Elk Camp

Elk Camp gondolas rest in front of a fall-foliage background in Snowmass. Aspen Skiing Co. on Thursday announced its plans for once they’re running again to accommodate on-mountain enthusiasts during the winter season.

Limited blackout dates and likely fewer weekends — but cheaper pass options only available to locals.

That's just some of what's in the cards for the 2020-21 winter season at Aspen Snowmass, according to an Aspen Skiing Co. announcement Thursday morning.

Dubbed the “Valley Weekday Pass,” which chamber members can purchase for $899 — $999 for nonchamber members — through Nov. 13, the new season package offers access to all four mountains under the Aspen Snowmass umbrella Monday through Friday, with some blackout dates during holidays, according to a SkiCo press release.

Those blackout dates range from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2, then on Feb. 13 and 14.

Subject to that same blackout range is the debuted “Valley 7-Pack,” which, as the name suggests, gives purchasers seven on-mountain days throughout the season, including weekend days. That option also is only available to locals and carries a $399 price tag through Nov. 13.

But that doesn’t mean pass holders will not have access to the mountains during said blackout dates or weekends, SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan said Thursday. Rather, through what he called validation pricing, the company is creating a sort of proprietary Liftopia — on any given day, based on snow forecasts and bookings among the myriad factors considered, locals who’ve bought one of the two exclusive pass options available to them will have opportunity to purchase additional days at, minimally, a 50% discount from the lift ticket price.

“As we see availability, it’s going to be more,” Kaplan said of the discount percentages offered.

Part of the strategy behind managing the resort’s capacity — seemingly counterintuitively — was to increase the cost of the unlimited Premier Pass by $320, to $1,799 for chamber members before Nov. 13. The thinking was, by increasing the cost of the free-range pass, it would decentivize its purchase.

The thinking was focused on long-term gain — and in the era of COVID-19, that means remaining open for the duration of the season, said Jeff Hanle, SkiCo vice president of communications.

“For this season, we’ve got to look at ways to manage capacity. Our peak capacity are holidays and weekends, so to be able to give ourselves the best chance to stay open for the entire season, we’ve got to be able to manage capacity in some ways. To have the ability to ski every day you want to ski, anytime you want to ski all season long, we’ve placed a higher value on it this year during the pandemic,” he said, adding that someone aiming to earn a 100-day pin would still be able to do so for about $18 per day with the new pricing structure.

“You can’t go bowling for that,” he quipped.

For the vast majority of passholder, however, the number of actual on-mountain days in a season comes closer to around or slightly more than 12, both Hanle and Kaplan emphasized.

“I would say, really look at how much you ski each season. We can look at your pass history for however many years you want. A lot of times, people think they ski more than they do,” Hanle said.

To figure out the most economical option, both Hanle and Kaplan encouraged locals to reach out to the customer service helpline.

“If you ski every single weekend day all season long, you’re probably better jumping to the Premier Pass. But there are very few people who do that. I would say, ‘We understand — let us help you find what may work best for you and give you the most value for your spend,” Hanle said.

Foggy crystal ball

It’s tough to tell just what business levels will look like — but Kaplan emphasized that the newly rolled out pass options for locals, alongside the price manipulation of the Premier Pass, are all tools implemented to remain nimble and open throughout the season.

And in addition to bracing for whether a second epidemiological COVID-19 wave hits the area, there’s also the actual weather, he said.

“Two years ago was that great snow year, so average use was higher,” Kaplan said. “Year before that, not a great snow year. Way less [business].”

Forecasting snowfall during a La Niña winter can prove almost as tricky as trying to balance a hopeful influx of domestic business against the dryspell of international travel during a pandemic. Regardless, with a seven-out-of-nine accuracy rate in snow forecasts for the area’s previous winters, Aspen Weather’s Cory Gates and Ryan Boudreau released their Winter Outlook Thursday anyway.

In essence, it depends. A lot.

Speaking in layman’s terms on his behalf, his business partner Boudreau explained that much depends on Aspen being the recipient of a northwest jet stream that will prove to be the make-or-break of the winter season.

“If this winter wants to go bad, it could go really bad,” Boudreau said Thursday. “A few years ago, winter was 200 miles away. You gotta take it with a grain of salt this year. If we do not get that jet stream, winter could be just a few miles away and we’re just trying to grab onto it.”

But Gates, a meteorologist, remains optimistic in his report, Boudreau reiterated, favoring a forecasting model in which Aspen sits squarely in the “green zone” — that is, positioned for higher-than-average snowfall.

“Northwest wind, that’s going to be most of our storms this year. That’s why those numbers are kind of high for Aspen,” he said.

And the odds are ever in the locale’s favor. In the last 11 winters Gates deemed as moderate La Niña winters, three produced lower-than-normal snowfalls and three saw normal levels — but five boasted above-normal inch counts.

At the end of the day, Gates’ predictions call for an estimated 365 inches of powder in Snowmass, 363 inches in Highlands, 342 on Aspen Mountain and 215 in Buttermilk between October and May. For reference, the same outlook for 2019-20 predicted between 285 and 321 inches on Aspen Mountain.

Boudreau recounted another noteworthy La Niña year: 2007-08, the second-highest season for snowfall in Aspen’s recorded history.

But it didn’t start that way.

“There was picketing in the streets,” he said. “It was Dec. 11, they’re talking about the climate and we’re warming and we’re all going to die. It snowed 500 inches. People were freaking out — it didn’t start snowing until December. It’s a La Niña winter. Sometimes, you just have to wait until that jet stream makes that change.”

From Boudreau’s perspective, though, the numbers don’t actually matter as much.

“Every year, no matter what, it’s going to snow. Get out there and send it. Any day out here is a better day than in the East Coast, where I grew up, on ice,” he said.

Reservations systems?

At the end of the day, Kaplan’s just glad the company was able to present a plan in which people could take advantage of powder days on a whim, as — unlike its Colorado resort counterpart, Vail Resorts — reservations won’t be required in order to enjoy the benefits of a pass.

The validation pricing and new pass options became vital parts of making that a potential reality — but the plan is, in fact, only a potential at this point. Without official guidance from the state regarding COVID-19 restrictions for resorts, releasing proposed season details was a bit of a gamble, Kaplan acknowledged. Should, for instance, Gov. Jared Polis’ office announce mandated reservation systems, then SkiCo will have to accommodate that requirement.

His hope is that — especially for the sake of smaller resorts, which would be more burdened by the technological and logistical hurdles of implementing a reservation system — that doesn’t come to fruition. But, he noted, the possibility is just one reason why unused passes are refundable through Nov. 20.

Should COVID-19 outbreaks or positivity rates increase to a point at which a later-season reservation system be required — and the infrastructure is actively being fine-tuned for Aspen Snowmass — refunds will no longer be on the table.

In order to avoid that scenario locally, officials stressed the importance of implementing reservation systems for other situations that support the resort experience.

“The idea, again, is not to penalize anybody. We’re just trying to be realistic about when we’re going to have more people than we can comfortably handle and make sure that, at the end of the day, we don't overwhelm community infrastructure — because it really is an ecosystem. We’ve got to create space, physically and in terms of our facilities and in the restaurants,” Kaplan said.

That community infrastructure goes beyond just lift lines and restaurant party sizes, he continued. The company has had to consider managing rental equipment, reimagining lift ticket sales and, yes, streamlining dining options by offering more options that cater to different guests’ recreation styles.

Regarding dining, COVID-19 has, while limiting facility capacities, ushered an era of more on-mountain options. App-based pre-ordering will allow for more streamlined to-go lunches, Kaplan said.

“On the app, you can go to Elk Camp, there’s a button you push for pre-ordering lunch, You can do that while you’re on the lift, you show up, your food is ready and you’ll have more turns,” he said.

For those who consider their break time as critical to their on-mountain experience as time on the runs, SkiCo has ordered five tents — at Ullrhof, Elk Camp and the new High Alpine at Snowmass, the Merry-Go-Round at Aspen Highlands and the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain — that, the leadership hopes, will be able to create some semblance of heated outdoor dining comfortable for longer periods of time.

Ruthies, too, will serve as a warming hut, Kaplan noted.

“We’re adding tents. We’re adding heaters on our decks, trying to maximize the ability of our decks — on bluebird days, our decks are a place to sit,” he said.

And brown-baggers, too, can rejoice: Officials on Thursday ordered eight microwaves, to be distributed across on-mountain locations.

Of course, restaurants aren’t the only arenas in which SkiCo management has tried to rework its logistics to accommodate public health considerations amid COVID-19.

“In everything, we’re encouraging advanced purchase. We’re setting up outdoor rental dropoff returns. We’re looking at virtual queuing for rental shops, so you can go on the app and say, ‘I want to come rent my skis at 10:10 a.m., so you don’t just stand in line.’ So it’s like virtually take-a-number,” Kaplan said, adding that rental returns will be via outdoor stations.

Ski school, too, will require advanced bookings, and group lessons will be limited to five skiers or snowboarders at a time.

“We’ve had to rethink what we do, when and how,” Kaplan said.

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.