By Allen Best
ASPEN, Colo. – Pat O’Donnell retired last week as chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Co. and, at age 68, from a career that has arced across the North American West.
He started out during the 1960s in California, first at a ski area in Yosemite National Park and then launching Lake Tahoe’s Kirkwood. Then, in the 1970s, he was in Colorado’s Summit County, where he was responsible at Keystone for mountain operations and also creation of the first base-area hotel.
Then, he directed Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, before becoming the head of Whistler Mountain Ski Corp. He finally joined Aspen in 1993, becoming CEO in 1996.
As the head of the Aspen Skiing Co., O’Donnell is widely credited with making Aspen a trend-setter once more. The company has become known for its various environmental initiatives, but particularly its efforts to take climate-changing greenhouse gases seriously. If not overnight, the company’s ski area and associated hotels and other operations have become a showcase for more efficient use of electricity and other fossil fuels. Too, the company has lobbied legislatively for concerted federal action to address global warming.
But the company has also developed real estate. It redeveloped the base of the Aspen Highlands ski area and refurbished its on-mountain restaurant at Ajax, as Aspen Mountain is known by locals. And most significantly, it is redeveloping and expanding the base village at Snowmass, one of the company’s four ski areas, while also spending $50 million in on-mountain improvements.
In an exit interview with The Aspen Times, O’Donnell seemed to rue some of these and other changes that have Aspen fending off challenges from Deer Valley, Beaver Creek and other high-end resorts.
“We got into a capital shootout,” he said. Once the industry started adding faster lifts, customers’ expectations grew. Now a competitive resort must have the whole mountain covered with high-speed chairs or risk getting shunned, he explained.
O’Donnell also said that when Aspen Skiing Co. unveiled its new advertising campaign about climate change, it was criticized within the ski industry. O’Donnell likened this criticism to getting hit between the eyes with a marshmallow. “It didn’t hurt, but it was still offensive,” he said. He declined to identify the source or sources of the criticism.
Other ski areas, however, will soon follow in Aspen’s path in making global warming central to their advertising messages. “I’ve said to people within the industry, ‘I will bet you a dollar to a doughnut that within 12 months and no longer than 18 months you will see other ski areas within the United State messaging along these lines,’” O’Donnell told The Times. “Exactly what medium they will use, I don’t know, but you’re going to see part of their campaign say, ‘Climate change, come on folks, climb on board.’”