We’ve had our first snowstorm of the season on the heels of weeks of gorgeous autumn weather. With town pretty quiet it’s a great time to pick our heads up, look at the big picture and, most importantly, get excited for the coming winter. It is true that so many of us came for the winters but stayed for the summers but skiing and riding does remain central to our lives and all of us here certainly are looking forward to getting back to what drew us here.
This fall, picking our heads up and taking quantitative look at the market has been particularly interesting. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association recently published their statistics for the 2022 summer season. As a result, we can now get a sense of where the market is trending, what the impact of the pandemic has been, and what that means for our clients. Whether you are considering entering the real estate market, assessing your real estate options, or simply planning your holidays here, it’s worthwhile taking a few minutes to consider what the numbers are showing us.
We’ve been working recently with our friends at Permafrost Information Strategies to better understand the long- and short-term impact of the pandemic on our marketplace, and their insightful analysis certainly has helped to crystalize our thinking. Along with Permafrost, we use lodging occupancy rates for Aspen Snowmass as a bellwether of our local economy. Though obviously limited in scope to one particular sector of the vacationing pubic, we find occupancy data to be a concise lens through which to see long-term trends for how our resort is doing generally. When assessing the impact of the pandemic on the market and looking ahead to what we expect from this winter, weekly and monthly occupancy averages against historical figures have been our focus. Looking at the recently released data from the busy 2022 summer season here provides us with the big picture view that we’ve been anxiously awaiting – it allows us to see the way in which the Aspen Snowmass lodging and real property markets may move post-pandemic and what long-term effects from the pandemic we are likely to see.
What Recent Data Shows About the COVID-19 Pandemic
What’s clear from the data is that we can now draw a tight circle around the months where occupancy was impacted directly by the pandemic. Those months that we view as skewing historical averages and affecting long-term trending are generally March 2020 through and including March 2021. While occupancy rates for February 2021, for example, were still significantly below long-term February averages, March 2021 saw a notable up-tick. March 2021 was still slightly below the seven March averages immediately preceding the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, but it did prove to be a significant correction from the pandemic months. Occupancy rates in April 2021 were strong compared to historical averages; and December 2021, and February and March 2022 saw the highest average occupancy rates for those months. Simply put, we can now see the big picture and understand it, and the way the data is trending it looks as though winter season occupancy is back to “normal” rates and that data demonstrates a general trend of growth similar to what we saw in the pre-pandemic winter seasons. As Permafrost’s Russ Kauff emphasizes, this analysis is not merely about throwing out high and low periods of economic performance so as to not include ‘force majeure’ and the like from our long-term view of discretionary spending; it’s about understanding how consumers prioritize components of their spending, where Aspen Snowmass fits into their thinking about their spending, and how their long-term behavior may be affected.
Summer and Shoulder-Season 2022
It is worth noting that the data from the summer months during the pandemic is where the most interesting trends have been in terms of what it tells us about how visitors’ behavior changed. In short, occupancy rates for the summer months were exceptionally strong in 2021 and 2022. Not surprisingly, we attribute this to travel having been curtailed and remote work having spiked significantly during those periods. Charting June, July and August over a long period that includes pre-pandemic years clearly shows summer 2022 to have been a return to pre-COVID trending, and the same is true of the traditionally quieter months of September and October.
Notably, August 2022 saw gross occupancy rates slightly lower than 2021 though still strong taking a long-term historical view. Internally, Russ at Permafrost has been using the tongue-in-cheek metaphor of ‘nesting travel versus adventure travel’ to describe how consumer behavior differed between the summers of 2021 and 2022. Synthesizing why that happened clearly involves a combination of a strong US dollar and pent-up demand for international travel as European nations in particular reduced or eliminated COVID restrictions. Still, taking the long view shows August 2022 to have been slightly less exceptional, perhaps less exuberant, but still quite strong and trending towards long-term growth.
Like the occupancy rates for summer 2022, we do expect some small amount of moderation of the spikes over the next couple of years. Still, as described above, we nonetheless foresee the progressive upward trend from the pre-pandemic years to continue.
The Effects of Short-Term Rentals
One of the shortcomings of the available data is that measuring ‘homeowner occupancy’ or the performance of Airbnb and VRBO properties as a way of generating a quantitative understanding of true lodging business levels is a challenging proposition. Anecdotally, summer 2022 certainly felt like an exceptionally busy season here in the Roaring Fork Valley. From a broader economic perspective, valley businesses that serve our guests did maintain notably high business levels throughout the summer months of 2022, and the numerous events that had been curtailed during the pandemic (Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, etc.) returned to enormous fanfare and record crowds. Again, it’s possible that this was attributable to that elusive ‘homeowner occupancy’ level, though that is speculative. There are some interesting new analytical tools making use of web search algorithms to derive short-term rental variations on traditional occupancy rate data, and we expect to be able to provide greater insight to our clients about those platforms later this year.
Looking Ahead, and Looking Forward to Winter
Where does this analysis leave us and what are we seeing and thinking here in our hometown of Aspen? The good news, we think, is that it leaves us approximately where we were pre-pandemic. Demand for lodging in Aspen Snowmass continues to grow at a rate that is consistent and far less elastic (to be polite) that the widely publicized single-family residential property market here.
We believe that in the long term, Aspen Snowmass resort’s combination of limited hotel space, numerous hotel branded rental and ownership properties, and in-town short-term rental properties dampens the volatility which characterizes the top end of the private property market in recent quarters. This gives us confidence for the upcoming winter season. In short, we expect to welcome a great many guests to our mountains this winter, and we expect to see Aspen Snowmass continue to solidify its’ place in the hierarchy of North American vacation marketplaces. As always, we hope all of our guests fall in love with Aspen Snowmass in the same way we did when we arrived here thirty years ago, and that is a major part of why we derive such joy from working with our real estate clients.
The data compiled by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and discussed here is available at Occupancy Reports | Aspen (aspenchamber.org)