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Alum runs one of the world’s top ski complexes

David Kaplan

DU alum Mike Kaplan is president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co.

A lifelong skier who learned the sport on a tiny ski hill in Wisconsin, Aspen Skiing Co. CEO and President Mike Kaplan (MBA ’93) now runs one of the world’s top ski complexes at four resorts in the Rockies.

Kaplan hopes SkiCo will build on its success in the 2009–10 season, when skier-days grew by 4 percent to 1.4 million. It was a decent rebound after the dismal 2008–09 season, which saw attendance drop 7 percent in the depth of the recession,

“Last season was so uncertain,” says Kaplan, 46, who commutes four miles to the office by bike during the summer and fall and skis the steeps come winter. “We went in thinking flat was a win, and we were pleasantly surprised. Consumers were spending more freely.”

Kaplan hopes to build on that success this season, with a new hands-free ticket system that operates on a radio frequency, expanded glade skiing at Aspen Highlands, and a new burger-themed restaurant at Snowmass.

Gearing up for the 2010–11 season brings him back to his early days as a high-school ski racer training at Wilmont Mountain — a Wisconsin ski hill with a vertical elevation of 230 feet. Snowmass touts the biggest vertical elevation change in the U.S. at 4,406 feet from the base of 8,104 feet to the summit at 12,510 feet.

He set his heart on a career in the ski industry while ski bumming at New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley Resort, where he headed after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado. At Taos, he taught skiing, worked the graveyard shift running the snow guns and learned the science of avalanche control on the ski patrol.

Needing a stronger foundation in management to make his next career move, he enrolled at DU’s Daniels College of Business to earn his MBA.

“I’d come to realize that most managers in the ski industry back then had come up through the ranks and had gotten on-the-job training,” recalls Kaplan, who lives in Aspen with his wife, Laura, and children Emma, 16, Eli, 15, Stella, 13, and Ava, 6. “A business degree was a good next step.”

At Daniels, Kaplan did case studies on issues in the ski industry while also taking classes in hospitality and tourism management. For one class, he developed a strategic outline for Taos, a project that brought him back to New Mexico for research and a few runs down the high-altitude chutes.

“I got credit for the class, and a pass at Taos,” says Kaplan. “It was a great project, and I got in a lot of skiing,”

After earning his MBA, he landed a job at Aspen, one of the world’s top ski resorts nestled in the Rockies about 200 miles west of Denver. Aspen has four resorts offering a wide range of terrain — from the beginner’s paradise at Buttermilk to the steeps at Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, and the sprawling, family-friendly Snowmass.

He started as director of Aspen’s ski school then moved up to operations. By 2005, he was named chief operating officer, and a year later, he was appointed CEO and president.

Four years later, Kaplan says SkiCo is poised for renewed growth. Health-conscious baby boomers are reaching their 50s and 60s still in shape, with money to spend, and with legs strong enough to head down a run in a foot of fresh powder. Better mountain grooming and improved ski technology has also improved the on-mountain experience.

Those years, however, won’t last forever, and Kaplan — like the rest of the ski industry — knows the industry needs to reach out to the younger generation to get more skiers and snowboarders up on the mountain.

This year, SkiCo’s four areas are among 21 Colorado resorts participating in Colorado Ski Country USA’s Fifth Grade Passport program, in which fifth-graders receive three days of free skiing at each of the mountains. This year, fifth-graders also receive rental gear and a lesson on their first day on the slopes.  

“Things are good right now, but down the road, we need to replace those baby boomers with Gen X and Gen Y,” says Kaplan. “We need to build and nurture Gen X, and Gen Y is a different generation. It’s more diverse, and our business is not that diverse. We need to diversify our customer-base to compete for those vacation dollars.”

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2 Comments

  1. Gorilla Tom says:

    Its always good to discover a sport that love and will do best.Skiing has actually made Kaplan a big man in society.Thanks for representing the Country.

  2. Jonathan Levi says:

    I’ve learned that Aspen and Deer Valley are considered “expensive” ski resorts:

    http://www.mountainyahoos.com/SkiResorts/DeerValley.html

    I appreciate Kaplan’s efforts on making SkiCo a superb skiing resort but perhaps he can do something to make the resort more affordable so that many aspiring young skiers can improve their skills.

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