The former pro kayaker and co-founder of Buena Vista’s South Main talks about how those of us who live to socialize can come back from the COVID-19 crisis.
Jed Selby’s entire life revolves around socializing. The former pro kayaker—a three-time member of the U.S. Freestyle Team—created the vital South Main neighborhood and its community whitewater park in Buena Vista, Colorado, with his sister Katie in 2003. They opened the 20-room Surf Chateau in 2014 and added the 42-room Surf Hotel and Wesley & Rose restaurant and bar to the project, which also includes retail shops and residences, in 2018. South Main won a Wright Award for its forward-thinking vision, and it has served as the poster child for how outdoor recreation can anchor an economy in a mountain town. The hotel includes the Ivy Ballroom concert and event venue, and Selby, a big-time Phish fan, has been instrumental in bringing music and happenings to the town. So it’s no surprise that the COVID-19 crisis has been tough for the still dedicated paddler and rock climber, who has also recently fallen in love with kiteboarding. But Selby is full of ideas and ready for a time when he can get back to high fives. Here’s what he had to tell us about adapting to the current situation.
How hard is the current crisis hitting you and the business?
Initially, it was catastrophic. Basically it became illegal to do every single thing that we do. You never run a scenario where your revenue goes to nothing. You might have a recession, you might drop 20% or even 40%, but there’s no model scenario where your sales go to zero.
So at first it was wildly stressful. My first understanding was that they’re going to shut us down, and then they’re going to lend us money. It would have been terrible to just add on a bunch of debt. But I was shocked to find out there was going to be debt forgiveness. I’m sure the program saved countless businesses. We’ve been closed for a little over two months, and just opened our doors in late May.
And what is making you hopeful about the summer?
Airline travel is pretty tenuous at the moment and Buena Vista is a reasonable drive from a lot of places—all of the Front Range, the Midwest, Texas, and Arizona. A lot of people like to come to Colorado in the summer. Our reservations are actually picking up pretty dramatically. We’re in a rural small town, mostly focused around outdoor activities, and it’s not a densely populated area. You don’t have these congested shared spaces, like you do in Las Vegas or New York City, where you’re inside with a lot of people. So I think this is honestly a pretty safe place to go. And it seems like a lot of people are kind of chomping at the bit to get out.
What kind of precautions are you taking to be able to reopen and make people feel safe?
One challenge is that reopening requires a fairly significant increase in staffing levels. We have always prided ourselves on being a very clean hotel. But we have added disinfection steps and extra staff members who are focused on that task pretty much all the time. We have a brand-new building, and modern building codes require large amounts of fresh air to be brought into the common spaces, and we are going to leave the doors open as often as we can. We are going to increase the quantity of fresh air to the maximum amount and have upgraded our HVAC filters to remove particles. All of our guest rooms luckily have their own HVAC systems with their own fresh air—as well as operable windows and big balconies—so there’s no shared air in the sleeping rooms. What we want to do is just make everyone feel comfortable.
We’re naturally well positioned with tons of open space. We have the river park and trails right outside. So it’s pretty easy for people to spread out and have their own space. At the Surf Chateau, you have direct access to the rive park and trails from your room. You never even go into a lobby, you don’t use an elevator. You can walk straight from your car to your door. It’s a great option for people who are high risk or just concerned.
We’re also in the process of implementing a mobile check-in system. With the lock system that we have, you can download an app, check in, and fill out your waivers online, and we will text you a room key on your phone, so you can go directly to your room and don’t ever have to talk to anybody.
Everyone is taking this seriously. Obviously, there’s all the rules and what the CDC says and then I think theres another level: people may feel uncomfortable and we need to help mitigate that. When guests walk in and see that we have hand sanitizer, that the place is very clean, that the staff are wearing masks—all the little things matter. In my opinion, our job has become cleanliness experts. We have to be hyper-aware of possible transmission points and we need to proactively mitigate them.
How do you see Buena Vista and mountain towns in general as being uniquely positioned to bounce back from this?
People are becoming a little bit more timid around a lot of the activities and places that attract people to the city. We have some long-term rental houses and apartments here in BV and we’ve had new tenants who are moving from the city to live here to get away from the crowds. The things that really have built this town—certainly what attracted me to this area—are the river, the trails, the mountains, and that is what people want and need right now.
People are going biking, surfing, and playing outdoors. They’re not going to be going to any concerts or any weddings. Since they’re not going to all of these activities that naturally fill up their schedules in an area like this, they will have more free time to recreate outside.
Do you still spend a lot of time kayaking?
I don’t compete anymore but we have a public whitewater park with five waves on the property that we donated to the city right out the door. And I have been getting out a lot more again recently with my business partner Andre Spino-Smith, who I met as my kayaking partner. One thing I have noticed that’s been an incredible change in kayaking recently is that the new creek boats are just unbelievably effective. You just fly over the top of big holes that used to be terrifying. It’s remarkable. Creek boats are just so much fun right now. Nothing has ever come close to whitewater kayaking for me—but I have to say, kiteboarding is the first thing that I actually like as much. I never thought I would like another sport as much as kayaking. We were actually down in Mexico kiteboarding all winter and coming back in April when all this hit. We had a huge summer planned here with festivals and all and were about to gear up for it. Instead, it looks like I’ll be spending more time than I thought kayaking and kiting on the lakes in the area.
What’s keeping you going?
I’m so curious to just observe the process of people becoming comfortable with getting back together. We’re not built to do social distancing. It’s not in our genetics. And everything that I do as a business is based around gathering. I just love people so much. I like to give thousands of high fives. I can’t wait to get back to that.
Cover Photo: Former pro kayaker, Selby, who was a top competitor at vail’s mountain games in the early 2000s, has found a new passion in kiteboarding. / Photo by Jeanne des Vallières