ASPEN – One of the first times that Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan got a full understanding of the political power of his position overseeing the sprawling, ritzy resort came in 2006.
And it started with Kleenex.
A boycott of the paper tissues at Aspen’s four mountains and hotels over environmental concerns caused a national stir, prompting a trip to Colorado by executives from the multimillion-dollar corporation behind the popular brand. There were headlines and high-level meetings and even a Harvard University analysis.
“We actually didn’t mean for it to be this huge story,” Kaplan said.
Since then, Kaplan and his company have come a long way in their activism, stepping – purposefully – into the spotlight on testy issues and becoming arguably the most politically active of Colorado’s large outdoor industry businesses. The resort now champions some of the nation’s most divisive topics, from immigration to climate change and LGBTQ rights.
The activism comes amid a federal report showing that the outdoor-recreation industry accounted for an estimated 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product last year, generating $374 billion in economic activity. With those deep pockets has come deep influence, especially in a place – such as Aspen – that’s frequented by the rich, famous and politically elite.
Most outdoor industry businesses – including Patagonia, Burton, The North Face and Clif – have kept their focus on the environment and public lands, but Aspen has gone a step further by publicly wading, mostly alone, into social issues as well. (Aspen later lifted its Kleenex boycott when the company changed its business practices.)
And Kaplan has been the face of that effort, with buy-in from Aspen’s owners, the Crown family of Chicago.
“If you’re in business for the long term, you can’t be ignoring climate change and pretending it doesn’t exist,” he said. “So the fact that we saw leadership coming in, disputing science, disputing facts and ultimately compromising our ability to stay in business forever, we needed to stand up and speak up. The same goes for the embrace for equal rights for LGBTQ, for immigrants.”
Aspen has long tried to raise awareness about climate change and environmental protection, offsetting its carbon footprint, making sustainability a focus in new construction and even hiring staff to make sure the resort is being as environmentally friendly as possible. But then Kaplan in December 2016 penned an op-ed, “We’re Still Here,” calling out the incoming Trump administration over LGBTQ rights, immigration and its views toward minorities.
That raised the political voice of the resort to a new level, and it was soon followed by a Kaplan opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he pointed the finger at President Donald Trump for a decline in Mexican tourism. And in September he wrote a Facebook post in support of young immigrants living in the country illegally but who have deportation protections under an Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has been unraveled by the White House.
“They seem to be at the table and being much more vocal than other ski resorts a lot of the time,” said Jeffrey York, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business who focuses on entrepreneurship and businesses addressing climate change and other environmental issues. “Aspen being so vocal and being so willing to be out there has set a pretty high standard.”
Mario Molina, executive director of the Boulder-based climate change action organization Protect Our Winters, of which Aspen is a member, said the company has been much more willing to take risky political positions than other businesses and trade groups in the outdoor industry.
“When it comes to sticking their neck out politically,” he said, “(others) might not be as far out. . Aspen Ski Co. has definitely been a leader in the industry.”
Kaplan says his activism is part business, part community-building. And always about striking the right tone.
“The duty, I feel, we feel as an organization, to stand up and speak out is really tied to this fact that we are all in it together at the end of the day,” Kaplan said earlier this month on a chairlift at Aspen Highlands. “We are all in it. And so what happens in Washington impacts what happens in Highland Bowl. There’s more and more of a direct line and a tether to that. So for us to just stay in our little bubble here, as much as we like to do that and would like to do that, it’s not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for this business, and I would say for our society.”
So far, the blowback has been limited.
“I would say the broad theme (from people taking issue) is ‘Don’t let politics get into skiing,’ “ he said. “‘Let’s keep the politics out of skiing and that skiing should be fun and a place to escape.’ Overall, it’s been very, very positive. . To those who say ‘Mind your own business,’ I say, ‘No, this is who we are.’ “
He added that it doesn’t appear the activism has kept anyone away – including members of the Trump administration, and even Trump’s family.
Vice President Mike Pence and his family were in Aspen around Christmas, and Kaplan said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser, have made trips to the Colorado ski enclave as well.
“A lot of the leaders of the free world come here to ski and come here to spend some downtime,” Kaplan said. “So if we can just get a little bit of their mindspace with this perspective, think about the leverage and the power (of) that – both (in) the public sector and private sector.”
That’s in part why Aspen launched a marketing campaign advertising, “The Aspen Way,” with ads and on-mountain installations boasting those values. “To take that out in such a public-facing way, and really taking our lifestyle, our way of doing business and putting it front and center, that was also a huge shift as well,” Kaplan said.
For Kaplan, who began his career in the ski industry in Taos and worked his way up to Aspen’s CEO from snowmaking and ski instructing to jobs supervising mountain operations, the activist hat was not one he would have guessed himself wearing.
“I’m very shy,” the 53-year-old said, calling himself a “sensible Democrat.”
In between the laps of Highland Bowl and making sure there is enough snow to cover the mountain, Kaplan has found – albeit unexpectedly – that his role goes far beyond overseeing ski conditions.
“Something I’ve come to realize,” he said, “it’s just a critical part of my job.