Latin Americans bring culture, currency to Colorado’s High Country ski resorts
January 26, 2014
This is the second in a two-part series on Latin American tourism.
Eduardo Samman sips on a drink at La Bottega in Vail Village with a dozen family members and friends, all of whom traveled to Vail this winter from Mexico to enjoy the skiing, shopping and dining.
Samman has been coming to Vail for 35 years because he likes the big mountain's variety and quantity of ski trails.
"It's a nice town," he said. "People come from Mexico; it's tradition to come in December or for Easter, and for others maybe summer, too."
As Latin Americans practically take over Vail and Aspen during peak winter times, they not only spread around their wealth in local shops and restaurants, they also spread around their culture.
The way of life while on a ski vacation is generally similar to the way Americans do it, but Latin Americans have a zest for life that seems exhilarating, especially for the outsiders looking in.
Dining out is about so much more than eating a meal. It's a large gathering that lasts for hours. La Bottega owner Stephen Virion said Mexican guests will often dine for three hours, ordering food and wine throughout the entire service. They'll start with a table of maybe six, but two hours in and the table has already doubled or tripled in size.
Eustaquio Cortina, originally from Mexico and a full-time Vail resident since 1982, calls La Bottega "the capital of the Mexican world in Vail." He said the Left Bank is another hot spot where late-evening dinners take place in large groups.
"Going out is part of the culture," Cortina said. "It's a family. You, your friends, your other friends and all the kids — it's that family reunion feeling. Mexicans, I think, like to comingle with the same group of people."
In Aspen, where Brazilians dominate the Latin American visitor population in the winter, January has turned into one of the busiest winter months, said Aspen Chamber Resort Association spokeswoman Maureen Poschman. She calls the Latin American business "crucial" to the town.
One of the hotspots is the Escobar Nightclub, where club partner Ian Perry said more than half of the guests in the club are Latin American many nights during peak travel time. And just like many of the Latin Americans who visit Vail, the clientele is high end, to say the least, Perry said.
"People coming to Aspen from Mexico or Brazil are absolutely the money crowd — the 1 percent," he said. "These guests, because of their values and culture, they expect that level of service and expect a table and are willing to pay for it."
A table, in nightclub talk, generally means exclusivity. Perry said his club welcomes all walks of life, but it's obviously dominated by those high-end guests around certain times of the year. One night in December, for example, Perry noticed two groups of obviously wealthy customers.
"The Americans were like, 'should we get another bottle? Nah, we don't really need it,'" Perry said. "But the Mexican guy orders two bottles of Crystal. He tastes it and says, 'I hate champagne, you taste it and tell me how it is.'"
Because of that extravagance, Latin Americans' business is integral to the nightclub's success, Perry said.
"I would say at least 25 percent of our tables are Latin Americans," he said. "And they're back every night, not just for special occasions."
In Vail, the luxury nightclub experience is scarce, which is what some Latin American guests love about the town. There are a few places that have opened up in recent years — Frost, at the Mexican-owned Sebastian hotel, and Bol, at Solaris — that offer a trendier, more sophisticated bar and lounge experience, but the over-the-top nightclubs are nonexistent.
Cortina knows from experience why Vail's more low-key atmosphere is a favorite for so many Mexicans, especially the super wealthy. You can't put a price tag on safety, he said.
"Things got a little screwed up in Mexico," he said. "The love for Vail is Vail — the quality of life, the enjoyment, the security."
The Marti family, who bought the Vail Plaza hotel in 2009 and remodeled it into the Sebastian hotel, moved to Vail permanently after the 2008 kidnapping and murder of their son Fernando in Mexico. In a country ridden with crime — where the rich are often targets — security in a quaint ski village is everything.
"The Mexicans feel safe here," Virion said. "It's not glitzy or high profile with paparazzi snapping photos — we're not that."
The thing about places like Aspen and Vail, though, is you never know who you're rubbing elbows with. Perry jokes that you never know who the richest guy in the room is because in ski gear, everyone looks about equal.
The real estate brokers who work in high-end sales know anecdotally who's buying what, though, and the dollar amounts in some transactions are stunning.
Beatriz Martinez is the head of the Latin American division for Slifer Smith & Frampton real estate. The division is the first segment of the business focused solely on Latin American buyers and is equipped with a Spanish-language website.
The potential for growth in the Latin American market is huge, Martinez said. Some Colorado banks have been willing to work with international buyers, too, which broadens the potential target market for international investors, she said.
Broker Craig Denton said Latin Americans are buying properties in the Vail Valley, but they're not the majority buyer.
"A lot of them are renting," he said. "A couple of the last few sales at the Four Seasons have been Latin, and Solaris has been about 50-50 of the last four sales. … Our main markets are still the Front Range, Dallas and New York."
Latin American buyers do buy the upper-end properties, though — those priced at $2 million and up. And brokers in Aspen and Vail have learned a lot about what these buyers are looking for.
"They like convenience; they love newer over older; they like to stay in close to the central areas," Denton said. "We've tried to track all of this, but they either (buy) through LLCs or attorneys, so it's hard to track it."
While Denton acknowledges that Latin Americans' business is a "tremendous sector of retail and restaurant," he said he doesn't think the local real estate industry would suffer if they weren't buying.
In Aspen, estimates in recent winters put the number of Brazilians skiing the town's four mountains somewhere around 20,000. Some of them have bought homes, but the same problem exists in that many purchases — especially the high-end purchases — are made through LLCs and can't be tracked easily through property records searches.
Dr. Leonardo Metsavaht is a potential buyer in the Aspen market. The Brazilian said that after more than 20 years coming to Aspen, maybe it's time.
"We've been seriously thinking about that since we spend all our winter vacations in Aspen — normally the whole month of January — because it is summer vacations in Brazil," he said. "Still we love summer activities like biking, hiking and fishing, so it could be very interesting to have our own place and stuff and also would be pleasant to have our friends around in summer, too."
Poschman said that Brazilians are doing a lot of purchasing — as are Australians, Britons and Russians. But, just like in Vail, renting is more common.
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