In anticipation of the 2014 Aspen/Snowmass State of the Real Estate and Tourism Economy Symposium on August 14, we chatted with keynote speaker Mark Harmon, founder and managing partner of Auberge Resorts, to learn a little bit more about what he’s going to discuss and share some of his insights on the hot topic of the guest experience.
One of the industry’s premier hospitality experts, Mark brings a wealth of knowledge and unique perspective to the Aspen/Snowmass market. Auberge Resorts has, since 1998, developed a collection of exceptional properties around the world, and Mark has led its strategic planning efforts. Included in that collection is Aspen’s historic Hotel Jerome, which Auberge was chosen to manage in 2011. The company will also be the operator of the new Aspen Club residences, slated to open in 2017.
Mark’s experience with the Jerome, and in particular its 2013 renovation, has given him plenty of insight into town politics and the guest experience in Aspen. The top-to-bottom remodel, which closed the hotel for four months and included painstaking historical research as well as a thorough room redesign, has been received very positively and is emblematic of how the quality of a product can make such a difference when catering to affluent guests. But there were also challenges, which he’ll discuss in more detail at the Symposium.
“There’s a lot of regulation in Aspen, and that’s good because I think it preserves the character of the town,” he says, “but on the other hand, it becomes rarified air when you consider all the expenses involved in updating a century-old property. So you have to have a long-term view; on a risk-adjusted basis, you have to look carefully at these things, and ask yourself: would I be better off doing something less risky?”
Another area Mark will touch on is what guests are looking for today, particularly the evolution of luxury into experiential luxury.
“It’s not as important to own as many things as it is to have great experiences these days,” he says, which includes generational travel and the desire to be part of a community.
Aspen is fortunate that it’s rich in experiential offerings, and second-home ownership and travel are two of the most aspirational things on the lists of affluent people, says Mark. But the local hospitality industry can’t just rest on Aspen’s laurels. They have to know what differentiates Aspen — and their properties or services — from other places, “because there’s a lot of competition out there,” he says. And while spending has become less of an issue as the Great Recession fades into the past, “people are still looking for value in their experiences,” so recognizing how to provide that value is essential.
Mark also plans to weigh in on the current debate over Aspen’s proposed lodge incentive program, but from the broader perspective of what Aspen needs to do to maintain or achieve a great guest experience. Adding hotel rooms can only help, he says, but the key is achieving the right mix. That includes hotels with lower rates, which is difficult to achieve in a town where it’s so expensive to build.
“Reducing regulation isn’t the only answer, but it’s part of it,” he adds. “It’s important that the town continues to grow, but how do you grow? You take advantage of the character that’s there and reinvest in it.”
Finally, Mark will touch on Snowmass and the conundrum of its uncompleted Base Village, which he calls a victim of unfortunate timing.
“When I first saw the plans, I thought this would put Snowmass on par with the best ski resorts in the country,” says Mark. “But now there’s a lot of competition from resorts, such as Park City, with new properties and easy lift access. Unfortunately, there’s a cloud over Snowmass for not being completed. Economic cycles are not something developers have any control over — they just hope they hit it right. In this case the economic cycle really turned against them, and there has to be a deeper understanding of how you deal with economic cycles — there’s so much risk to begin with that there are going to have to be some concessions going forward.”
To hear more of Mark Harmon’s insights and more detail on the topics above, register for the 2014 Symposium here. It takes place on Thursday, August 14, from 3:30-5:30 pm, at the Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Meadows. The afternoon also includes a discussion of Aspen and Snowmass real estate trends and forecasts, by BJ Adams and Company President Michael Adams and noted local appraiser Randy Gold, as well as a cocktail reception. Tickets are $30 and may also be purchased by phone at 970.922.2111 or in person at the Aspen or Snowmass BJ Adams and Company offices.