Kristi Kavanaugh, Aspen Skiing Co. vice president of sales, isn’t ready to say that things are back to “normal” just yet. Not until Aspen fully returns as an international destination.
That’s the goal that the SkiCo sales and marketing teams have had, and continue to focus on, for the 2022-23 winter season and beyond, she said during her presentation at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s “Afternoon Blend” event at the Aspen Meadows’ Doerr-Hosier Center on Tuesday.
Pandemic-induced travel restrictions rocked the hospitality and resort industries, and Aspen-Snowmass was no exception. Kavanaugh is still reeling a bit, having internalized an important lesson: You can’t take anything for granted, not even a global reputation as a world-class resort guaranteeing business.
“We don’t ever want to lose sight or take for granted what our peak looks like — because it’s precarious, as we have learned,” she said.
Peak business trends differ, too, between domestic and international guest behavior. For instance, domestic traffic peaks on Saturdays and especially during the holidays; January is an off-peak month for them. But international travelers — especially from countries such as Brazil and Australia — amp up their travel in January. So in order to smooth out the peaks and valleys in domestic business, Kavanaugh and her team have been working to court a global audience.
In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdowns, that meant aggressive online engagement.
“Several years ago, my team rallied and said, ‘OK, our job is now recovery. We have to prepare for recovery,’” she recalled. “We still celebrated birthdays; we had Zoom happy hours; we sent gifts; we kept training alive. We kept these markets warm, we kept in touch with the consumer. So that when the time came — which is now — that these markets could come back with a voracity.”
It seems to be working. In her October occupancy report, Kavanaugh summarized, “Winter is pacing at 34.4% vs 30.8% 2021 pace. November and December are both down while January, February and March are all showing nice double-digit increases over last year. The change in pace can be largely attributed to a normalization of business mix, particularly the return of our international visitors and midweek group business. January is performing the best at this time, sitting at 46.6% vs 33.9% last year, up 37.4%.”
One thing that has kept lodging sales taxes flowing despite any dip in actual occupancy numbers throughout last year was the average daily rate.
“ADR is important,” Kavanaugh said. “Last year, we did 47% in ADR growth. … Who’s paying those rate increases are not necessarily the same people. We have gotten very blessed, lucky, used to repeat, loyal guests. … There’s going to be a lot of guests that are new, and I think it caught us a little off-guard last year.”
This year, SkiCo staff has been trained on “the changing landscape of the guest,” she continued.
But welcoming new people from around the world is part of the Aspen-Snowmass brand, and one to be celebrated, SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan said during his presentation.
“It’s core to our DNA. We have not been able to recover international for the last two years,” he said. “We’re going to have to refresh ourselves: what does it look like to welcome that international guest?”
He’s also aware that while the COVID-19 pandemic may be mostly in the past — although he knocked on wood before completing that thought aloud — there are plenty of present challenges that require attention in order to successfully reposition Aspen with its affluent international customer base.
“They’re different battles this year. Obviously, the high inflation. You have this really strong dollar — which makes me nervous about really bringing that international customer home and have them come all winter long,” he said. “You have Canada reopening. Canada hasn’t been open, and … the Canadian dollar is not as strong as the U.S. dollar, for example. … As we saw last summer, so many people went to Europe, and you could see that this winter going to Canada.”
All of that is to say, nobody in SkiCo or the larger Aspen business community is feeling complacent, he continued.
But Kaplan left the stage on a high note, having gone down memory lane a bit, revisiting the highlights of his last 17 years at the helm of SkiCo. It was his last such presentation in the role.
Though no announcement was made about his successor on Tuesday, he told the crowd to anticipate one in the coming months. In March at an employee event, Kaplan dropped the surprise news that the 2022-23 winter season would be his last as CEO.
“After a lot of reflection on my future and that of the company, it’s clear to me that it is time to welcome new leadership and perspective into my role,” he said at the time.