Aspen Skiing sets its sights on the world

The ski resort operator adjusts its comms tactics to draw local, domestic, and international visitors

Ski season in Colorado may be winding down for the year, but the area's cachet as an international destination for skiers and snowboarders goes on.

For the privately held Aspen Skiing Company, which owns and operates all four ski resorts in the historic town of Aspen, known collectively as Aspen Snowmass, major outreach resumes every year with the initial opening of the resort. Kristin Rust, director of international PR, says "snow messaging" is a key means of generating interest and excitement with skiers and snowboarders planning trips.

"If we get big snowstorms, we want to get that on video, we want to get press releases out, we want to get that message out as much as possible, because word of mouth and messaging on snow is candy to skiers and snowboarders," she says. "The earlier you get that message out, the better people think the season is going to be and, hopefully, book their vacation."

Internationally, Aspen is one of the premier ski and snowboarding destinations in the world, along with resorts such as British Columbia's Whistler Blackcomb and Chamonix, France. Ski resorts in Vermont or Maine also attract some international visitors, but not on as large a scale.

Jennifer Rudolph, director of communications for Colorado Ski Country USA, notes that the 26 resorts in the state that are members of her group - including another famous one, Vail - work together in many situations on attracting visitors generally to the state. They also unite on shared messaging, such as the ski resorts' environmentally friendly practices.

In its competition for those big-spending, discerning international visitors, Aspen Skiing mostly does communications in-house, though it employs New York-based Missy Farren & Associates to promote its five-star hotel, the Little Nell. The company also has PR reps in several of its largest overseas markets, including Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Germany, to help identify and cultivate travel or sports journalists.

A major part of this media outreach involves hosting journalists, either in groups or individually, at the Aspen mountains, Rust says. They may receive airfare vouchers, free accommodations and lift tickets, and be taken out for a meal or two. Often this entails marketing partnerships with overseas tour operators or travel agencies that may as a result get a mention in the articles they end up writing. Aspen will also coordinate with Colorado Ski Country on visits by journalists to multiple resorts around the state.

"We'll coordinate with Kristin on the media angles we're interesting in covering, let them know what's new at the resorts they're interested in, and bring them out on a trip," Rudolph says.

With oversees visitors, the perceived cachet and luxury of Aspen is a major draw that the sales and PR team feed by enabling celebrity media coverage. Soap opera stars from Brazil, for example, may do photo shoots on the mountain or in town, with those images consumed avidly back home.

"I don't proactively take pictures of them and send them to journalists, of course," Rust says. "But what we try to do is host international celebrities here. Internationally, they eat it up. It makes us look like we are the hot, sexy place to come."

Within the US, though, Rust says her team tries to completely avoid celebrity coverage in order to prevent scaring off Coloradans or other Americans who simply want to get out on the slopes - or enjoy some of the other facilities of the resort, such as spas, fine dining, or shopping. They may be wealthy, but not necessarily of the ultra-luxe crowd.

"Domestically, we avoid that message as much as possible," she says. "That celebrity, wealthy message makes our resort seem unattainable - it's ritzy glitzy and turns people off. The reality is, once you come to the resort, that piece exists, but it has nothing to do with our experience and what we're like."

Of course, Aspen is not a mass-market destination, but rather a place basically for people who already know how to ski and seek a "destination" resort. Still, Rust notes that many of the skiers may be Aspen residents who think of the mountains in town in a proprietary way, either for recreation, employment, or simply as a significant contributor to the local economy. Specific outreach to the local newspapers and radio and TV stations is therefore very important.

"They think of the mountains as theirs, so if Aspen Skiing Company does something they don't agree with, you're going to hear about it," she says. "Ticket prices, we didn't open the gondola in time - anything. It's a small town and people are very vocal."

At a glance:

Corporation: Aspen Skiing Company
Owner and managing parner: Jim Crown
Headquarters: Aspen, CO
Operating budget: Undisclosed
Key titles: Travel & Leisure, SKI, Skiing, Powder, TransWorld Snowboarding
PR budget: Undisclosed
Marcomms team:
Kristin Rust, director of international PR;
Jeff Hanle, director of PR, mountain div.;
Melissa Rhines, comms manager;
Meredith McKee, comms coordinator
PR agency: Missy Farren & Assoc. (for Little Nell)

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