Aspen WinterFest gets put to the test
ASPEN – Chamber officials are banking that the extra $15,000 kicked in by the city of Aspen for Winterskl festivities will pay off at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper Avenue Saturday.The monetary allocation was part of the Aspen City Council’s “economic stimulus” funding that set aside $200,000 as seed money toward a host of new or existing special events. The goal is that the events will drive tourism, fuel the local economy and create memorable experiences for guests as an enticement for them to return.The Aspen City Council earlier this month allocated $147,500 to a handful of events. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s (ACRA) new Epic WinterFest to be held Saturday is the first one to be executed.”We’re the first one out of the gates,” said Debbie Braun, president and CEO of ACRA. “I don’t know how it’s all going to go, but I have a good feeling.”More than 30 concepts with a total of $544,500 in requests were submitted to the city, which were vetted by a 12-member committee over the past few months. The committee’s aim was that each event ought to “put heads in beds” or create vitality.”WinterFest, funny enough, fell into both,” Braun said.ACRA’s destination marketing arm placed a significant ad buy in Denver to promote Winterskl, hoping to drive business from the Front Range.”Winterskl has morphed into a repeat guest event,” Braun said of the local celebration that began 59 years ago to liven up the doldrums of winter. “People now make their trips around Winterskl.”Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency, said as of Dec. 31 – the date of the last occupancy snapshot – advance bookings for this weekend peaked at just more than 70 percent both Saturday and Sunday nights. However, there have been a lot of last-minute bookings since then, and the agency was fielding a number of last-minute requests Friday for arrival this weekend. Last year’s peak occupancy for Winterskl and Martin Luther King weekend peaked at 84 percent, he added.”I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up very close to that if not exceed it this year,” Tomcich wrote in an e-mail. “Snowmass was also booked to just over 70 percent this weekend as of Dec. 31, and likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them break their peak weekend occupancy of 81 percent achieved last year, as well based on the last-minute booking activity we have seen.”Braun submitted an invoice for WinterFest to the city on Wednesday, along with a detailed budget of WinterFest expenses.While the traditional parade has been scrapped because of a lack of participation in recent years, ACRA’s special events department came up with a replacement that they hope will attract more people downtown, and thus spend money in local shops and restaurants.”We hope it keeps people in the downtown core from noon until the fireworks, and they’ll go shopping and maybe even dinner at a restaurant later,” Braun said. “WinterFest is really just trying to tinker with what’s already been the success of Winterskl.”During their deliberations on how to distribute the seed money, City Council members discussed the merits of re-inventing or “tinkering” with Winterskl.Councilman Steve Skadron suggested that perhaps the community is growing tired of always having to entertain its guests and too many special events or beefed-up activities will further contribute to the fatigue.He questioned why more money should be put into Winterskl, or why fireworks have to occur so often in Aspen.Councilman Torre responded by saying Winterskl fuels tourism in a month when more is needed than just the holidays and the Winter X Games. “Business drops off and the bookends of January aren’t enough,” he said, adding Winterskl is designed to be a local celebration for guests to enjoy. “I’d take Winterskl over X Games.”Mayor Mick Ireland said trying something new with an existing event is worth the attempt.”I think we ought to try this and see how it works out,” he said. Saturday’s events, which are new to the four-day celebration of winter, consist of several free activities, including a canine fashion show, live entertainment and music on the malls and streets, cookies and hot chocolate, and more.There also will be a beer garden set up on Cooper Avenue in front of Bad Billy’s. The street will be closed in the morning for the canine fashion show and then reopen from 2-5 p.m. The beer garden will be open from 6-8:30 p.m., with fireworks following.The city’s contribution doesn’t cover all of WinterFest’s costs and ACRA will pick up the difference, Braun said.The bulk of the Winterskl budget hovers around $30,000, which is paid mostly through sponsorships. Braun said $28,500 was raised this year through sponsorships from various Aspen businesses. The goal was $30,000.”We almost made it, which is not bad considering,” the fragile economy, she said, adding in year’s past the sponsorship goal was $40,000.Fifteen businesses have contributed cash to Winterskl this year, with $1,000, $500 and $250 donations. Dozens of others have contributed in other ways.Braun said another significant contribution comes from local lodges, which puts up out-of-town performers in rooms for free or discounted rates. Lodges also contribute between $1,000 and $2,000 each to pay for Soupskl, which is an annual soup making competition that was held Friday night with more than 20 participating restaurants.Aspen Valley Hospital underwrites the Winterskl buttons to the tune of $2,500 and 50 percent of the proceeds are then given back for AVH’s helmet program.Whatever overall costs aren’t covered by sponsorships, ACRA pays for them out of its budget funded by membership dues, which is how the chamber’s three main events – Fourth of July, Food & Wine and Winterskl – are subsidized.”This is not a revenue generating operation in our events department,” Braun said. It’s all hands on deck for ACRA this weekend because Winterskl is one of the chamber’s signature events and the extra effort is designed to ensure that WinterFest is indeed “epic.”Friday morning Braun was picking up doughnuts for the U.S. Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps, who are scheduled to perform at 1 p.m. on the Cooper Avenue mall. And Saturday, Braun plans to be the one handing out balloons to the kids.”I’m not too proud to do what it takes to get the job done,” she email@example.com
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