As Aspen Skiing Co. attempts to navigate what it means to run a four-mountain destination ski resort amid a global pandemic this winter, the company said it recognizes that complying with future public health and state restrictions could mean at times limiting the number of people on the hill.
If that is the position SkiCo faces this winter season, the company maintains that there will not be a hierarchy or “locals versus tourists” distinction in determining who can and cannot ski.
“We’re not accommodating guests over locals. We’re not accommodating locals over guests,” vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said via phone Monday evening. “We’re trying to stay open for a full ski season. Under what restrictions? We have no idea.”
The subject of blackout days for local skiers and riders has been a heated one after a July 31 newspaper article suggested that as a possibility this winter. The story reported an update from SkiCo senior vice president Rich Burkley at the end of a COVID-19 community meeting.
“If a certain number of people can ski, then a certain number of people can ski,” Hanle continued Monday. “And there’s not going to be a priority structure that says on that day, ‘Oh hey, sorry we have 8,000 tourists who want to ski, only 2,000 locals can ski.’ That’s not the way it works.”
In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Aspen Skiing Co. president and CEO Mike Kaplan said the company’s goal first and foremost is “to do the right thing from a safety standpoint, for our community and our employees, which are one in the same.” With 3,700 employees at high season, SkiCo is the largest employer in the valley by a wide margin.
From Kaplan’s standpoint, doing what’s right also means taking the necessary precautions to safely keep the resort open, which is in the economic interest of the town and valley.
“Let’s not forget that we had to close last year and shut it down for everybody, which was heart-wrenching,” Kaplan said. “We don’t want to do that again. We absolutely don’t want to do that again.”
Amid myriad unknowns, Kaplan said he believes “there is a very real possibility that [SkiCo will] have to manage access to our mountains on peak days.”
He continued: “So, we’re exploring all options to do this in a way that’s fair and equitable. We’re exploring ways to do it that will come from incentives rather than disincentives, but maybe it’s some mixture of both. But that’s really what it’s about.”
Pressed for clarity on said incentives and disincentives, Kaplan said SkiCo has and is continuing to explore “a multitude of projects and products that have different prices based on access on certain days or certain numbers.”
He pointed to SkiCo’s “friends and family” early season option — whereby passholders could provide a voucher to a non-passholder to purchase a day pass at a significantly reduced rate early before the holiday crowds — as an example of an existing product.
While “blackout days” and disincentives may be among the undesirable outcomes of a pandemic ski season, Kaplan, like Hanle, said SkiCo would not discriminate access to the mountain based on pass-status or area code.
SkiCo’s main objective as it pertains to limiting crowds is to “manage [the] total number of people on the hill on any given day [and] on our peak days, to make sure we can operate safely,” Kaplan said. “So yes, of course, it’s everybody. Period." He reiterated that the prospect of blackout days is “absolutely not” specific to valley residents.
“I do appreciate the passion, and share it, for skiing and snowboarding, and the [mentality of] ‘You can mess with a lot of stuff, but just don’t mess with my skiing and snowboarding,’ right?” Kaplan said, with a laugh. “I get it, but we’re all in a different situation right now and we’ll get ours in — ‘we’ as a community, when I say that we’ll get it in — and we all need to be patient and stay above the fray.”
Kaplan said the ski company is using its observations and experiences from this unprecedented summer to help inform what will likely be an equally unusual and unknown winter.
In response to the throngs of visitors outside during an unexpectedly populated summer with significantly fewer cultural offerings, Kaplan said he believes local habits on the trails and in the backcountry are shifting — and he encourages locals to consider adopting a similar approach to this winter.
“We’re going earlier or going later or going to trails that are farther afield and much less likely to have people on [them], and adjusting our habits,” Kaplan said.
“And I think that’s what we, as locals, can do, and do do and should do. We have more knowledge; we have more flexibility. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing right now is adjusting our behavior to make sure we can be the great place that we are and be a role model for our visitors and for other communities. I just think it’s really important that we all keep it in perspective, and so that’s what I would urge all of us to do.”