How Aspen’s Private Clubs Drive Exclusivity

Aspen Mountain Club’s lodge interior
Photograph Credit: David O. Marlow (Reproduced with Permission)

Today, we know Aspen as one of the world’s most luxurious travel destinations, where we glide up ski lifts with A-listers and descend the slopes alongside ultra-wealthy CEOs and supermodels. In this quaint Colorado village, we dine at elegant mountain top restaurants, swipe our cards at the luxury stores along the base of the mountain, and pay for lavish spa services to sooth our muscles after a long day on the mountain. However, Aspen’s reputation has not always been centered around its luxurious ski offerings; instead, it was once known as a mining town. In 1879, silver ore was first discovered at the foot of Aspen and Smuggler mountains. With the silver, lead, and zinc found in the area creating great business opportunities, Aspen grew substantially during the following decade. In 1883, Aspen’s first roads were built, and in 1887, the town introduced its Denver and Rio Grande Railroad lines. With transportation channels connecting Aspen to the rest of the country, the town became a thriving mining metropolis. In fact, from 1887 to 1893, Aspen held the position of the richest silver-mining town in the country. Tragedy struck for Aspen, however, in 1893, when the price of silver plummeted so drastically that it forced the closure of all of the town’s mines within a week. For close to a century following the collapse of Aspen’s once-thriving mining industry, “Aspen” and “luxury” were nowhere close to being synonymous. Aspen was no longer a thriving powerhouse; instead, it became a ghost town.

However, the mid-1980s and early-1990s marked a turning point in the town’s cultural transition. As luxury hotels, such as the St. Regis and The Little Nell, were built to entice the elite, and as high-tech amenities, such as the Silver Queen Gondola, attracted the nation’s most privileged tourists, the town embarked on its transformation into an ultra-luxe vacation and second-home destination. However, the town rebuilt its reputation with a fabric that differed from other prestigious western ski towns. While there is little barrier to entry in many other mountain towns out west, such as Steamboat Springs, Aspen’s social landscape is rooted in connections and wealth. Aspen’s privately-held social clubs are crucial in fostering the aura of exclusivity that keeps the rich and famous flocking back. 

Caribou Club

Offering an expansive fine dining menu, wine list, and an in-house nightclub, the Caribou Club opened its doors to Aspen’s elite in 1990. Referring to itself as “Aspen’s most prestigious member’s club”, “the Bou’s” website boasts how the “entire management team travels the world together every spring to research and experience world class dining.” Additionally, the club publishes that they “proudly offer elegant yet approachable cuisine crafted from the finest ingredients” and that it is their “sense of hospitality, family and attention to detail that ensures an exceptional experience”. By creating a sentiment that their club offers unparalleled experiences and, by extension, is superior to the “typical” Aspen experience, the Caribou Club spurred a deeply-rooted perception that members of these exclusive social organizations emerge higher on the social hierarchy than those around them.

Naturally, to create such an exclusive environment, the Caribou Club charges hefty membership fees. The Club’s “Lifetime Membership” allows two guests full access to the club in exchange for a $25,000 initiation fee. However, if a guest only wants to commit to a short-term membership, the “Individual Membership” offers two people access to the club for a $3,000 initiation payment and $2,000 annual fee. There are also membership options geared toward families and corporations. For $5,000 yearly, guests can purchase five transferable passes to use within their business or familial circles. The Caribou Club also offers options for the holiday period, priced to reflect the town’s skyrocketing popularity as the holidays approach. For $1,500, two guests can access the club for a single week during the winter season. Considering the club solely offers dining and a nightclub, it is clear that these prices purely reflect the prestige and the fact that visitors are able and willing to pay.

To emphasize its existence as a symbol of status, the Club lists various rules and regulations, including a dress code, that guests must follow to preserve their good standing with the club. The dress code states “Aspen Casual”, meaning that guests can wear anything from “cocktail dresses and sport coats, to jeans and a nice top”. The club also enforces policies that everyone must check their coat upon entry and that a member must be present for all reservations involving non-members.

The emergence of the Caribou Club introduced a clear secondary obstacle to Aspen’s social landscape. No longer was money the sole barrier that separated Aspen’s elite from “typical” visitors. Instead, to set oneself apart from the rest of the town, it was crucial that an Aspenite carried the prestige of a club badge. With an overabundance of willing consumers, it became clear that to find oneself a spot on one of Aspen’s most competitive waitlists, money was no longer the sole dictator. Instead, connections and class played an integral role in propelling the elite toward the top of the rigid social hierarchy.

Photograph Credit: Caribou Club (Reproduced with Permission)

Aspen Mountain Club

Following the success of the Caribou Club, Aspen Mountain Club opened to the public in February of 2000, nestled atop Aspen Mountain at 11,212 feet. Solely accessible by a fifteen-minute gondola ride, the Club’s altitude is symbolic of its lofty stance within Aspen’s social landscape. Owned and operated by The Little Nell, Aspen Mountain Club is located in its own wing of the mountaintop Sundeck restaurant and serves 228 families. The club was designed with European influences in mind, with wood siding, a copper roof, and scattered stones at the base of the club’s exterior. Additionally, Aspen Mountain Club was the tenth building in the United States to earn a LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, highlighting the eco-friendly features within the building’s construction. More recently, Aspen Mountain Club partnered with Luis Bustamante Interior Design of Spain last winter to update their interior space and add more contemporary architectural features. 

At the club, members can drink, dine, and mingle with other Aspenites, all for the price of a $250,000 initiation fee and a $7,650 annual fee. Despite the fact that it does not appear that the amenities justify the cost of membership, members are not solely paying for these amenities; instead, they are paying for the prestige that is attached to the Aspen Mountain Club name. First of all, the club preserves its aura of exclusivity by capping its member capacity and making memberships invitation-only. By perpetuating the idea that memberships are scarce and that members have to exist in an “elevated” circle to even have access to the club in the first place, it makes the clout-hungry even more interested in associating with the club. Another strategy that the club uses to promote their exclusivity was to offer reciprocity at other renowned clubs around the world, including Eagle’s Club in Gstaad, the Corviglia Club in St. Moritz and the Game Creek Club in Vail. By associating with these other clubs, Aspen Mountain Club elevates their memberships to an even greater perceived social value. 

Catamount Ranch Club

In contrast, located just three hours north of Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Colorado welcomes over 500,000 visitors each year to their slopes. With popular hot springs, outdoor activities, dining, and shopping, Steamboat Springs presents many of the same amenities as Aspen. However, the allure of the two ski towns widely differ, largely due to Steamboat’s inability to leverage their private clubs to garner a sense of exclusivity. While two of Aspen’s most elite clubs, Aspen Mountain Club and the Caribou Club, are costly and require member recommendations and rigid rules to maintain an exclusive member body, even Steamboat Springs’s top clubs fail to provide significant barriers to entry. The Catamount Ranch Club, set at the base of the mountain, is widely considered Steamboat’s most exclusive club. However, without a lengthy waitlist and an initiation fee of just $60,000 for a full membership, the Club fails to lift its members to the same lofty status as members of Aspen’s most coveted clubs. The notion that both Aspen’s and Steamboat’s clubs provide similar amenities, yet are priced and demanded at vastly different scales, highlights that in towns where social prestige is a direct representation of success, a membership is valued for much more than its tangible benefits. Over the past thirty years, Aspen’s private clubs have proven themselves to be a key attraction to the nation’s most wealthy travelers, enticing them to transform Aspen into their own private playground. Meanwhile, Steamboat Springs’s inability to generate the appeal of exclusivity through loftier membership prices and more extensive waitlists stunts their potential for social and reputational ascent.

Photograph Credit: Catamount Ranch & Club (Reproduced with Permission)

Aspen’s Market Response to Financial Crises

As the American financial landscape turned rocky in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash and the March 2020 declaration of a global pandemic, the ski resort business temporarily followed suit. While it is nearly impossible to determine the financial standings of Aspen’s clubs due to their status as private organizations, public bankruptcy and real estate acquisition records reveal the undeniable social value of the Aspen name. After the 2010 financial crash, the unstable economic landscape spurred attempts to liquidate assets, as threats of bankruptcy loomed for many landlords and influential organizations. The luxurious Hotel Jerome in downtown Aspen was one of the most prominent properties to switch hands. After Lehman Brothers, a prominent investment banking firm, defaulted on massive loans and declared bankruptcy, Chicago-based Jerome Ventures purchased the property for just under $27 million. Just a year earlier, the hotel was expected to sell for more than triple its post-recession value, at $75 million. While even Aspen’s esteemed real estate offerings are not immune to negative market trends, the social prestige behind the town helps to ensure a somewhat quick economic recovery. Similarly, following the national economic crisis of early 2020, several of Aspen’s key players again faced the threat of bankruptcy and foreclosure. After its original developer was forced to foreclose on the formerly prestigious Aspen Club, real estate investment firm Meriwether Companies partnered with Revere Capital and Fireside Investments to acquire the property for $52.59 million. Speaking to Forbes, Partner Garrett Simon shared Meriwether Companies’ plans to reinvigorate the club. Featuring outstanding food and beverage offerings, a comprehensive wellness program, and twenty stunning residences, Simon asserts that the club will be transformed to “ensure a world-renowned experience curated for the sophisticated Aspen clientele.” The downfall and prompt recovery of some of Aspen’s most prominent landmarks sets a promising precedent. Despite a changing economic environment, the town’s longstanding history of exclusivity and allure ensures robust investment and growth opportunities in the aftermath of national and global crises. 

Social Conclusion: Why has Aspen continued to thrive?

The incredible demand for memberships to Aspen’s exclusive clubs highlights the human urge to ascend a hierarchy and establish oneself as an “in-group” member. Our craving for validation allows companies to charge us exorbitantly in return for a higher social image and reputation. Our quest for validation causes us to want to do anything in our power to hurdle over any barriers to entry to find ourselves as higher up on the hierarchy. The unique fact that money itself cannot propel someone to the upper echelons of Aspen’s social scene increases the level of “challenge” and makes people feel that once they are up at the top, the reward is more valuable and meaningful. Simultaneously, the fact that to become part of the rigidly-defined “in-group”, you need to be a part of the community, makes the urge for external validation even greater. Aspen capitalizes off of our insecurities and yearning for acceptance. The shops thrive because people want to be seen in the newest Gucci coat, the restaurants thrive because people want to be seen holding up an expensive bottle of wine with a Rolex on their wrist, and ultimately, the clubs thrive because people will do anything to be seen walking through those two club doors. Following the crash of the town’s silver-mining industry, when associating with the town wasn’t a sign of social prestige, Aspen has transitioned to where it is now largely because the environment that has been cultivated is one of exclusivity and cultivating a clear “in-group” and “out-group”. While other Western slope towns would not be able to get away with charging so much for a simple lunchtime membership, the steep social ladder that Aspen demands its visitors climb renders them capable of doing so. If human nature did not render us so susceptible to abiding by social proof, Aspen could very well still be a crumbled mining town at the foothills of the Rockies.


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