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An Aspen Skiing Co. employee cleaned the Elk Camp Gondola cars in June before guests arrived. Protocols from this summer’s operations will be applied to the winter season, which CEO Mike Kaplan hopes will include a return to some ‘old school’ values.

While shy on specifics, a message sent Tuesday from Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan to the “Aspen Snowmass community” offered hints of changes that might be in store for the upcoming ski and snowboard season.

Large, shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings like closing day at Aspen Highlands, the Bud Light Hi-Fi concerts and even the regular party scene at Cloud 9 restaurant may see adaptations “if we’re limited on the distance between people,” SkiCo’s vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said Tuesday.

“Let’s say some of those experiences will change given what we know now,” he said, adding that no decision has been made yet on how, or if, X Games Aspen will be presented in Jan. 2021.

In Kaplan’s message emailed to pass holders and guests in SkiCo’s database he wrote: “The pandemic has been incredibly difficult, but it’s also created valuable new perspectives. Our country is struggling through economic and social disruption not seen in generations.”

Kaplan went on to say that as people try to make the best of the current situation wrought by COVID-19 and return to some semblance of normalcy, “One way is by getting back to the core of what’s important in our lives.”

Several times during the message Kaplan referred to refocusing priorities and spoke personally of how “being in the mountains, going up and downhill, soaking in nature, getting closer to family and doing whatever I can to help my community have all taken on a heightened importance.” 

In wondering aloud “what will come back and what will be forever changed,” Kaplan wrote, “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are doing everything possible to anticipate how to open on time and stay open all winter.” Safety of guests, employees, the community and other partners is tantamount and achievable “with the right protocols in place.”

Whether those protocols include a reservation system for mountain usage, as was attempted this spring by A-Basin in Summit County, has not been determined.

“It’s certainly not our desired outcome or our intent to have a reservation system. (But) there’s a number of things you can’t control,” Hanle said. “We have no idea what kind if any restrictions, limits or anything we’ll be operating under come November.”

Also under discussion are how group ski and snowboard lessons could be organized in the future.

Operating Camp Aspen Snowmass this summer has been advantageous in unearthing what works and what doesn’t, both Kaplan and Hanle said, underscoring that those lessons may be applied to the winter business.

Managing pinch points

Aspen Skiing Co. operating four separate mountains in Aspen and Snowmass Village likely bodes well for the skiing and riding public during the pandemic.

Hanle pointed out that within the four mountains are “10 different base area access points” while some resorts have just a single place to start and end one’s day.

“That’s what it becomes. Managing pinch points and coming up with ways to spread people out,” he said of SkiCo’s ideas for social distancing. 

During its summer operations on Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, one protocol is to limit lift occupancy to those who are acquaintances and family members. 

When asked if that is still in place this winter whether SkiCo would consider lengthening lift operating hours to accommodate the crowds, Hanle said he didn’t know whether it was being considered.

“We have certain limitations in winter” when it comes to light in the early morning and late afternoon, he said.

Facial coverings will continue to be required in restaurants, ticket offices, the facilities for ski school as well as other indoor and “congested areas.” Expanding outdoor seating is also under consideration.

Kaplan’s letter suggested that perhaps the days of logging vertical and notching bowl laps should give way to a greater appreciation of the simpler pleasures brought by the mountain experience.

“Like everything in our lives pre-COVID, skiing and snowboarding had become somewhat frantic. Many of us were caught up in the conquests — tracking our bowl laps and vertical — rather than fully appreciating the moments,” he wrote.

“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,” he continued.

Asked for more clarification about how Kaplan defines “old school experience,” Jeff Hanle said, “I think a lot of it is slowing down,” some of which might happen because of regulation. “If you can’t put six people in every gondola car, you’re going to be slower,” he said.

“It’s a year to ski and explore. Don’t worry about cranking off a record number of bowl laps,” Hanle said.

Could limits be put on the number of trips into Highland Bowl?

“I don’t know there would be a booking system for the bowl,” Hanle said. “The bowl by its nature provides a lot of space.” 

“New technology” to allow most business transactions to happen without human contact will be implemented this winter, Kaplan also wrote.

“This will allow guests to enjoy more time recreating by getting on the mountain quicker and will limit the need to wait in lines or spend time in congested areas,” he added.

Kaplan referred to guest surveys that show “most of you are accepting of the necessary operational changes. But to the handful who say we should operate as normal and ignore our public health professionals, I want to be clear: We will only go back to business as usual at the ski areas and in our restaurants and hotels when the science and health experts give us the unanimous ‘all clear.’ Until then, we’ll be serious and vigilant about keeping one another safe.”

Kaplan also wrote, “If we can all own our roles and live them, I know we will open on time and remain open as long as the snow allows.”

Madeleine Osberger is interim editor of the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at madski@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @Madski99