Aspen employers concerned about shortage of staff and customer services ahead of summer

Taxis and hotel shuttles await guest arrivals at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport on Friday, April 1, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Employers across all industries in the resort community have recently lamented the effects of labor shortages on the guest experience, particularly the difficulty in getting people from the airport to the city. and vice versa.

One by one, business and resort representatives told their stories of last winter’s labor shortage war at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board meeting the week last.

Many of these stories originate from the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where the demand for ground transportation far exceeds current infrastructure and services.

ACRA board member Charlie Bantis told two stories of people vacationing here in recent weeks. One took his family to Eagle and paid $500 to get here and felt lucky he only paid $200 for a rental car to get back from Aspen to Eagle. The other person waited 90 minutes to get a taxi from the airport to a hotel in Aspen.

“In an age of social media and people tweeting every five minutes about what’s going on in their lives, that’s probably not a good look for Aspen,” Bantis said. “If you can’t take care of your visitors when they get off the plane, how will they feel for the rest of their stay?

Jeff Bay, general manager of HayMax Hotels, which owns the Aspen Hotel, said he’s “had a ton of issues with guests not being able to get to the airport.”

He told the council that High Mountain Taxi, the only taxi company in the valley, turned off his phone the other day and was not answering calls.

“They were so overwhelmed, and it was very difficult,” he said. “It’s certainly an issue that probably needs some attention sooner rather than later, especially as we enter the summer season.”

Matt Cook, owner of High Mountain Taxi, said the company doesn’t turn off its phones, but when call volumes are high, dispatchers can’t always keep up with incoming requests.

“When everyone lands and people are done skiing, there’s a lot of demand,” he said, adding that he usually has 60 pilots on hand for the season, and this year it’s was around 50. “We have problems with hiring, like everyone else…but the problem is efficiency in getting to town…traffic plays a major role in that.

Travelers depart Aspen/Pitkin County Airport after landing in town on a snowy afternoon on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Add to that a lack of alternative ground transportation like Uber and Lyft, as well as the departure of what was once known as the Colorado Mountain Express, which was a shuttle service to airports and mountain towns from the West Rim to Denver.

Bill Tomcich, a local airline industry liaison and consultant for a group called Fly Aspen Snowmass, said he personally had a bad experience with an Uber driver who refused to take him to the Valley from Fryingpan because he realized how far away it was.

“Getting people the last mile from the airport to the city is always a very difficult situation because of the whole shortage of employees,” he said, adding that Epic Mountain Express, formerly CME, had left the market just before the start of the winter season and was gone. a significant void that was more substantial than industry officials believed at the time. “This is already a high priority for the Fly Aspen/Snowmass Group…and I’m happy to say that there are two companies that have expressed a very strong interest in servicing local markets to fill this void left by Epic Mountain Express. .”

Cristal Logan, vice president of community programs and engagement at the Aspen Institute, as well as chair of the ACRA board of directors, said that as part of the transportation and mobility task force, She and others will present at the Transportation Committee Retreat of Elected Officials later this month and advocate for carpooling and call apps so locals who drive can pick up people at the airport.

Bay suggested that the city-subsidized Downtowner be expanded to serve the airport.

Bantis said it’s an issue he encourages ACRA staff to look into.

“I think there is a free market solution to this instead of trying to put more government money into it,” he said.

Cook of High Mountain Taxi said his drivers often deal with limo companies when demand is too high at the airport.

He said if taxis and other shuttles could use the dedicated bus lanes entering and leaving the city, it would triple the round trip.

However, he understands that there are limitations to using these lanes, as they are part of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s decision record on entering Aspen.

Cook said he expects this summer to be as busy as last year and hopes to be able to meet demand while continuing to operate in a challenging environment.

He said he’s only had two requests this winter for a dispatcher job, even though he pays a competitive hourly wage.

Currently, High Mountain Taxi’s dispatch center is outsourced to Serbia between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. and then staffed locally from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“Hopefully that will change soon,” Cook said, adding that he hopes to have an all-local roster by summer.

Staffing issues are also plaguing the restaurant industry in Aspen, said ACRA board member Michael Goldberg, owner of Matsuhisa restaurant and Belly Up concert venue.

He told the board that the restaurateurs he spoke with are having a banner year.

“So we’re all scratching our heads a bit trying to figure out what we’re doing about the labor wars,” he said. “I know restaurant owners who don’t talk to other restaurant owners because people keep stealing each other’s labor.”

Goldberg predicted the problem will only get worse as more restaurants come online, which he noted don’t serve locally or are less menu-price friendly.

He added that he was paying over $30 an hour for a security guard at Belly Up.

“We always find that we don’t have enough staff to staff on normal nights,” Goldberg said. “We have a lot of customers on the restaurant and music side, but it’s certainly a challenge to open every night, and I don’t know where it stops frankly.

“We look forward to the summer with the same issues.”

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