Podcast #54: Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan

Talking expansion, lift upgrades, multipasses, vaccine mandates & more at one of America's top ski destinations

  
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Who

Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Skiing Company

Recorded on

Sept. 24, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Vail may rule the American skiing economy, but Aspen remains king of the nation’s popular skiing imagination. From Aspen Extreme to Dumb and Dumber, the town and its mountains serve as the stand-in for big-mountain Western skiing as a whole, one word that communicates to skiers and non-skiers the essence of the sport. And there is something spectacular about it. This city at the end of the road, hovering just past the gravitational pull of Denver and the I-70 disaster seeping beyond it. Those narrow expert mountains with their unrelenting fall lines and absence of greens. Buttermilk with its lazy empty groomers and lost-in-plain-site underdog patina. The wild labyrinthian variety of burly Snowmass. The city itself, bleeding as one into Aspen Mountain, some invigorating mashup of town and city, luxe and lowbrow, skibum and jetset. Aspen doesn’t have the wildest terrain. It doesn’t get the most snow. It doesn’t have the most vertical or the most skiable acres. But it may just be the best total ski experience America offers.

What we talked about

Arriving in Aspen in 1993; how the city has changed over the past three decades; going from ski school instructor to CEO of one of America’s great ski companies; celebrating 75 years of skiing at Aspen; the significance of Aspen’s original Lift 1, the present-day Shadow Mountain lift, and what may replace it and when; the return of Ruthie’s restaurant; the scope and status of the proposed Pandora expansion off Aspen Mountain’s summit; what could be developed on that land if the county denies the expansion permit; what the expansion could mean for the Gent’s Ridge quad and the rest of Aspen’s lift fleet; Snowmass lifts: the new high-speed six-pack on Big Burn, a timeline to replace Coney Glade, the latest thinking on a possible Burnt Mountain lift; whether we could ever see a lift up Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands; whether the Bowl Cat will return for the 2021-22 ski season; where we could see future expansion at Highlands; how the Deep Temerity expansion at Highlands could inform the Pandora expansion at Aspen; the status of the Golden Horn surface lift at Highlands; a different point of view on Buttermilk; the interplay of the four mountains to create a distinctive Aspen experience; why Aspen didn’t become part of Alterra; the Mountain Collective Pass and Ikon Pass origin stories; why Aspen pulled off the Ikon Base Pass and how the move to the “plus” tier has worked out; the future of the Mountain Collective; what happened with the $2 million that Liftopia owed Aspen for Mountain Collective Passes; Aspen’s plan to “stay in business forever” amid a changing climate; why Aspen is requiring all employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19 prior to the start of the 2021-22 ski season; and the tangle of problems Covid brought along with it last season.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

Aspen, under Kaplan, has evolved. It is: a leader in the fight against climate change, a model for implementing creative employee housing solutions in the modern mountain town, a crown-jewel of two transcontinental ski pass products, a voice in skiing’s struggles to diversify, and an uncompromising partner in the battle against Covid. There was nothing inevitable about any of this. Fifteen years ago, Aspen was a fun town with a pack of fun ski hills. The Epic Pass didn’t exist and issues of diversity, equality, and environmental catastrophe were minimized or ignored. Aspen could have just kept being Aspen and that would have probably been good enough to keep on existing. But Kaplan had other ideas. Lots of ideas. And while a phalanx of market and social forces, innovators, and disruptors would likely have forced the company into some version of its 2021 self, Kaplan no doubt accelerated the change. Aspen Mountain, by skiable acres, is only the 20th largest ski area in Colorado – smaller than Monarch, Sunlight, Eldora, Wolf Creek, Powderhorn, A-Basin, Purgatory, and Loveland. Yet in its purpose and its presence it is bigger than all of them. Now seemed as good a time as ever to find out why that continues to be true.

Questions I wish I’d asked

I had wanted to discuss the origin and influence of the X-Games at Buttermilk, whether the locals backlash against the Ikon Pass has subsided as Aspen changed access levels and started giving out a Base Pass with an Aspen season pass, whether Aspen would continue rationing season passes, how the company’s various diversity initiatives are evolving, whether post-Covid employee benefit cuts had been restored, how short-term rentals and urban Covid refugees were impacting the local housing market, Aspen’s employee housing initiatives, how the Covid fallout compared to the aftermath of The Great Recession, whether the company expected last year’s skier visit declines to continue, and which Covid-era operating changes were most likely to hang around. We ran out of time. Next time.

Why you should ski Aspen

Because Aspen will give you the best total ski week in America. The skiing, yes: the mountains, teetering above the valley, four poles balancing one another like a perfectly assembled sports team. The steeps that are not too steep to manage and the greens that are not too flat to lean into. The lost-in-time-and-space feeling of the Hanging Valley Glades or Deep Temerity or Bingo Glades. But it’s everything else, too. The free and frequent shuttlebus connecting town and mountains. The incredible variety of lodging options that make the place more affordable than you’d think. And the city itself, a pedestrian-friendly human-scaled relic salvaged from Colorado’s Wild West ancestry and outfitted with T-shirt shops, celebrity-chef eateries, weed emporiums, surly bars, grocery stores, Prada shops, and antique stores, like the most bizarre Lego set ever invented. And you go because you have to. It’s just one of those places. If you’re a skier you must ski Aspen because it’s Aspen. I really don’t know how else to say it. Just go.

More Aspen

Lift Blog’s lift inventories for:

Historic trailmaps for:

Archival footage of Lift 1, the single chair that stood from 1947 to 1971 and took 40 minutes to rise from town to the Aspen Mountain summit:

Get stoked on Aspen Extreme:

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