Aspen, Snowmass turn to special events in hard times
July 17, 2009
ASPEN – A little more than a month ago, the streets of Aspen were so eerily quiet that locals wondered if the inactivity foreshadowed a dismal summer season in a shaky economy.What a difference a month can make.The summer kicked off in mid-June with the combination of the Aspen Music Festival, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival and the final overnight stop on the annual Ride the Rockies bicycle tour.Welcome to summer in Aspen and Snowmass Village, whose marketing and special events departments know the value of creating a draw for not only locals but, more importantly, out of towners. Collectively, special events bring tens of thousands of people to the resort each year, generating millions of dollars in sales for local businesses.And in a time of economic unrest, special events are even more critical to the local economy than before.”Special events are important for exposing new people to Aspen,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland. “They help overcome the notion that Aspen is inaccessible or stodgy or exclusive.”The notion of special events drumming up business is not new to Aspen – it began 58 years ago with the Winterskl parade, which was created as a celebration for locals during the traditionally slow, post-holiday month of January.”It was so quiet in January,” said Dale Paas, owner of the Limelight Lodge, whose family has been in the lodging industry for more than 50 years. “The best thing to do was throw a wild, fun parade … It helped bolster business.”Now under the auspices of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA), Winterskl is an entire weekend of activities, complete with fireworks and an ice sculpture contest that’s known throughout the state.The local ski areas hold their own during the ski season, but the Winter X Games is one special event that attracts tens of thousands of people in January. The streets of Aspen are jammed with X Gamers, and bars and restaurants are filled to the brim. Paas said it’s his single biggest weekend of the year.”It really helps the whole winter,” he said. “Special events are definitely our lifeblood.”Paas remembers being in high school and having hardly guests in the old Limelite during the summer.”There wasn’t squat here in the summer during the ’60s,” Paas said.Now, there’s something for nearly everyone every weekend. Take this weekend, July 18-19, for example. Aspen’s Wagner Park was the venue for the Aspen Arts Festival and a free, big-screen simulcast of La Bohme (the actual performance was inside the Wheeler Opera House). A few blocks away, hundreds of people participated in the Komen Aspen Race for the Cure.Like this weekend, Aspen’s unofficial mid-June kick-off drew multiple kinds of visitors. More than 20,000 people came either to listen to music or taste food and wine, not to mention all the cyclists who passed through with Ride the Rockies. Merchants appreciated the crowds, but many business owners were disappointed that the three events weren’t spaced out over separate weekends.Debbie Braun, president and CEO of ACRA, said the scheduling couldn’t be avoided because organizers were locked into those dates. However, Braun said she recognizes that special events must be staged with an eye toward timing and balance for the community.”People want events and they want them spread out,” she said. “Now more than ever we have to be particular about what events come here.”Special event organizers get a fair amount of pressure from local business owners to find that right mix and balance, said Susan Hamley, director of the Snowmass Tourism Office.”The goal is balance and decisions are made in the interest of Snowmass overall,” she said. “Balance by audience – families, aggressive adventurers, independents, couples, and empty nesters have different needs and interests that compel them to come here.”Hamley added that when she and her staff are considering what special events to bring to Snowmass, they must take into account all local businesses and stakeholders – who don’t all benefit from the same types of events.For example, the free Thursday night concert series tends to benefit bars and some restaurants, but does next to nothing for lodges and retailers, given the predominantly local crowd. The Blast the Mass extreme mountain biking event has an impact on lower-end lodging, Hamley said, but that audience doesn’t tend to buy jewelry or dine at upscale restaurants. The Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day music festival benefits nearly all constituents, however, and that is why Snowmass Village makes a sizable investment in that event.
The city of Aspen recently upped its investment in special events geared toward competitive athletes, who are coming to town in record numbers despite the recession.The Aspen City Council in February gave an additional $50,000 to the special events and marketing department to target Front Range and Utah residents for this year’s athletic events. Four races – the Owl Creek Chase cross-country ski race, the Aspen Downtown Cycling Criterium, the Aspen High Country Triathlon and the Golden Leaf Half-Marathon – have grown every year of their existence, said Nancy Lesley, director of the city’s special events and marketing department.City officials hope that additional marketing money will continue that growth trend and draw even more athletes to Aspen. Lesley’s department projects an increase of taxable revenue of nearly $300,000 this year as a result of those races.”We base everything on taxable sales,” she said. “We focus on participant events because research suggests that they bring 1.5 people with them for athletic events, and that is a conservative estimate … nine out of 10 people are not coming to Aspen alone.”Those other people are shopping, eating at restaurants and staying in hotels.”With increased marketing and partnerships with specific groups, this past January’s Owl Creek Chase drew a record 850 people and had an estimated economic impact of $250,000 in taxable revenue. Participation for the Criterium, held in May, increased 63 percent over last year, Lesley said.”Almost all of them were from out of town,” she said of the 136 participants, who funneled an estimated $7,840 in taxable revenue to the city.The next racing event, the triathlon set for Aug. 8, is expected to draw 347 people with a projected $57,499 in taxable revenue. And September’s Golden Leaf should draw nearly 700 people, bringing in $215,987 in taxable revenue. (City officials said the figures, which may seem disproportionate, are based on demographics and the spending habits of participants, plus their families and friends.)”This is a market that previously was traveling further for their athletic events, and is more open to traveling closer to home in this economic climate,” Lesley said. “They might have been looking at Texas and Arizona, but now we are very appealing to them.”Lesley said the cycling criterium started in 2004 with 40 people and was a locals’ event. It gained momentum when it was paired with Ride for the Pass, where cyclists can pedal up Independence Pass before it opens to vehicles.”It’s a fantastic niche weekend for the hotels and brings excitement to the downtown core,” Lesley said of the off-season event. “The hotels love it and they give phenomenal deals.”Lesley said the goal is to give people an unforgettable experience so they want to come back.”All we have to do is get them here once,” she said.
The biggest draws for Snowmass Village revolve around athletics and music, said Dave Elkan, sponsorship and event manager for the Snowmass Tourism Office. But, he noted, something is happening in Snowmass every weekend despite the town’s reduced funding for special events.”We’re trying to do everything for everybody in a tough year,” he said.The resort typically produces at least one big draw a month, supplemented by smaller activities throughout the summer designed for families with kids, Hamley said.That’s the methodology behind “Family Fun Saturdays,” which will occur the next four weekends. From 1 to 4 p.m., Snowmass will be the place for free, live family entertainment with aerialists and acrobats, music and mountain activities.And on Aug. 1-2, it’s “Big Mountain Weekend,” when the Village Express six-pack chairlift will be open, taking downhill and cross-country mountain bikers and hikers up 2,200 vertical feet to the top of Sam’s Knob.”It’s a draw for the hard-core riders who don’t want to drive to Summit County to mountain bike,” Elkan said.Blast the Mass is scheduled for Aug. 7-8, and is expected to generate about 3,000 participants.Organizers also are banking on business generated from Ride for the Cure, which drew cyclist Lance Armstrong last year. It’s slated for Aug. 21-22 this year.Hamley said the June Chili Pepper & Brew Fest has grown from 1,200 people in its inaugural year of 2004 to more than 7,000. This year, the event drew about 6,000 people; Hamley estimates that about 2,000 locals didn’t come because of rain. The good news, she said, was that more than 45 percent of attendees were from out of town.Aside from the JAS Labor Day Festival, another big draw for Snowmass is the Balloon Fest, which attracts about 3,000 people from the Front Range for a September weekend of activities.”Balloon Fest will never pay for itself,” Hamley said. “It is an outlay of monies that, provided it continues to bring thousands of people here in good weather, is a worthwhile investment both for visitation as well as being a signature event with history and great photography to differentiate us in our marketing initiatives.”Fueling fun into the economyJennifer Albright-Carney, special events manager for ACRA, said local businesses that offer support to big events realize revenue that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”Events in general stimulate the local economy because Aspen businesses are hired – from security firms to temp workers to audio-visual and caterers,” she said. “They really reach out to local businesses.”Braun said special events are now especially key to the year-round sustainability of Aspen and Snowmass. How they are scheduled and what types will continue to be a work in progress, she added.”Events are absolutely vital to the success of a resort,” she said. “We need to be cultivating new events.”Not all ideas work, Braun admitted, but “trying is better than doing nothing at all.”Lesley said attendance levels at local events this year demonstrate that people still want to travel and recreate.”It was nice to see town so busy after seeing it so quiet,” she said. “I believe [special events] have always been important to the local economy, it’s just more apparent now.”Paas, whose newly rebuilt hotel is in its first summer, looks forward to Ruggerfest and the Motherlode Volleyball tournament this fall – a shoulder season that wouldn’t otherwise generate a lot of guests.”This recession will give a lot of people a wake-up call that we need an economic driver and that is special events.”firstname.lastname@example.org