Village Express

Snow falls on the Village Express lift at Snowmass Ski Area on on Sept. 10. Given the unknown ramifications of COVID-19 heading into the winter ski season, Snowmass Tourism is planning more off-mountain, socially distanced attractions to keep visitors engaged.

 

Snowmass Village is doing its best to prepare for winter guests while acknowledging that what the visitor numbers will look like is a great unknown.

The town’s tourism office hosted an update on Friday, with participation from Aspen Skiing Co. and others, and revealed its ideas for supporting businesses into the winter months. Snowmass Tourism Director Rose Abello unveiled the slogan “Keeping the Village Vibrant,” which represents a goal moving into the 2020-21 ski season amid the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on international travel and large group gatherings.

Abello said the town will pay homage to its roots, with features that mimic European ski villages. Restaurants will be allowed to expand onto sidewalks with planters, plexiglass and electric heaters to keep visitors warm while dining outdoors. The town will provide blankets for diners and has been working with state liquor license authorities to allow for an increased footprint at dining establishments.

“It would not solve the problem on the day that is 11 below zero and blizzarding, but we think on a lot of days it would provide some outdoor seating,” she said.

Snowmass Village has long catered to families and marketed its offerings to children. The tourism team is working on continuing on last year’s hit of free s’mores, ice sculptures and light shows after the lifts close. Attractions such as fireworks — where it is easier to stay socially distanced — will be increased throughout the winter, along with successful summer-type programs such as live music on the mall.

Since the spread of coronavirus, local lodging has seen an increase in last-minute bookings. The trend away from advanced bookings makes it hard to determine what the winter visitor load might be.

“What we continue to hear from the lodging communities is that bookings are last-minute, and they are strong,” Abello said.

Moving into the fall, tourism numbers are not dropping as dramatically as usual, causing a unique situation in which there is strong travel occurring within the offseason.

“I have heard concern that a lot of the businesses are closing down, and we do have a pretty full village here,” Abello said.

Looking forward, January is the biggest worry, as that month is typically a boon because of international visitors, which are not expected to arrive in great numbers this year.

Instead, the marketing team is trying to appeal to long-term U.S. visitors, pointing out that 95% of lodging units are on the slopes in Snowmass Village. Students who are learning from home can ski during recess; adults who are working from home can work from their vacation spot instead.

Staggered entrance

SkiCo vice president of communications Jeff Hanle joined the tourism call Friday to take questions about the newly revealed ski passes for the 2020-21 season and other on-mountain logistics.

He said the low January numbers may work out in favor of locals, as two newly-created locals passes also come with the ability to buy discounted, day-of-use lift tickets.

“When we see that we are not busy, that could be January, early season, we can flex that discount to make it much more affordable for folks to get up on the hill,” he said.

For peak times, SkiCo is looking at ways to disperse large crowds from base areas. This could mean pushing back Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club meeting times so they don’t overlap with ski school and clinics that also are meeting up as the lifts start spinning.

“We’ve spent more time than ever with AVSC this summer and fall,” he said.

Also throughout the summer, SkiCo has been working to adjust its operations to current public health codes, preparing for ways to separate diners in restaurants and keep gondolas and lifts disinfected.

“We’ve been open all summer and through the fall and we’ve learned a lot of how to run these businesses under these guidelines,” Hanle said.

The new locals passes come with blackout dates at the height of the Christmas and Presidents Day weekend holidays. For the first time, the blackout dates also will apply to those hoping to uphill the resort during operating hours.

“We still are probably the leading resort, in the world maybe, that works cooperatively with the uphill community,” he said. “You can uphill every day of the season, there are just nine days where you can’t during operating hours,” Hanle said.

He encouraged locals to call Aspen-Snowmass guest services as they try to decide which pass is the best for them this season. He said operators will look back at users’ past ski histories to let buyers know what the most economical choice for their ski habits will be under the new circumstances.

Hanle said on average, those who bought the flex or double-flex passes in the past — which are no longer available — only skied about 15 days across the entire season.

The lower price of the locals weekday pass may mean a cheaper price per ski day than in previous years.

“You are much better off than last year,” he said.

New heights

Bill Tomcich, local liaison to the commercial airlines serving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, also joined the call with an update. He said ASE has outpaced competitor airports in adding back flights when demand has called for it, as people gradually became more comfortable flying after stay-at-home orders were lifted.

“Boy have [the airlines] been coming through for us when they are seeing demand,” he said.

The local airport’s flight capacity recovery metric is far outpacing Denver’s, he said. Also, demand for air travel into Aspen in October is looking strong, Tomcich said, with an average of eight flights scheduled daily.

Beyond skiing

Snowmass will be doubling down on off-mountain activities too, in hopes of dispersing crowds to allow for safe recreation throughout the winter.

Nordic trails will continue to be groomed, though the town is still seeking someone to run a cross-country rental equipment operation out of the Snowmass Club.

A fat bike course is in the works and there may even be ski race events for locals near the recreation center.

The hope is that regardless of whatever changes occur with coronavirus case numbers or public health orders, there will be activities that are resilient enough to work in various scenarios.

“We are managing to more unknowns than we could ever imagine,” Abello said.

That includes best-case scenarios, in which working from home and flexible learning situations allow Snowmass Village to become more of a permanent home to visitors and second-home owners.

“I believe we will have more people living here this winter than we ever have in Snowmass,” she said.

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