Aspen is more than just a ski town; it’s a global brand that simultaneously evokes fur-coat glamour, X Games ski progression, environmental activism and some John Denver-esque vision of the authentic Rocky Mountain West. David Perry, Senior Vice President of Aspen Skiing Company’s Mountain Division, is the man in charge of making America’s most iconic ski resort work, from the lifts to the marketing to the finances.
Perry is a true lifer in the resort industry, having spent two decades at Whistler, and a stint at the helm of Colorado Ski Country USA, the state’s ski tourism association, before joining Aspen in 2002.
OnTheSnow: We’re going to start right out with the tough question. How much does the Senior Vice President of Aspen Skiing Company get to ski?
David Perry: You’d have to get really picky about how you define “skiing” versus being on the mountain. I’m on the mountain 60-70 days a year. We have four mountains here, and I try to get on each of our four mountains once a week. In addition to that, if I’m with my family, I go skiing. If I can get a minimum of four and up to five days a week, then that’s doing pretty well. I have a personal rule that no lunch meetings in the winter are allowed to happen in the valley. All lunch meetings are held at a mountaintop restaurant, or somewhere on the mountain, so at least I can go up and ski down.
OTS: That’s a good rule. You have me beat by quite a few days.
DP: There’s no excuse. The mountains are right there. You don’t have to get in a car and drive to them.
OTS: When you’re not skiing, which is apparently somewhat rare, what does the SVP of Aspen Skiing Company do?
DP: I’m responsible for our four ski areas and everything to do with them. That’s Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. I’m responsible for overall operations, marketing, their financial performance and everything that falls under those categories.
I have a personal rule that no lunch meetings in the winter are allowed to happen in the valley. All lunch meetings are held at a mountaintop restaurant, or somewhere on the mountain, so at least I can go up and ski down.
OTS: Aspen has been on the leading edge of environmental policy for many years. Was that something that came from the top down, or something you felt from the community?
DP: It’s true that we now have a deeply ingrained culture in support of environmental initiatives, but in the beginning it was as basic as recycling and trying to save energy. I have to credit Pat O’Donnell, the former CEO of Aspen Skiing Company who’s now retired. He was an environmental zealot before his time. He hired the first environmental affairs director in the ski industry in the mid-90s. Pat had a passion for the environment, but he was also very astute to realize that our industry depends on access and enjoyment of a pristine natural environment. If we don’t preserve our environment, we’re not taking care of job one.
OTS: Is that how you measure your environmental efforts, that you are able to provide a pristine natural setting to the guests?
DP: It started with that, with being responsible stewards of what we offer, and then it evolved from there. The passion around environmental issues and the rapid onset of global climate change have sharpened everyone’s focus. We have since realized that perhaps the biggest role we can play is reaching influential people who have a connection with Aspen. And frankly, shamelessly using the Aspen name to open doors in Washington and elsewhere to influence policy around climate change. We’ve become more and more activists outside the Roaring Fork Valley.
OTS: Do you feel that the larger business community has become more accepting of your message over the years?
DP: Sometimes it feels like it’s two steps forward, one step back, but I feel that we’ve been able to prove to business leaders that good environmental policy has a ROI, that as a responsible businessperson you should be tackling your environmental issues, starting with energy use. Energy is expensive and getting more expensive, and on a basic financial basis you have a responsibility to reduce your energy expenditures and look for renewable sources.
We try to explore every avenue we can on that front. We built the first-ever micro-hydro plant installed into a snowmaking system. Lots of resorts have snowmaking systems with pipes that run underground, and they’re only used for a month or two of the year. Well, there’s a lot of months where you get spring run-off and you have water running down those pipes turning a turbine to generate electricity. We have one micro-hydro plant running and we have plans to do many more. That’s just smart business, and a way to utilize your natural assets.
Like any business, buildings tend to be one of the biggest users of energy in the ski industry. So, all our new buildings are LEED certified to the highest level we can mange. We do a lot of retrofitting in our older buildings. Sometimes it’s as simple as eliminating all our incandescent light bulbs and replacing them with LEDs or CFLs. This is the mundane work of environmental policy, getting down into the depths of your buildings and working on control systems and boilers and getting more efficient. So we try to make sure that we’re doing the right things to run our business efficiently, and I think that jibes very well with good environmental policy.
OTS: Some environmental groups, like the Ski Areas Citizens’ Coalition, put a heavy emphasis on maintaining your footprint in assessing a resort’s environmental impact. Do you agree with that as a measure of environmental stewardship?
DP: Not all expansion is bad. We think that there’s such a thing as responsible growth, and that we can expand terrain, build a new restaurant or cut new trails in some areas, and that it can be done very responsibly. You replace one restaurant with another one with a few more seats, but it’s a more energy efficient building, so you’re expanding your ability to host customers and guests, but you’re doing so in a responsible way.
We have possibilities to expand some of our terrain here at Aspen/Snowmass over the next three to five years, and we can do that with very little negative impact. We believe there are some terrain pods that we can open without even building a lift. We can glade out the forests, improve wildlife habitat and give more possibilities for skiers. We don’t think there’s anything negative about that.
Not all expansion is bad. We think that there’s such a thing as responsible growth, and that we can expand terrain, build a new restaurant or cut new trails in some areas, and that it can be done very responsibly.
OTS: This summer you hosted the Colorado Ski Country USA annual meeting, and there was a speaker from Disney, talking about how the company trains employees in customer service. Do you see companies like Disney, or the cruise industry, as role models? As competition?
DP: The easy answer is both. We definitely look at companies like Disney or even cruise lines as being real innovators in how to package vacations and provide content and options for their customers and to serve it up in a really innovative way.
At the same time, I have a deeply held belief that a vacation at a mountain resort is the best thing a family could ever do, and that any Disney experience or cruise experience does not hold a candle to it. I know I’m in the industry and I definitely have a biased point of view, but where else can you get multiple generations together having an active, outdoors vacation? You can spread out on the mountain all day long, then you can come back together to share your experiences and have a good time. To me, there’s nothing better that a multi-generational family can do. It’s healthy, positive and builds emotional ties. I can’t say the same thing for a theme park or cruise vacation.
OTS: There are some travelers who want skiing to be like Disney, and some who imagine it as a wilderness experience. What do you think a ski area is?
DP: We try to reduce the hassle factor, which is inherent in a ski vacation, and then we try to provide the variety of experiences that could satisfy anyone.
If someone wants a manicured, controlled experience, then we provide wall-to-wall grooming and perfectly groomed terrain parks. And then there’s the sidecountry, semi-backcountry experience that we provide, so people can get away from the crowds. They can find themselves alone on a ridge or climbing Highlands Bowl or skiing a steep glade in Temerity. That vast variety is all within our grasp in a relatively small physical area.
And, of course, those that want a true mountaineering, semi-wilderness experience, our boundary is just at the doorstep to wild lands. We have an open boundary here. We’re proud of that. Not all ski areas do. Some ski areas have closed boundaries where they’ll give you a ticket and fine you if you go out of the boundary. As long as users understand the risks and know that they’re on their own, they should be able to use our ski areas to get out into the wild if that’s what they want to do.
OTS: How does snowfall affect a ski area business?
DP: We’re all snow farmers. We watch the weather and we watch the snowfall. There’s no question that strong snow years have a positive effect on our business and weak snow years have a negative effect. But we’re blessed here in the Elk Mountain Range of Colorado that the swings in snowfall, temperature and weather conditions are really in a narrow range, meaning that even in a tough year we have really reliable snow conditions and great weather, and in a bumper year, we just get more of it.
The quality of the snow surface stays really good here. In Colorado, almost unlike any other place in the world, the snow improves overnight. Snowfall comes in, and then overnight it dries out even more because of the altitude and the incredibly dry air.
We need to make sure that people understand that any dollar you spend on a ski or snowboard vacation is an investment in your life, your happiness, your well being. It’s feeding your soul, really.
OTS: Over the years Aspen has done some unconventional things in marketing, from making movies to your current emphasis on creating social media content.
DP: I believe in being in content and in creating content. That really comes from understanding that we’re in a culture. We have to keep the flame of skiing and riding culture alive. And creating content like those films serves multiple purposes. The local community and our employees rally around it. They go “yeah, that’s what we’re all about.” It reinforces the positives of why we live, work and play here. And it sends out, we think, a compelling, inspirational message to the skiing and snowboarding world that sees this place in a unique light. To me it’s really important to keep that core ski and snowboard culture alive and creating content is one way to do that.
OTS: Last question. Looking at the next few years, what’s one big opportunity you’re excited about and one big challenge you’re facing?
DP: To me the biggest challenge is to make sure that during the difficult times people are facing, we can continue to grow our business and prove to people that skiing and snowboarding and having a mountain resort experience is one of the best things they can do for themselves. During buoyant times, our job is easy. During tough economic times, we have to remain relevant. People have to justify the expense. We need to make sure that people understand that any dollar you spend on a ski or snowboard vacation is an investment in your life, your happiness, your well being. It’s feeding your soul, really. That’s more challenging right now than it’s been during all the years I’ve been in this business.
Our biggest opportunity is summer. Anybody who lives in or near a mountain town knows the saying, “I came for the winter and stayed for the summer.” Aspen is quite unique in that it’s as busy in summer as it is in winter. And that’s the result of the whole Aspen idea, the coming together of mind, body and spirit. There’s the music festival, food and wine, the great outdoor activities, which really in Aspen come into balance.
- Interview by Patrick Crawford
This interview is the second installment in the OTS Business of Snow series. To read the first installment with President of Rossignol North America, Tim Petrick, CLICK HERE».