Since opening in 1989, The Little Nell’s name has become known around the world for its graceful service, award-winning wine and cuisine, and a coveted slope-side setting, just steps from Aspen Mountain.
Over the course of three decades, there have been four leaders of The Little Nell who have each made their mark. The Nell has grown over the years to encompass not just the hotel, but also the residences across the gondola plaza, as well as the Sundeck and Aspen Mountain Club at 11,212 feet above town. The shared goal among its leadership lineage of Eric Calderon, John Speers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Fillman has always remained consistent – to provide thoughtful and anticipatory service, and welcome guests back from generation to generation.
As we look back at The Little Nell’s history, it all began on Thanksgiving Day 1989 when then-General Manager Eric Calderon’s vision came to life. He set out to create a European-style hotel with such services as a ski concierge, luxurious suites, and an emphasis on exceptional food & beverage – all which poised the property for success.
The Leaders of The Little Nell
The following excerpts are from The Nell’s past and present leaders. Read on to see their greatest successes during their tenure.
Eric Calderon – 1988 – 2007
Vice President and General Manager
Eric Calderon was hired as the very first leader of The Little Nell, arriving a year before its debut in preparation. “We opened our doors to a sold-out house of prickly Aspenites for a dinner dance and overnight ‘pajama party’ to raise funds for the hospital. What were we thinking?! Thankfully, the event was an enormous success, and even though we all collapsed the next day, it set the tone for what was to become a wonderful and supportive community relationship that continues to this day,” Calderon recalls.
“The early years were not a bed of roses. We stumbled along and made more than our share of mistakes, but throughout, we acknowledged our faults, apologized and smiled. In the beginning, nobody would leave their secure jobs to join ‘the SkiCo.’ We were on our own, which turned out to be a blessing. We hired such a great group of friendly and mostly young students we were able to mold in our way, which was: always make eye contact, use the guest’s name, and never say ‘no.’
“We received our first major industry award two years later.” (When Forbes – then Mobil – presented the hotel with the prestigious Five-Star service recognition.)
“I remember tearing up when I got the call. We never felt we were so special, but everyone loved what we were doing, and that showed. The rest is history. None of this would have happened without the mentorship from Bob Maynard, then-President of Aspen Skiing Company, and the unfailing support of the wonderful Crown family. I am so proud of the many people that worked tirelessly and so enthusiastically to serve others. For the generation that served in the ‘90s, we all feel it was the best chapter of our professional lives.”
The news of Calderon’s departure in 2007 for another opportunity in California left a hole in the hearts of guests and staff, though his part-time residency in Aspen has translated to occasional visits to the hotel throughout the year.
The search for a replacement for Calderon was extensive, resulting in the hiring of John Speers. His focus on food & beverage led to the development and expansion of the hotel’s restaurants, while an emphasis on training was recognized with continued awards and acclaim, and the project of a grand remodel of all guest rooms and suites took place.
John Speers – 2007 – 2013
Vice President, General Manager and Managing Director
John Speers’ thoughts about his tenure in Aspen begin with a bang – recalling an event held in the summer of 2009:
The Big Aspen BBQ Block Party
“I saw the success of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and I thought Aspen Mountain would be the perfect location for a Colorado outpost,” he explained. “I sent an email to Danny regarding the proposition, he responded with ‘fascinating!’
“He had recently taken on the concessions at Citi Field Stadium – home of the New York Mets and he invited me for a behind-the-scenes tour of Shake Shack to see how we might adapt this for the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain. The lines were impressive and l quickly realized Aspen skiers would never wait in line for an hour for a hamburger.
The following day, Danny was hosting the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in Madison Square Park. He invited me to join the event, which drew nearly 300K visitors over a two-day period to experience the best pit masters from around the country. The event included live music, cooking demos, and plenty to drink. While I was disappointed to realize Shake Shack wasn’t a viable option, I knew we could do a version of the Big Apple BBQ in Aspen. Danny was in agreement.
At the end of August 2009, we partnered with Union Square Events to host the two-day Big Aspen BBQ Block Party. We utilized our relationship with Jazz Aspen Snowmass to bring in notable blues talent and had a large stage at the base of Aspen Mountain. Our team brought notable pit masters including Grand Champion Mike Miller from Memphis Championship BBQ; Austin’s Salt Lick; Big Bob Gibson; and Ed Mitchell’s North Carolina ‘Cue. I recall (chef) Ryan Hardy wondering how he would compete with this talented roster, but he was able to level the playing field with his version of whole hog porchetta, placing himself right in the mix with the best of the best. The two-day event drew 7,000 people, created great energy in the community and solidified the team’s connection with Danny Meyer’s team in New York.”
“The Little Nell Ski Concierge was a truly innovative introduction that has continued to delight guests after nearly three decades. When I arrived, I noticed the location was void of activity during the summer, and it seemed like there was a better opportunity to create a unique guest experience during those months. Working closely with Justin Todd (then-Sales & Marketing Director), we created The Little Nell Adventures.
The initial focus was on luxury fly-fishing excursions including helicopter trips, hikes, and cycling programs for our guests. The cycling program became the catalyst for the Ajax Tavern Cycling team and brought staff together to embrace the Aspen Idea. I am very pleased to see that the foundation we created from this little shop at the base of Aspen Mountain has led to expanded offerings today for truly enriching and one-of-a-kind experiences.”
“My first experience at Ajax Tavern was during the 1998 Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was the most popular restaurant in town with two levels and a kitchen headed up by the Real Restaurant Group. It was an amazing spot, and I have so many great memories. When I returned to Aspen on June 14, 2007 – opening day of the Classic and my first day on the job at The Little Nell, I couldn’t believe that Ajax had lost the luster from earlier days. Real Restaurants had terminated its lease, and there was talk of converting the restaurant into banquet space. I quickly began lobbying to update the restaurant, securing the rights to the name ‘Ajax’ and the redesign. With the help of architects John Rowland and Sarah Broughton of Rowland + Broughton Architecture & Interior Design, we moved the bar and made the room more functional, while adding authentic tavern touches with a modern twist. We launched Ajax with a new logo and a fresh new menu with Chef Jim Butchart at the helm. The rest is history, the restaurant had nearly tripled its revenue by the time I left in 2013, and the success has continued to build.
“After 18 years of successful operations, it was time for a complete refresh of the hotel’s guest rooms and public areas. I was fortunate to work closely with Paula Crown (whose family owns the hotel), who selected Holly Hunt (interior designer) to assist with the renovations and upgrades of the hotel guest rooms and the lobby of the hotel.
It was fascinating to work with these two talented women, each offering a unique view and aesthetic that transformed The Nell to be relevant for the next generation of luxury travelers. Every detail was considered: from heated stone flooring in the bathrooms; seating areas with banquette and trestle table to create a multi-functional area for guests to enjoy a board game or work; and in-room dining. We worked with artists Caio Fonseca and Robert Kelly to create limited edition prints for all of our guest rooms and corridors, along with originals that were placed in The Nell’s living room. The new design was a modern take on the mountain environment with iron, leather, rich woods and custom designed furnishings that added a layer of richness and texture while maintaining an understated luxury aesthetic.
Element 47 was a culmination of six years of thought and effort. Our goal was to transform the staid pink-hued Montagna Restaurant into an establishment that reflected our commitment to providing exceptional food & beverage experiences.
We brought the award-winning wine program to the forefront of the restaurant. Designer Peter Bentel with Bentel & Bentel Architecture was engaged to design the space. I had worked with them previously at Tabla Restaurant (part of Danny Meyer’s portfolio) and knew the quality of their craftsmanship. Working in collaboration with Paula Crown, we were able to create the foundation for an exceptional restaurant with modern appeal and approachability while integrating art into the dining experience. I left shortly after the re-launch of the restaurant and was delighted to see element 47 achieve the coveted Forbes Five-Star designation in 2015. The recognition is a tribute not only to the re-positioning of the restaurant, but the incredible talent that courses through it every day.”
Simon Chen – 2013 to 2019
General Manager and Managing Director, Hospitality
Simon Chen, the next leader of the hotel closed a loop, having worked at The Nell’s front desk in the winter of 1996/1997 at the start of his career in hospitality that led to the Caribbean, Florida, back to Colorado and on to California, before being appointed to the helm of the hotel.
“Having worked with Eric back in the 90’s, I always had this image in my mind of what a Little Nell experience should be. It had to be sophisticated, elegant, mouthwatering, incredibly warm and where the personal relationship was like none other. Both Eric and Barbara (Piper – hotel manager) were incredible stewards of The Little Nell, and I have always tried to take what I learned from them and continue to evolve what they and John created while not messing it up.
Re-branding The Little Nell
We began our rebrand in the fall of 2013. The timing was perfect to re-position ourselves for the next 20 years. The team set about creating new adventures, menus, concepts and events that we wanted to experience and that we anticipated would appeal to our guests and the Aspen community alike. We began working on a new logo and color scheme, as well as a fresh, new website that would be responsive on all screens. With all of the updates and changes, we have had our share of learnings along the way, but for the most part, our guests have welcomed change with open arms. In my opinion, the most incredible part of this new chapter has been to further bridge connections with our guests in a completely new and authentic way; whether it be riding together up Independence Pass in our cycling camp, skiing the back-country on our weekly Snow-cat Powder Tours or becoming a sommelier through our wine training.
This has had the most dramatic effect on our guests and our team with friendships born and relationships strengthened. The team’s commitment to gracious yet relaxed hospitality has never wavered, never losing sight of our core mission to care for our guests and one another.
We are so thankful to the incredible alumni that paved the way for us and continue to shape the industry to this day and for the unwavering support that we receive from our owners, the Crown Family, and our CEO of Aspen Skiing Company, Mike Kaplan.”
Jonathan Fillman – 2019 to Present
Jonathan began his career at The Little Nell in the spring of 2014 as hotel manager and was baptized by fire over the Food & Wine Classic weekend in June. “The fast pace, the magnetic energy and decadence of it all was a world away from my previous hospitality jobs in Vail, Breckenridge, Jackson Hole, and the Bahamas,” he states. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I love this,’ and quite frankly ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ though I immediately fell for The Nell, the guests, the staff, and the community.”
In the spring of 2019, Jonathan was promoted to general manager and, in this role overseeing the hotel, the Sundeck and the Aspen Mountain Club, continues to drive both an enriching guest experience and supportive working environment. Several of the areas where his focus has been thus far and continues to be include the following.
Adventures with The Nell
“During my first year at the hotel, I took a hard look at our adventure program, and as any operator would, I asked the question of ‘how do we turn a profit in this space and drive better guest experiences?’ The result was a multiyear approach to fine-tuning how we budget and plan the programs and leverage partnerships to create a broader offering. We’ve since developed Groom the Mountain, Snowcat Academy and bi-weekly Snowcat Powder Tours in winter. In summer, the Audi Stargazing tours and Ride & Dine dinners have been a great success. I’m proud to say that through our team efforts we have been booking more guests than ever through the adventure center and in turn, turning a profit. As our Director of Sales, Mark Elias, often posits, ‘every luxury hotel has rooms and food & beverage, what is it that really sets a brand apart from the rest of the industry?’ My answer is adventures like these and I intend to continue pushing the envelope.”
The Retail Boutique at The Little Nell
In the fall of 2017, the hotel changed out the lobby coat check closet to turn it into a retail space adjacent to the front desk, which has been a runaway success, carrying artwork, jewelry, clothing, bar accoutrements, gifts and more. “The Boutique is a point of pride as I had my first opportunity to work with Little Nell owner and artist Paula Crown who was the visionary behind the space. I was also given authority to hire and train the team, as well as procure the products we sell. Our goal was to create a shopping experience unlike anything else in Aspen, offering one of-a-kind items you would only find at The Nell, which we accomplished through thoughtful research and never buying in bulk.”
This ski season 2019/2020, The Little Nell celebrates our 30th anniversary. Looking towards the next 30 years, Jonathan lays out goals and promises as we move forward. “First, I promise to leave the Nell in a better position than it is in today, and I am pursuing this first in sustainable efforts as we work to eliminate all single use plastic guest supplies, as well as front and heart of house employee supplies. Simply said this is just the right thing to do for our business and the environment. We’ve made good strides eliminating all single use plastic guest supplies from Ajax Tavern, and we are continuing the push throughout the rest of the hotel.”
Jonathan defines his number one goal centered on driving a positive employee culture for our team and continuing to build a brand of hospitality that is second to none. “I believe that culture is everything, and while we have already reached high marks in this area, I always believe we can be even better. Better at collaboration, ideation, listening, being open to change, nimble to the needs of our guests, and truly understanding why we do what we do. I show up each day believing that I am here to serve my staff and I believe that by doing this my team will in turn take care of each guest in the most authentic, genuine, and hospitable way. I believe that caring about each and every interaction, whether with a guest or employee, no matter how small or monumental, can elicit positive responses and turn moments into memories that are unforgettable. This is my why. This is why I show up every day and love what I get to do.”