This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
ASPEN — When Jim Deters launched his “Rocky Mountain country club” three years ago, he had one big question: Would people pay up to $200 a month to join a first-of-its-kind social club that delivered discounts on hotel rooms and dining and access to top-notch gear, working space and fancy fitness facilities?
Today his Gravity Haus has 4,000 members, 300 employees and six properties.
“This was almost dream-like execution,” says Deters, rambling through wood-paneled office space where he’s planning bars and lounges overlooking Aspen Mountain in a building that will include Gravity Haus’ signature coffee shop, restaurants, coworking space and fitness facility. “The pandemic accelerated a trend we were on by a decade. We were at the right place at the right time to catch this incredible wave.”
Deters is ready to unveil his latest addition to the Gravity Haus empire he assembled in the rowdiest three years in the Colorado high country since the late 1800s silver boom. In an explosive span that saw real estate prices more than double, a crushing labor shortage, spiking food and hotel prices and a tsunami of work-from-anywhere newcomers shifting cultural tides in mountain towns, Deters has grown a new model for affordable vacationing at altitude.
Launching from a $17 million rehab of a beat-down hotel in Breckenridge, Deters acquired the 28-room luxury Vail Mountain Lodge, Vail Athletic Club and Terra Bistro restaurant. Next came the 38-room Sundowner Motel in Winter Park and the 42-room Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, California. He renovated each of the low-key properties in his hip Euro, mountain-modern vibe — think faux-fur blankets tossed on leather couches, nice beds and really good coffee and food, all surrounded by steel, stone and wood — earning top-hotel nods from travel mags.
He’s minted his own style as he gathers members. His coffee is called Unravel, with beans coming from small farms in Ethiopia and roasted in a zero-emissions roaster. His coworking space is branded StarterHaus. His gyms are Dryland Fitness, with classes and hot tubs and cold plunge pools. The gear garages are called the Haus Quiver. Each of his properties has its own restaurant. The JoinMe feature of his Gravity Haus app is bustling with members hosting 70-plus events a month, from overnight mountain missions to candle-making classes.
This week Gravity Haus announced the addition of the slopeside, 77-room Ptarmigan Inn in Steamboat. Deters also is sharing plans for his Aspen project. It will be his first clubhouse without lodging. And his first renovation of a building he does not own. Still, he says, it will be Gravity Haus’ crown jewel.
Deters, who co-founded Galvanize, the Denver-based coworking space that became a national hub for coding and data science, calls Gravity Haus “the seamless blending of work and play.”
“No one has really done that right yet,” he says, ricocheting through the Aspen renovation with a gait that is more bounce than stroll. He lets that “yet” sit there for a moment. He says he’s not a hotelier. He’s peddling experiences.
Deters spent 20 years traveling between Denver and Breckenridge, hauling his kids up every weekend and teaching them to ski. Gravity Haus, he says, “is a manifestation of that lifestyle.”
His value deal — $200 a month for unlimited access to work space, gyms and the discounts on lodging and food — resonated in the last few years of soaring home and holiday prices. He’s confident it will continue to shine in the looming downturn. When things get lean, one of the last things to get cut from the budgets of outdoor adventurers is skiing and time in the mountains, he says.
“I think we’ve built a strong floor for growth,” he says. “We have a PhD now in mountain town dynamics.”
A blend of public, member amenities in Aspen
Deters and Aspen development partner Gordon Bronson don’t own the Wheeler Square Property property on Wagner Park, which was the longtime home of Su Casa, Aspen Billiards, Eric’s Bar and the Cigar Bar.
Developer Mark Hunt — the Chicago-based landlord whose slow progress on renovations in the past 10 years has left many popular establishments shuttered — bought the complex and adjacent law firm office for $18 million in 2020.
Deters has “a very long-term lease” with Hunt for the property, where he plans to open a restaurant in the soon-to-be-empty Wild Fig restaurant space. He’s building Gravity Haus’ own Unravel coffee shop in a former bike shop. There are bars and lounges coming to former lawyer’s offices and members will have a coworking space, gym and ski lockers downstairs at the former pool hall and bar.
Heavyweight brands were courting Hunt for space in that property on Wagner Park. He could have cut up the 18,000 square feet into several leases for luxury retail and dining, says Brandon Tarpey, spokesman for Hunt’s M Development.
Deters says it’s “kinda shocking he went with what is essentially a startup.”
Tarpey says Deters’ vision is “exactly what Aspen needs.”
“We already have plenty of luxury brands in town,” he says. “Jim cares and we are proud to have him and Gordon as tenants.”
Tarpey says the downturn is happening in Aspen and beyond. But his boss has confidence Gravity Haus will weather the recession.
“I think when markets and the economy slow down a little bit, people stay closer to their community,” Tarpey says. “Jim and Gravity Haus can sustain in these slowing markets better than anyone because they have real community. I think they are going to thrive in a slowdown.”
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Building an “experience business”
Gravity Haus members get access to some 70 member-created events a month and another 30 or so Gravity Haus events. Each club has a stash of top-tier gear, including skis, bikes, paddle boards and camping stuff. The gyms include yoga and fitness classes plus hot tubs, saunas and cold plunge pools. The Winter Park and Breckenridge clubs have super trampolines — the ones used by athletes who spin in superpipes. There is coworking space in each club. And members get 25% to 50% off room rates and 25% off dining at each club’s restaurant and coffeehouse.
Memberships run from $120 to $200 a month for year-long individual memberships. Families can pay up to $480 a month for unlimited access at the club’s properties. Aspen Gravity Haus will have its own pricing plan. Gravity Haus members from other locations will not have the same unlimited access to the Aspen facilities. All those details are still being finalized.
Phillip Supino is Aspen’s community development director. His job tempers and scales the dreams of deep-pocketed developers and homeowners to fit community needs. As downtown Aspen projects transform the city with high-dollar boutique hotels and pricey restaurants, Gravity Haus “is new and different,” he says.
“And, you know, typically in the mountains that I’ve worked in, new and different usually translates into scary and can sort of upset the apple cart,” says Supino, the architect of sweeping new regulations on the city’s multi-billion-dollar residential real estate market.
Supino says the pace and scale of change in mountain town commercial properties in the past five years, especially in Aspen, have left locals feeling left out. Their favorite — and affordable — restaurants and bars are closed.
“They are feeling like they can’t access the goods and services in the town that they might have lived in for decades,” he says. “So to the extent that somebody is bucking that trend, I think that’s responsive to a lot of the concerns and some very specifically articulated public policy in this community, going back to two master plans ago, about concerns over those issues.”
Earlier this month Deters announced a partnership with the Mountain Lodge Telluride, offering discounts on rooms, dining and gear rentals. He’s also got lodging partners offering Gravity Haus members deals in Denver, Costa Rica, Moab and Silverton. He sees more opportunities to grow Gravity Haus with those sorts of partnerships. But he worries that partnerships might not enable him to control the guest experience like he can at his owned or managed properties.
“We’re gonna continue to build a pipeline of things that we will build, develop and repurpose, but we are talking to quite a few people who are now reaching out to us saying, ‘Hey, come, come to our community. We want this property to be a Gravity Haus.’ And then we can manage it,” he says. “That way we stay in the experience business.”
Deters uses the word “experience” a lot. It’s sprinkled in his discussion of construction design, restaurant food, coffee, gear, websites and apps. He’s built a hotel management company but he’s peddling experiences. A hotel is just a box. It’s a commodity, he says.
“I didn’t want to just create a hotel,” Deters says. “I wanted to galvanize a community.”
The discounted rooms, workspaces, clubhouse, gym and gear lockers get initial interest from members, Deters said. But he’s seeing the most excitement around Gravity Haus “community experiences” programs where members and locals participate in events and overnight trips organized by members.
He pulls out his phone and loads the Gravity Haus app to show the Join Me feature. Winter Park members are rallying for a ride. In Vail they are hiking. Women members in Breckenridge are getting together for a workout. Members are going climbing and camping outside Moab. Denver members are getting together for beers. Someone is teaching a candle-making class. There are more than 70 events a month on the JoinMe calendar.
He loves to talk about his members. There are expert athletes helping first-timers prep for races and find the right gear. Artist members are sharing their talents with classes. Mentors are helping newcomers learn the ways of responsible mountain play.
“Everything I’ve done with this is to create a sense of belonging,” Deters says. “This is a way to provide mentorship on how to be great stewards of these great places. You know, finding cool people that have local experiences that can teach you what to do, and having world-class gear at your fingertips that you don’t have to own, maintain, or lug around. That’s luxury. That’s super luxury, right?”
“Our most unique mixing pot”
Bronson, Deters’ development partner for the Aspen project, was born and raised in Aspen. A couple years ago he was the head of public affairs for WeWork, the co-working behemoth that spectacularly imploded. (He’s got some pretty good jokes about working PR for a company whose collapse sparked thousands of articles, several best-selling books and a star-studded mini-series.)
He returned to the Roaring Fork Valley a year ago, bought a place and connected with his old pals.
“They were all griping ‘We don’t have any place to hang out,’” he says, rattling off the list of Aspen restaurants and bars that have closed in the last year. The Red Onion. L’Hostaria. Piñons. Jimmy’s.
“I told my friends, I know how to solve this problem,” says Bronson, who appears to know just about every passerby in Aspen. “Locals used to live off bar menus in this town. Those bars, where we all sat together and met new people, that’s where the really cool things happened in Aspen. Now it’s all reservations and expensive restaurants. We want to build an approachable place where everyone can hang out again.”
Almost on cue, a woman strolls by the construction zone and hollers, “I’m so excited to see what you do here, Gordon.”
Employees of Gravity Haus are also members of the club, which further blurs social distinctions created by wealth and where someone lives.
Deters winds through offices where workers are pulling out the fluorescent-lit popcorn ceilings, bookshelves and carpet. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlook the grassy rugby paddock of Wagner Park and Aspen Mountain’s steep Traynor Ridge.
It might be the best window view in downtown Aspen. It’s “so inspiring,” he says, to reinvent this space that has been one person’s domain for the last 30 years. Seeing these lawyer offices and imagining them as a lounge where everyone can gather to absorb that view was one of his “oh-my-God moments,” he says. He sees locals and members gathering in the space for lectures, events and “the coolest apres in the valley.”
“All this has been about building a mixing pot,” Deters says. “This will be our most unique mixing pot.”