President and Chief Executive Officer
Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA)
Zele Community Table
February 13, 2006
Debbie Braun; Michael Conniff; Zele director of marketing Lisa Zimet.
Michael Conniff: Why did you come to Aspen?
Debbie Braun: I’m called the trailing spouse. My husband got a job with Aspen Skiing Company.
MC: Where were you working?
DB: At the Children Diabetes Foundation in Denver. I rolled into town and got a job at ACRA. My only job here has been at ACRA. I started as interim director of membership for three months, then I said I want to do more, to be promoted to vice president. I wanted to take over visitor centers, advertising for the Web site. My predecessor Hana Pevny said: “You want to do more work.” I applied for the job as president after she left. I got to grow and Hana didn’t bark or snap at me.
MC: What’s the biggest change since you got to Aspen eight years ago?
DB: The biggest difference is it’s the same town but your perception changes. I didn’t know a single business or owner, but I returned all my phone calls. I got to stay and to grow and love it as it changed.
MC: How have the issues you’re concerned about changed?
DB: Employee housing was hot on my list. Now I’m concerned about the quality of life. I’ve grown more passionate over the eight years.
MC: So you found a place to live.
DB: I’m in the free market. I bought in Blue Lake.
MC: Tell us about the ACRA organization?
DB: ACRA’s a little bit bigger than most, a hybrid Chamber and Convention Visitors Bureau. We have 800 member businesses, with the majority in Aspen. But we have members in Basalt and all the way to Glenwood Springs. We help them network. I’m always asked: “How can the president of the chamber not afford Aspen? I can’t even afford to live in the community.” Irony is a better word for it.MC: What’s the history of ACRA?
DB: It started as central reservations, then a resort association. Since 1983 it’s been some kind of hybrid. The penetration rate of businesses is much higher now in ACRA—70 to 75 percent.
MC: Why do companies belong?
DB: First of all, we help them to be savvy about hiring their employees. The ACRA benefits are things like a discounted ski pass, health membership, art membership. We want to feel connected to our community. It makes business sense to be a member on a dollar-for-dollar basis. We also have a Thursday morning leaders group and fun social networking.
MC: What’s the leadership group?
DB: It’s a six degrees formal networking group from each category—restaurants, lodges, and so on. They meet every Thursday morning at 7 o’clock and they trade leads. It’s hard to get into because you have to have only one per category. They’re consistently trading businesses. Each week one of those businesses gets a ten-minute presentation.
MC: What is ACRA’s mission?
DB: Our mission to provide valuable member services, attract visitors, and promote advocacy on relevant community issues—I call myself an air-traffic controller. And I hear from the airport. So many businesses call me. That’s the synergy of collaboration. Stan Clausen wanted more advocacies. Our board of directors agreed to that during a retreat. Now we have a public affairs committee. We did an advocacy survey asking all businesses in town a bunch of questions about the parking garage, the S-curve, the straight shot. And we can educate businesses. Some people just moved here last year. We educate our members, then make sure we’re strong enough so the will of the group and the business voices will heard. But it’s taken eight months to agree upon a platform. What does the chamber stand for? Tourism is important. Health care is important. Transportation, work force, immigration, environmental, and recycling are important. If we try to be everything to everyone it’s not going to work.
MC: When will your positions become public?
DB: We hope to make statements but we don’t know when yet.
Lisa Zimet: What’s your relationship to the city?
DB: With the city I don’t see it as adversarial. We get money from them to run guest services, and money from Pitkin County. The lodging tax gives us about $560,000 per year. We have guest services at Rio Grande Park, the Pavilion, the Wheeler, and the airport. I really look at that part of my mission as the synergy—how we can rally the businesses together.
MC: What about the labor shortage everyone is so concerned with?
DB: There are no solutions but a lot of meetings. It’s a circle—we’re talking about immigration, housing, then transportation, then wages. It’s all connected together.
MC: Is there a dichotomy between businesses that are new in town and those that have been here a long time?
DB: I think maybe their issues are different, when you’re new in town versus when you’ve been here and someone’s telling you what you can and can’t do. I still seem to be relatively new. I’ve been on the bench eight years. There’ve been so many community boards and meeting. The place I don’t connect is the residential aspect. That’s not part of my mission. I’m not sure I’m engaged with the second-home owners, but when it comes to visitors in this town, I get 50-60 calls per day—Food and Wine, marketing campaign, “What’s going on with this?” My husband and I joke about it.
MC: Is there a difference between winter and summer guests?
DB: We talked to over a thousand guests over spring, summer, fall, and winter. It’s very interesting. Winter guests are different from summer guests; summer guests have not been here in the winter. The older, cultural visitors in summer love the intellect, the rest and relaxation, and they believe they are locals within this community. Winter is more international with Skico’s push as well. They’re still affluent, but more of an outdoor enthusiast versus a cultural one.
MC: I’ve been amazed that you continue to get press coverage about how affordable Aspen is. How do you make that case?
DB: Affordable? Have you stayed at the St. Moritz, eaten at the Cantina, gone hiking? It is what you make it. The barriers coming up to Aspen was what to wear. They didn’t have the furs. Don’t you want to bust a gut? :Look at us! There’s the difference between the perception and the reality. The one way to combat it is through destination marketing and PR, but we have to be careful: if we say we’re cheap, all the stores will say: “Don’t mess with our reputation. Excuse me, the arts are over here.” You have to be very mindful, but Maureen Poschman [of Promo Inc.] has done a great job. The guest service initiative is another way to combat that perception. The Journal says we’re uppity, that is the image of Aspen we need to combat. We’re reminding everyone that guest service is a choice, is a perception. Some people call the winter “The 100-Day War.” Oh my God, battle stations and company’s coming. It’s perception: war or put a happy face. Now we have something called the Faces of Aspen/Snowmass. You have to give people a tool, to give Aspen/Snowmass as a community, a view of our small-town ways. So we’re telling stories of the locals and we’re getting that to the front-line workers, and guest-services seminars. We have a news rewards program and our four visitor centers. We’ve had Lisa’s wonderful participation.
LZ: I hand out rewards for free cups of coffee for here at Zele.
DB: There are three types of rewards. You can hand them one of these and say redeem this token for a gift. We are floating these tokens into the community for our employees. And they can win a day at Aspen Club, McDonald’s. We’re also working on a Star of the Month. There’s an employee nomination process if somebody’s giving great service to you. You can win $125 goggles, a lift ticket—one in Aspen, one in Snowmass. The Star of the Season will win $1,000. We’re going to do comprehensive radio advertising, getting the word out the rest of the season.
LZ: Here’s the difference between winter and summer. In 1981 on the chairlift, I was a beginning skier. Somebody next to me said: “Honey if you think is nice in the winter, you ought to come out in the summer.” I think you could start a program.
DB: X Games is a good example. The Skiing Company takes the lead, but we work with them to get the businesses involved. You get to put in a database and get the vacation planner for each season. Two-thirds of the visitors drive here in summertime. The Aspen gas promotion was a way to address the cost. We won a Hospitality Sales and Marketing silver award for that campaign; we won six different awards for different categories. Aspen is a world-class destination, but to be recognized among our peer set it creates buzz in our industry. I want to be the leader. I want to be at the forefront.
LZ: She also has a recovery program called service recovery.
DB: Some people are going to have a bad experience. My responses could be: “I’m not a tour agency.” Or I could say: “I’m so sorry, I will contact the business on your behalf.” Normally I can’t tell a business how to do its business. If something goes wrong, we really need to have a concerted effort.
LZ: What Skico does.
DB: I certainly would like a solution to our transportation and entrance. This is a vibrant community with caring people. I never lived anywhere where I was inspired to go to a City Council meeting. Or start a daycare center, Roaring Fork Kids. I was never inspired to do that. People continue to be inspired.