Aspen-area Nordic system on a track of marginal returns
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” As a business, the Aspen and Snowmass cross country skiing centers aren’t much, admitted the owner of the Ute Mountaineer store in Aspen, which runs both centers.
“It’s really more about passion than money,” said Bob Wade, who opened the Ute Mountaineer on April Fool’s Day in 1977.
He has been running the Aspen Cross Country Center, perched on the edge of the Aspen Golf Course, for more than 20 years. The Snowmass Cross Country Center has been under the Ute Mountaineer’s management for only about four years.
Both centers operate at marginally profitable levels, Wade said, largely because he does not charge the two satellite centers for managerial and bookkeeping work performed by himself and his general manager, Paul Perley.
Wade, who sits on the board of the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council, said the operation of the two ski centers may not earn much money, but added, “It’s neat, because it overlaps so nicely with what we do here [at the Ute.]”
The Ute Mountaineer is a supplier of a wide range of gear, including backcountry skiing, climbing, hiking, camping, running and mountaineering equipment. Wade said the combined activities of the two cross country centers make up about 10 percent of the Ute’s net business.
The Ute pays a fairly nominal rent for the pro shop at the Aspen Golf Course (about 6 percent of sales) and for a space occupied by a restaurant in the summer months at the Snowmass Club ($550 a month).
At both locations, customers can avail themselves of the rental equipment, the sales racks and shelves, the ski tuning center, locker rooms and showers, and, when they are open, the nearby restaurants that are part of the golf complexes, as well as making free use of the extensive trails.
Wade said that, in general, as much as 70 percent of the money taken in at the Aspen center comes from the sale of gear, clothing and equipment. The other 30 percent, he said, is income from ski and snowshoe rentals, lessons and tours.
Aspen Center manager Tim Clement said the percentages “basically are reversed” in the center’s high season ” the big holiday times when his staff grows from two people to as many as eight. At those peak times, he said, rentals and lessons can account for 60 to 70 percent of the shop’s income, compared to 30 to 40 percent in sales.
The numbers of customers that come to the shops vary widely, too.
Clement said the store will log 75 customers a day during holidays, but the number stays around 40 to 50 per day from December through March, on average.
And, he said, there often are “another dozen to 75 people who don’t come into the shop but are skiing on the trails” on any given day.
Wade noted the tracks are set using equipment owned and operated by the Aspen Parks Department in a resource-sharing arrangement with the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council, freeing him of that burden at both the Aspen and Snowmass centers.
And the trail-setting work, along with other aspects of maintaining the 70-some kilometers of trails, is supported by taxpayers, who have more than once given approval for public funding for trails.
Ward gives much of the credit for founding the system to former Olympic cross country ski racer Craig Ward.
Wade said that Ward, returning to Aspen in the mid-1980s, looked around at the budding trails that existed at the time and realized that with a little work, the disparate networks could be joined together. A group of like-minded “nords,” as Wade calls them, got together and formed the nordic council, which in turn started working with local governments to consolidate and improve the trails in the upper valley.
Although the cross country trails system is publicized locally in the greater Roaring Fork Valley, Wade said, he believes it should be a more important part of the national and international marketing of the valley’s recreational amenities.
“We have a world-class product,” Wade said of the cross country centers and the trails network, which he believes can be as much of an attraction for tourists as alpine skiing on the four local ski areas and the shopping experience in Aspen and Snowmass.
“It’s evolving,” he said of the cross country amenities and the revenue it generates. “It’s becoming a real business here in Aspen.”
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