Across the country, events have been cancelled and people are pulling back on travel in response to the spread of COVID-19, or novel coronavirus. For more on how the disease is affecting the tourism industry here in Pitkin County, Jeff Hanle, communications director for Aspen Skiing Company, weighed in.
What are some precautions that SkiCo is taking, knowing that the coronavirus is an increasing reality here in the valley?
For more than a week now, we've been communicating to our employees, sharing best practices from the CDC and the state health offices and working closely with Pitkin County Health and Human Services. You know, just the practical stuff to start with, like how effective hand-washing and cleaning are in the fight against this virus. And we've increased some cleaning and disinfecting practices in all of our public spaces and high- touch areas in the hotels and on the mountains.
We've been working to disinfect the gondola cabins at Aspen and Snowmass and pointing guests towards open-air lift options if they don't want to ride in a gondola with other people.
Are you thinking about a future where you might close down operations, either on the mountain or in hotels or restaurants?
It's something we definitely are talking about and running tabletop exercises and looking at the reality of doing such a thing, but we're going to take our direction from the health professionals and experts. If it gets to that stage, and I'm not aware that it's gotten to that stage yet, we'd be foolish not to be preparing for that.
We're working on different work-from-home scenarios. We understand that a lot of our employees can't work from home when you're on the front lines. We're looking at relaxing or adding additional sick days just to encourage people, if they do feel sick and they say, "I don't have any sick days or I need the money." If we can cushion that blow for them, they're more likely to stay home and not spread something if they have symptoms. So [we have] a lot of different policies, a lot of different practices and a lot of preparation for a potential worsening of this situation.
What would it take to get to a position where you close down hotels or restaurants or other places where you have a lot of people?
It would take the health department to tell us that that's what we should do. We're not experts in disease prevention. We're experts in hospitality and ski area management. If the county or the state comes to us and says, "This is the situation in your communities and this is what we recommend," then we'd look at those recommendations.
Have you seen any dip in visitorship? Are people canceling vacations ahead of time because they don't want to travel?
Yeah, we've seen some cancellations. We've seen a slowing of the booking process for the rest of the year and for the summer, and that's to be expected. Some people are still coming, some people are still traveling. We have some people who might've had a European vacation planned who are now coming here. So it's a mixed bag. But we're definitely seeing more concern from our visitors who were planning to come this spring, and we are seeing some cancellations.
With all of the risks involved in going from one place to another, do you think people should still be going on spring break?
That's a personal decision. It really comes down to each individual making an educated decision for themselves, and what they want to put themselves in.
Right now, I've got travel planned in the end of April and I'm still planning to travel. If things change, things could get better, things could slow down, things could get worse, and I can make that decision later.
We've relaxed our cancellation policies, so people are able to cancel at our hotels late and be given a credit to use up to 12 months from the date of cancellation. All of our ski products, if they're not used or have been and still are fully refundable. So we're making it easier for people to book moving forward. But if things get worse or if things change, they'll have flexibility in getting out of that commitment to come.
Can you think of another time where you've seen people scared of a disease or something else that's caused a sudden and unpredicted drop-off in visitors or a change in your operations?
Yeah. We had the recession, we had 9/11, we had the bird flu. But this, in my experience, seems to be the most dramatic yet. It's interesting to observe, and hopefully it turns around. If it gets warmer and it starts declining, we don't know. So, prepare yourselves for the worst and hope for the best is what we're operating on.
Editor's Note: This conversation was recorded on Wednesday morning, before any presumptive positive COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Pitkin County.
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