They were in the gondola ticket office Wednesday with five children.
“We’re not allowed to go anywhere else,” said Cassandra De Quesada, who added that she had even received an e-mail from the Little Nell with a special rate offer.
While visitors may have come for Thanksgiving, December bookings as of Nov. 15 look soft, Tomcich said.
Next week, for example, Aspen is just 29 percent full, compared to 40 percent last year during the same period, according to a bookings report that represents 72 percent of the lodge units.
The week of Dec. 7-13 is at 36 percent occupancy compared to last year’s 41 percent.
And the week of Dec. 20 is at 49 percent compared to 74 percent last year.
“That’s way off,” Tomcich said.
Snowmass is also down, but not as much — between 3 and 5 percent for the next two weeks.
The next bookings report will be released on Monday, but Tomcich does not expect to see much change in December advance bookings.
“The flip side is that we’ve got lots of rooms to sell for people who want to book a last minute trip to Aspen/Snowmass at Christmas, which we haven’t seen for some time,” Tomcich said. “We’re really busy at Stay Aspen Snowmass trying to compile all the available deals and put them on our Web site.”
Tomcich said many hotels have dropped their “minimum stay requirements,” which usually require people to book a full week of lodging.
And he said that the airlines have just dropped fuel surcharges on tickets booked by tour operators, which is likely to lead to some cheaper airline and lodging packages.