nib

 

Move over, four-letter words — perhaps the simultaneously most dreaded and empowering buzzword of 2020 boasts five and begins with a letter lesser known among conversations pivoting around expletives.

That word, of course, is pivot.

So says the consultants who addressed Aspen Chamber Resort Association members Tuesday morning. 

“Business travel is still banned, with a large percentage of us doing remote work,” said Barb Taylor-Carpenter, of Taylored Alliance and part of Insights Collective. 

And in that assessment, Taylor-Carpenter sees opportunity — especially for destination resorts such as Aspen.

“The silver lining is [that] the hospitality industry is quickly learning that the lodging sector could be considered a remote location,” she said. “This segment — business travel — can have a large influence on decisions for meeting locations.”

That is to say, she continued, that an influencer in a respective business sphere may have increased capability to recommend a destination for future business. Additionally, she continued, that international travel is likely off the table — but, she said, small groups are the new “gaggle.”

“Partner, partner, partner,” Taylor-Carpenter said, encouraging multi-organizational tourism efforts. “Explore the opportunities and get out in front of it.”

As far as what is already working, perhaps the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority had the most concrete success stories — and, in turn, future plans. For instance, the reservation system for accessing the Maroon Bells trail system exceeded all expectations, and as such, a similar program is anticipated for 2021.

“It was extremely challenging to provide due to the 15-passenger restriction on buses. This was the first time that a reservation system had been used,” RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said during Tuesday’s presentation. “In total, 61,396 tickets were sold compared to a preseason estimate of approximately 40,000.”

Those ticket sales netted RFTA more than $700,000, Blankenship continued.

That doesn’t mean the transit authority was without challenges throughout the season.

“We are planning to increase the passenger capacity to 50% of seating capacity, which is consistent with proposed guidance. This will provide a marginal increase over the 15-passenger limit,” Blankenship said. “But we are hoping we can increase to 75% capacity for trips under 15 minutes.”

That 15-minute commuter distinction will only really apply to ski shuttles and in-town commutes — it won’t help the 51% of travelers who were on their way to work, or the 41% for whom RFTA was their only travel option.

That’s a far cry from the private-jet air and airport traffic seen during the COVID-19 scene, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass. 

“Most of you have seen how many private jets are on the ramp, particularly in August. There truly have never been more private aircraft than in these last several months. People are finding other ways to get here. July and August set new all-time records,” he said.

But while summer numbers exceeded most expectations — from real estate sales to private jets — none of the current economy was deemed sustainable by experts. 

“Epidemics have increased in frequency over the past 15 years. The question is why? The more complex reason is increased human and animal contact caused by increased populations and climate change,” said Insights Collective’s Ralf Garrison. “About 60% of new viruses come through animals, and about one-third of those can be directly attributed to deforestation.”

But the local business perspective remained steadfastly optimistic. Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan, for instance, lauded the possibilities during his presentation for what the winter season could and — so long as COVID-19 caseloads remain under control, he emphasized — should bring.

“We will sell out of tickets,” he said confidently. 

But, he added, everyone needs to expect different protocols.

“We really encourage advanced booking, advanced reservations,” he said. “The restaurants is probably our biggest concern. You think about a cold day … we’re losing more than 50% of our seating capacity. We’ve acquired five tents — that will make up, hopefully, a third of that lost capacity. We’re doing what we can, but it’s going to take all of us getting more creative about how we ski, when we dine.”

But, he continued, having to reserve renting gear or on-mountain dining still beats having to reserve a gondola or chair lift.

“We’re hopeful that things like that are going to enable us to operate without a reservation system, but as we’ve been saying, we can’t guarantee that. It’s going to depend on the Coronameter and working with local and state officials,” he said.