In Aspen’s business landscape, Aspen Skiing Company looms largest — literally and figuratively; it owns and operates four ski slopes (virtually all of Aspen’s ski terrain), three hotels, 15 restaurants, dozens of shops and employs 4,000 people. At the top is Mike Kaplan—a ski bum-turned-CEO who uses his high office to uphold the town’s legacy as both a natural playground and a spiritual and intellectual Eden.
“Aspen’s roots are about being much more than a recreational escape,” says Kaplan. Indeed, before it was a luxury hotspot, Aspen was a physical and intellectual retreat after WWII for the 10th Mountain Division, a regiment trained to fight fascism in Italy’s rocky terrain. Capitalizing on this athletic and intellectual spirit, Walter Paepcke founded both Aspen Skiing Company and the nonprofit think tank Aspen Institute in 1947. “Walter [believed that] Aspen had everything you could want — fishing, hiking, skiing — so the other things that make life worth living, like the arts and engaging in intellectual dialogue, should be here [too],” says Kaplan.
Today, Kaplan continues that dialogue as an advocate for social and environmental responsibility. Since becoming CEO in 2006, he has fought climate change locally, overseeing the installation of three methane-capturing megawatt generators at a nearby mine, and nationally, traveling to Washington to lobby for climate taxes and efficiency incentives.
If Kaplan’s mission is to “make Aspen great again,” his definition of “great” runs contrary to the current administration. “We were founded by a lot of immigrants,” he says. “We want to continue to embrace that diversity; this community is very dependent on people coming from Central and South America and Mexico to supplement the workforce.”
Recently, Kaplan’s advocacy reached new heights. In a 2017 op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, he denounced the “xenophobia radiating from the Oval Office,” and attributed a 30 percent drop in visitors to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies. “[We have] always been about civil discourse and not about agreement or group-think,” says Kaplan. “So everything I’ve put forward has been opinionated but civil and hopefully fairly objective; it’s about proposing solutions as well.” Despite the dip in international tourism, the company continues to grow; in November 2018 it will open its fourth luxury hotel, the Limelight Hotel Snowmass.
With its social consciousness and ever-expanding luxury portfolio, Aspen Skiing Company may not be a utopia, but it sure comes close.
Main image: Jeremy Swanson