ACRA answers to the community
October 23, 2007
ASPEN Debbie Braun has been at the helm of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association for more than two years. In that time, much has changed in terms of the chambers role in the community, its membership and the events it organizes. The staff at Inside Business, a weekly publication of The Aspen Times, posed a few questions to ACRAs fearless leader for a better understanding of what ACRA does and what its mission is.IB: Whats your background?DB: I grew up in Palmer, Alaska and graduated from Northern Arizona University in 1988. I started with the Aspen Chamber in 1999 as the membership director, was promoted to vice president of business development in 2003 and was appointed president and CEO the summer of 2005. I have been married to my husband, Tim, for 10 years. We have two children, Cooper, 7, and McKinley, 5. Prior to joining the ACRA, I worked for Barbara and Marvin Davis at the Childrens Diabetes Foundation. We produced the Carousel of Hope, the single-largest one-night fundraiser.IB: Why was ACRA formed, and what is its mission?DB: In 2008, ACRA will be celebrating 35 years of doing business in Aspen. Our main purpose was to make the Aspen resort area more competitive in the resort marketplace. There was a belief that the formation of ACRA was critical to Aspens economic health. Today, our goals are still similar. We coordinate marketing and visitor services within the community, provide benefits to our 800-plus membership, and facilitate communication with the public and private sectors.IB: The ACRA board has recently voiced its interest in becoming more politically active. How do you convince the public to take ACRA seriously as an influential voice in local politics and business affairs?DB: ACRAs interest in giving a voice to the business community is not recent. For many years, ACRA has represented its members interests in community affairs. It has supported Burlingame housing and transportation improvements. Two years ago, during its strategic planning process, ACRA determined it was important to take a more active role to communicate local business interests to our governments and the community. With 855 business and professional members and their employees, I would think it would be difficult to dismiss, without taking seriously, the opinions of such a large number of community members. With the release of the 2000 Aspen Area Community Plan ( AACP), ACRA joined the city of Aspen and the Aspen Institute, and developed the Economic Sustainability Report. This completed a piece of the AACP that was not fully fleshed out during the AACP process. The Economic Sustainability Report was consistent with the AACP, and was adopted by the City Council. ACRA recently conducted an e-mail survey on the expansion of paid parking. Of the 528 surveys sent to members, there was a 40 percent return. The executive summary and the raw data were provided to the City Council. ACRA is fully aware that its members do not always agree, and the report sent to City Council reflects all opinions. ACRA perceives itself to be a resource to City Council by providing information on community issues from its business and professional members.IB: As a resident of Blue Lake, what challenges do you face as a person who does business in Aspen?DB: I am a face to the commuting work force. Accessibility in and out of our community continues to be a priority issue for me. Its 22 miles from my house to the ACRA office, and spending 45 minutes to an hour in traffic (each way) takes away from time with my family and friends. I believe many commuters are close to the tipping point: Should I commute to Aspen and fight with the traffic or look for employment in my own community? Another pressing issue is finding attainable housing for our work force. The mid to lower valley is no longer Aspens safety net for housing our work force. It will be imperative in the coming years to collaborate through public and private partnerships to begin to make a dent in our housing deficit.IB: How is ACRAs portion of the half-cent sales tax revenue spent? In other words, how does the resort and community reap the benefits of that revenue?DB: We are entering into the eighth year of our contractual agreement with the city of Aspen to manage the Tourism Promotion Fund. Passed via a ballot question in November of 2000, the lodging tax, shared with the regional transit authority, was created to fund transportation and for marketing and promotional efforts for the city of Aspens vital tourism industry. The city, in an attempt to partner with an organization capable of performing said activities aptly chose ACRA. Over the past five years, ACRA has moved from working exclusively with an outside advertising agency to implement its marketing plan to working in-house with staff-driven programming in conjunction with agencies and contractors. I want to be clear that ACRA accounts for these funds in a separate bank account and oversight is through the Marketing Advisory Committee and the ACRA board of directors and finance committee. We do not co- mingle these funds, and we do not use any of the monies for political activity ever. We also market Aspen as a whole, not just our membership. The ACRAs destination marketing fund is spent implementing a marketing plan consisting of an integrated program of advertising, print materials, public relations, group sales, promotions and Web technology no one technique can be effective on its own. Aspen is a community and resort, or a resort and community. Actually, it is a resort community. Either way, each is dependent upon the other. Without a healthy economy, a healthy influx of visitors who support Aspens skiing/snowboarding, retail businesses, restaurants, music venues, cultural organizations, and local events, the economy may suffer, businesses and community organizations may not thrive, and employers and employees may be without jobs. We have an economy that others envy. The sales-tax dollars that accrue from our visitors make possible those amenities that we who live here value and enjoy: Open-space acquisitions, affordable housing, child care, recreational facilities and programs, parks and trails, mass transit, the Canary Initiative, funding for our arts and cultural organizations, and our health and human service organizations. Without a healthy sales tax return, this might not be the community visitors would want to visit, nor might residents want to live in.IB: There is a perception that it is difficult for people to do business in town because of inflated prices, a lack of employees and government restrictions. What is the difference between perception and reality?DB: Id say that perception and reality are in sync on this. There is no question that Aspen is an expensive place to do business. Moreover, finding qualified employees is difficult, and regulations sometimes can be daunting. Through its member benefits, ACRA works to assist employers and their employees to realize savings in a number of areas. ACRA is hosting a job fair on Nov. 2 at the Hotel Jerome to bring potential employees and employers together. Through our newly created Faces of Aspen/ Snowmass program, ACRA works to assist employers and employees to achieve a level of excellence in guest services.IB: In terms of membership, what is the ratio of locally- owned businesses versus national chain stores? How has membership grown?DB: The ACRA currently has 855 members. When I started in 1999 we had about 650. Out of the 855 members, the majority are small businesses with three or fewer employees. The greater part of the membership is locally owned, with about 45 national chains.IB: Besides a discounted ski pass, what are the benefits of being an ACRA member?DB: I think there is the perception we are a one-trick pony you only join for the ski pass discount. Over the last 10 years we have aggressively worked to augment our benefits to the membership. If you are a business in town, increases in insurance have a major effect on your bottom line. We have a great workers compensation program that gives 4 percent off your premium and the potential for year- end dividends. Over the last five years we have returned over $ 250,000 back to the members of the group. Starting in January, we were approved by the Colorado Division of Insurance to become a bona fide association meaning we can now offer a 5 percent discount on insurance through the Roaring Fork Valley Community Health Plan. Networking also is a key element in the success of a new business. We have a formal leads group that meets weekly and informal business networking events with the goal of driving new business to our members doors. We produce seminars and a communitywide guest service program to help raise the bar on service in the resort. These events and services are free to ACRA members. Referrals are another big one. Our website is a powerful tool with over 60,000 unique visitors a month looking for information on Aspen businesses. We print an annual business directory that is distributed to our membership and used as a member-to-member referral guide. Any member that takes advantage of just a couple benefits, their membership pays for itself. I dont want to sound like an infomercial but I do get really excited about the organization. I have only touched on a couple big benefits, without even mentioning our destination marketing or special events departments.IB: What are your thoughts on the City Council rejecting the Lodge at Aspen Mountain at the base of Ajax?DB: ACRA supported the Lodge at Aspen Mountain based upon its commitment to provide additional lodging at the base of the mountain, identified by the land-use code as the appropriate location for lodging, and because it would provide a significant number of affordable housing units. Increasing the number of lodging units and providing significant affordable housing are consistent with the Aspen Area Community Plan, the Economic Sustainability Report and are goals the ACRA board supports. ACRA hopes there will be future opportunity to meet these goals.IB: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best and 1 being the worst, how do you think the current city government is doing? Why?DB: City government consistently is presented with a broad diversity of opinion and vision from its residents and community groups. Aspenites are passionate in their beliefs. City Council has the awesome challenge to hear and sort through what it hears and to arrive at a solution that is best for the community today and in the future. ACRA believes it has a role in this mix to represent the opinions of its members. It is a resource to City Council, not a judge of City Councils performance.IB: What are the biggest challenges facing ACRA and the business community?DB: Actually, things are going quite well for both Aspen and the chamber. But many ski resort communities are improving their bed base and infrastructure, and will offer significant competition to Aspen in the coming years. Our biggest challenge is to embrace change while retaining our basic values as a community. Maintaining an appropriate level of diversity in our community is something that we all acknowledge as important, something that we look forward to working on.IB: Is ACRA doing anything to create events designed to revitalize the shopping experience downtown?DB: ACRA has been supporting and creating downtown events for years, starting with our production of the Food & Wine Classic, Aspen Arts Festival and Winterskl. Based on the general sales-tax numbers that we use as a tool to gauge our effectiveness, retailers are continuing to enjoy a healthy business climate. Just in the last four months, general sales tax collections have been up an average of 9 percent. However, as a major initiative of the ACRA and our marketing efforts, we work with event producers who represent our strengths. An example would be our collaboration with SpaFinder Magazine. They hosted an experiential spa event in downtown Aspen that included local spas and businesses. Top Chef Season 3 highlighted Aspen as a dining destination to over 1 million people who have watched the show as it aired over the fall season. Elle Dcor Magazine with a circulation of over a half a million featured shopping in Aspen as a destination, must-do event.IB: What are your thoughts on food and wine events popping up in other resorts like Vail and Snowmass? Does that competition concern you?DB: I consider events popping up in other mountain resorts as a testament to what were doing right. Aspen is considered a benchmark of success on many different fronts. We are looked to as an example in cultural marketing with the success of the Aspen Music Festival & School. The Food & Wine Classic has enjoyed a long run and has only gotten better every year without growing in size. To name a few, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Aspen Filmfest, Aspen Art Museum, Jazz Aspen Snowmass also are being emulated by other resorts starting similar events. I would just say imitation is the highest form of flattery. In terms of competition, competition is good. It keeps us on our toes and reminds us that there are those out there that are aggressively trying to steal our business away.