Aspen Chamber booth

Visitors seek guidance at the downtown Aspen Chamber information booth on Oct. 20. Occupancy levels last month were huge.

 

In an unusual year, it’s no surprise that offseason in Aspen has experienced its own unprecedented times. According to numbers compiled by Stay Aspen Snowmass, Aspen had a 23.6% increase in occupancy during October compared to the same month last year.

Occupancy in Snowmass Village was down slightly year over year, making for just over a 10% combined increase in total resort bookings. For the month, overall occupancy clocked in at 43%, at an average daily rate of $309 in Aspen.

September saw better numbers than the prior year in Aspen too, rounding out a summer season that was demolished early on by stay-at-home orders and the cancellation of every area signature event.

Kristi Kavanaugh, vice president of sales for SkiCo, said the visitor numbers were in line with the loosening of health restrictions and the public’s increasing comfort levels as the coronavirus pandemic wore on.

“May and June were the worst performing months compared to prior years due to shutdowns, lost events and restrictions,” she said via a press release Wednesday. “However, as we moved into the rest of the summer, we saw improvement each month, ending with a new occupancy record for October.”

The visitor numbers are reported as the percent of available rooms that are actually occupied by guests. State and county public health orders restricted lodging levels throughout the summer. With fewer beds available, the same number of visitors from prior years would create a higher occupancy number.

SkiCo has received approval of its health safety plan from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and is scheduled to begin turning its lifts on in one week, on Thanksgiving Day, at Aspen and Snowmass.

Bookings show that the holiday may again set records for additional visitors during a historically quiet time at the resort. Last month, the amount of reservations for November was up nearly 37% from last year, but Kavanaugh said that those numbers may decline as Pitkin County’s health orders become more restrictive due to rising incidents of COVID-19 in the community.

“Unfortunately [we’ve seen] increased cancellations, presumably due to COVID-19 infections being on the rise,” Kavanaugh said.

In an interview last week, SkiCo’s vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said the organization has learned not to bank too heavily on advance reservations, because visitors have changed their travel habits.

“It’s going to be tough to compare, because last-minute bookings have been so much stronger this summer, this fall, and we suspect this winter,” he said. “So it’s a lot harder for us to look at that and say, ‘Oh boy we are not going to make it, or boy we are,’” he said.

Throughout the summer season tourism was reflective and responsive to emerging COVID-19 data and public health measures.

“Because the trend in last-minute bookings as infection rates and people’s comfort with travel ebb and flow, they tend to book a lot closer in,” he said.

As early as July, SkiCo President and CEO Mike Kaplan addressed guests’ trepidation about a ski season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said this might not be the year of glory, but in cooperation with public health orders, skiers and riders could still log a memorable season.

“Many of us were caught up in the conquests — tracking our bowl laps and vertical — rather than fully appreciating the moments,” he wrote. “I’m looking forward to refocusing on the core of what this sport is all about, what this place enables: a chance to connect deeply — with nature, with our physical selves and movements, and even with our sense of purpose and our roles in society. No doubt, next ski season will be more of an old school experience, but that could also translate to less noise, fewer distractions and, hopefully, more meaning.”

Kavanaugh, too, spoke of the benefits that even a modified season can bring to the community and visitors, but cautioned that the recent upward trend of COVID-19 cases is a threat to that opportunity.

“Thank you all in advance for your commitment to the health and safety of our community. Skiing is key to our mental health,” she wrote. “We are aiming to get open and stay open and can only do so if we all work together to that same end.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.