The business of free in Aspen
August 26, 2008
ASPEN People love free stuff, and whether you wear it on your head or emblazoned across your chest, the high-cache Aspen name has triggered a cottage industry revolving around swag.Swag commonly pronounced shwag, which really is a form of tobacco or low-grade marijuana is a British term for stolen goods or loot, according to Websters Dictionary. Its also slang for free stuff.And in a busy ski town with international clout, free goodies are big business and part of promotional efforts for organizations like the Aspen Police Department to big firms such as the Aspen Skiing Co.Many say that giving away swag stamped with the Aspen name is not only a chance to spread a message, but connect people to the community.
Police officers have a long tradition of trading patches and gear, but after Sept. 11 and the heroics of New York police officers, police gear boomed in popularity, spawning a dedicated police memorabilia store in Manhattan.Michele McClinton, customer service officer with the Aspen Police Department, noticed the trend and in 2002 started selling T-shirts and hats as a way to raise money for the departments juvenile fund. The money goes to scholarships for outdoor education programs, loaner helmets or any other program that benefits area kids. McClinton contacted Ouray Sportswear and bought shirts, fleeces, hats and socks. She put them on sale in the police departments front office.Since those humble beginnings, the program has grown and the department also gives out freebies at the front office and at local events.In 2008, the department will spend about $9,000 on goods.Police department lip balm is one of the most popular giveaways, McClinton said, and comes with safety slogans, such as Get a life, not a criminal record, and Protecting the Wild West since 1880.Its become a goodwill and morale booster, McClinton said.Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, agrees.Its just a fun way of connecting, Pryor said.Recent newspaper ads about cop swag brought in loads of people, McClinton said, and some homeowners fill their entire Christmas shopping list with T-shirts and hats emblazoned with the police departments logo.Swag giveaways is a trend for public entities, and Aspen Valley Hospital also is on the bandwagon.We do have swag that is given away at various events, said hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche.She budgeted $5,000 for freebies in 2008 and said they go a long way to top-of-mind awareness, and visibility for the hospital.Its amazing how people love swag; Im always surprised how many people will come by a booth, Dyche said. They love getting freebies.Hospital officials sponsor a handful of local events including the womens World Cup and Komen Aspen events and Dyche said hospital volunteers give out sunscreen, first-aid kits, massagers and water bottles at various events.We try to give things away that are consistent with what we are all about, Dyche said. We believe that people should protect their skin from sun exposure and the risk of skin cancer.Hospital patients also leave with a gift mug, and hospital staff give families with newborn children an outfit when they go home, gifts that come from a separate hospital budget, Dyche said.Its just a reminder of the experience at AVH, Dyche said, adding that giveaways give the hospital some visibility. I love it when Im around town and I see someone in an AVH T-shirt, Dyche said.Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials use a small portion of their advertising budget for swag, said Sylvia Cranmer, communications manager, but mostly for employee rewards and giveaways at events.I try to do something thats not too high-dollar but is nice, Cranmer said, citing the small, battery-powered blinking lights for safety or T-shirts that commemorate the recent opening of the Rio Grande Trail.
Nowhere will you find more freebies than on the ski hills and at special events.The Winter X Games, sponsored by ESPN and typically held in February, sets up its own swag village at the base of Buttermilk, where corporate sponsors offer everything from novelty foam hats to pricey product samples. Also, the summertime Food & Wine Classic at Aspen is a swag-hunters dream.Skico officials, who run their own events such as the womens World Cup each December, say giving away goods is a way to thank volunteers and visitors or is just another way to add nice touches to the on-mountain experience.Skico ambassadors at guest service booths hand out everything from sunscreen and lip balm to cider, water, coffee and granola bars, and the plan is entirely customer service driven, said John Rigney, vice president of sales and events.Rigney, who arranges sponsorship deals with various companies, said it is amazing how many guests comment on the freebies, or get upset when the freebies change.Green Mountain coffee at the base of area mountains is popular, as are the practical gifts of hydration and sun protection on the mountain, he said.But not just anyone gets to hand out their gear on the mountain.It has to be stuff that would resonate with our guests, Rigney said.Skico executives also give gifts to event participants and volunteers, such as popular jackets Rigney said are a badge of honor for helpers at the World Cup event, and sales staff give company-logo gear to key customers he called people we want to see wearing the leaf and wearing it proud.Skico also sends loyal Aspen guests a gift each fall this year a compact fluorescent light bulb as part of their green push to thank them for their business, update them on news in Aspen and remind them that the ski season is coming, Rigney said.
Officials from other local entities, such as the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Pitkin County, say they would like to have more swag but just dont have the budget for it.Were not big swaggers, said county spokeswoman Pat Bingham.County staff give away plastic mugs and give away bike bells as part of a trail safety program, but Bingham said most county gear, such as embroidered shirts, are for staff.When county commissioners travel to meeting in other parts of the state, theyll take a basket of Pitkin County gear, including local wines and other products, Bingham said.Were low-key about it, she added.Pitkin County deputies dont do any swag sales or major giveaways.County jail staff once sold T-shirts designed by local artist Tom Benton, who died in 2007. The jail shirts were gifts for inmates unlucky enough to be in jail on Christmas, said Jail Administrator Don Bird, but they no longer do the program.Chamber President Debbie Braun said the organization gives out cloth shopping bags at some events and sometimes pens, but not much else.Its not really a huge piece of what we do, Braun said, adding that shell occasionally buy a gift basket when a member of a national press organization comes to town, but that it is barely a blip on her budget.The city of Aspen once ran a gift shop, selling blankets and T-shirts and other city of Aspen gear, but discontinued the firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is a feature of Inside Business, published Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.