By David Stillman Meyer | December 21, 2017 | Culture
One brave reporter thought it would be exciting to get the general managers from Aspen’s three reigning luxury hotels together for a gondola ride to talk shop and the future of hospitality. It would have been a fight to the death if they weren’t already such good friends.
The Silver Queen Gondola—then and now— remains the pumping heart of Aspen.
ASPEN PEAK: So, what’s the dynamic between the hotels and between the managers of the hotels?
Heather Steenge-Hart (The St. Regis Aspen Resort): It’s wonderful. We did a big charity event together in March. One of the auction items was the three of us serving dinner, and we had an absolute blast doing that.
Tony DiLucia (Hotel Jerome): I feel the same. I would describe the three hotels as sort of a chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. We all have our own personalities. Jerome is the oldest. We have the historical side. But we all share guests and staff. Steenge-Hart: And insight. We’ll call each other on occasion. The Jerome staffs our holiday party, which is great, so our employees can really enjoy themselves.
ASPEN PEAK: Hotels are a unique industry in that you can work your way up from dishwasher to general manager and beyond. Have you witnessed this at your organizations?
Steenge-Hart: Absolutely. I started as a bus girl, then a server, then while at university I was a front desk agent. Even back then I knew I wanted to be a general manager one day… and that was before there were female GMs.
DiLucia: My first job at the Jerome was as a prep cook. We do try to promote from within. If people are here and settled and they want to make this their home, we want to encourage that.
From top: The Little Nell; The St. Regis Aspen Resort; Hotel Jerome.
ASPEN PEAK: The staff and where to house them… Is it as challenging as every business in town laments?
DiLucia: It’s a constant effort. We’re secured for this winter, but summer could be a real problem this year.
Steenge-Hart: We have some housing, but it’s still a challenge. I had an employee approach me the other day and tell me they have four months left to live here, but nowhere to live.
Simon Chen (The Little Nell): We do have a little bit of an advantage because we have more employee housing. As part of the Aspen Skiing Company we can offer ski passes, which is a competitive advantage, but our disadvantage is our five-star rating [which requires additional training].
DiLucia: People are talking about these small modular housing units in Carbondale. My human resources director went down and stayed in one, and I am considering proposing this to ownership.
ASPEN PEAK: How do you feel about there being more hotel rooms in town?
Chen: This town needs more moderately priced hotel rooms. The W Hotel, the Limelight Hotel, The Gant, Aspen Square... I mean, those are servicing the next generation of skiers.
DiLucia: The W is going to be so awesome because that’s a market the three of us don’t cover, and I think that’s good for our community—and for our bars and restaurants.
ASPEN PEAK: Speaking of bars and restaurants… Tony, something you talked about when you returned as general manager was getting locals back into the J-Bar.
DiLucia: Locals need to feel as important as the tourists, and they need to have a place that they can call their own. Not to mention tourists want to hang out with locals. We started the mug club, readjusted the pricing, brought back some well-liked bartenders. Without the locals, the J-Bar doesn’t have its character.
Steenge-Hart: Whenever we talk about anything we’re going to do, the discussion always includes the community. One of the big things that we do now is our annual tree lighting. In 2012, when I first got here, about 200 people showed up. Now we have 500 to 600 people, including all the Aspen schools.
Chen: Chair Nine has a $3 beer. You don’t see that around Aspen very often. We also did a local’s date night where we invited parents to have a nice dinner at Ajax Tavern while we babysat the kids.
ASPEN PEAK: Renovations… How important are they to keeping up with guest expectations?
Chen: Extremely important. We just upgraded our rooms last spring. Given we’re in Aspen, the hotel gets wear and tear with ski boots, hiking boots, etc. We go in and paint rooms between almost every guest. Our full-time painter just goes from one end of the building to the next, 365 days a year.
DiLucia: It’s so crucial. Of the renovations we’re doing now, one of the most important things was making the Jacuzzis bigger. People just love to be in a Jacuzzi when it’s snowing.
Steenge-Hart: They really do. It’s very blissful.
DiLucia: Come 3 o’clock, people are fighting for a spot. The Champagne is out. People make friends. It’s a whole scene.
Steenge-Hart: We just had a $50 million renovation, so we’re in pretty good shape, but we’re always doing something. Right now we’re updating the restaurant, which will be called the Velvet Buck, and it will speak more to Colorado fare for families and locals. You can get a big steak for not a big price. That’s opening Dec. 16, which is the same day as the tree lighting, which is the same day as Snow Polo. We’re also redoing the bar, which will be called Mountain Social. The bar will get a lot longer. We designed it really wanting it to be more welcoming to locals.
ASPEN PEAK: What are the most important things that need to be addressed in the next 20 years?
Steenge-Hart: The airport. We don’t necessarily need to get more people into town, but we definitely need to keep the level the same.
DiLucia: The airport is huge. And housing. Those are the big ones. I guess what I have really seen change in the past 20 years is that it used to be 70 to 80 percent of the staff lived in town, and the rest commuted. Now it’s the reverse.
Steenge-Hart: And we have a great bus system. In terms of the future trends of hospitality, most are looking for an experience when they travel. Something they can share on social media, and Aspen really speaks to that. Hiking the Bells, the Bowl, paddle boarding, paragliding, you name it. I think that’s why we have a really great future here.
ASPEN PEAK: What about the Airbnb phenomenon? Does that worry you?
Steenge-Hart: You’re naive if you don’t worry about it.
DiLucia: What we have to do as hotels is prove the value of our service. With an Airbnb you might get a nice house in the West End or on Red Mountain, but that’s about it. Guest engagement is so huge right now. The staff really connects with them, but at the same time gives them their space and their privacy.
Chen: We do offer some really special amenities like our cycling camp in the fall, powder tours, and we find that doing things with our guests really builds a wonderful rapport. The guests become our friends. Before they check in at the front desk, they give us a hug. It’s not manufactured. And there is nothing more rewarding than that relationship. All of us, that’s what we do best.
PJHOTO COURTESY OF THE ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY