VAIL — About 18,000 people attended the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in 2013. That’s important, for several reasons.
Events have become a critical part of the Vail Valley’s economy, and the town of Vail puts up a lot of taxpayer money to support them — the Vail Commission on Special Events alone has a budget of nearly $1 million this year, and the town spent $400,000 in reserve funds to support this year’s U.S. Open. But how to direct that money to the right events is more art than science.
With that in mind, the town recently commissioned a study to see just what kind of bang it’s getting for its bucks. That study, from Boulder-based RRC Associates, took an in-depth look at 30 events in 2013 to determine attendance, economic impact and whether or not people coming to Vail would have come without those events.
It’s all part of determining a couple of things: immediate effects such as lodging and sales tax receipts, and how an event might influence people either to come or come back.
The second part of that equation is harder to judge but could be just as important as the first.
THE PLACE TO BE
Chris Romer is president of the Vail Valley Partnership, the valley’s regional chamber and tourism organization. He said events such as the Vail Farmers Market make an impression on people who might not have known about it. Seeing Meadow Drive thronged with people on a Sunday helps build the impression of Vail as a place where people want to be.
In fact, the RRC study showed that while the market had the highest attendance of the events measured — due in part to the fact the market lasts all summer and into the fall — it’s also something that ranks fairly low on a scale that measures whether people come for a specific event. Other events, such as the Vail Lacrosse Shootout, almost exclusively draw people who wouldn’t otherwise come to Vail.
USING FUNDS WISELY
The secret is to find a balance of events that draw people, build brand awareness and use public money effectively.
The stakes are high. David Becher of RRC recently told the Vail Town Council that events in 2013 brought in more than $64 million with the help of $1.75 million in public money.
Vail special events coordinator Sybill Navas has held that job with the town since 2001. She said in that time the town’s efforts have become more focused. But it’s hard to try to determine just what the best use is of a large, but still-finite event-promotion budget.
“It’s complicated — there are so many criteria you can use,” Navas said. For instance, the Mini car brand is a presenting sponsor of the U.S. Open. The things that matter to Mini may not be the same as what matters to the town or Vail Resorts.
No matter what a town or car company wants in return for its sponsorship, one thing is vitally important — good attendance estimates.
Getting good numbers can be as easy as counting the number of tickets sold to an event, but good counting is usually more difficult in Vail. Even in a relatively enclosed space such as Solaris Plaza, accurate counts can be hard to come by. The RRC study used methods including estimating crowd size using overhead photos and Photoshop and using more simple methods such as sending a person with a counter into a crowd.
Then there’s the matter of just what event someone comes to Vail for. There are several events in Vail over Labor Day weekend, and Navas said that can make it hard to get solid data about people who visit then.
That data is critical, for the town, Vail Resorts and others Romer said.
Good information, as opposed to sometimes-optimistic estimates, can lead to a better understanding of “incremental” visitors (people who come just for an event), those who think better of Vail because they visited while an event was taking place and those who came because their TVs showed them a snowboarding or skiing event hosted in the Vail Valley.
“It’s an inexact science,” Romer said. “But it’s a huge credit to the town to try to quantify who’s coming.”