Duncan Horner leaves legacy of excellence at Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center
From his hometown in Sheffield, England, Duncan Horner still wears a Colorado uniform: flannel and a baseball cap, in this case, one from the GoPro Mountain Games.
Horner, the former Executive Director of the Vilar Performing Arts Center, moved back across the pond after two decades in the Americas. A journey that started shortly after college in Chile, that progressed through Houston, Miami, Golden and finally Vail, Colorado, ends with Horner back where he started, now with experience, a wife and kids with him.
While his family already misses Vail and plans to come back to visit, he’s already helping his successor, former Development Director Owen Hutchinson, take over the reins to one of the Vail Valley’s most respected arts institutions.
“It provides a sense of satisfaction to see smiles on faces, to see people going through the same kind of emotional rollercoaster of watching a show,” Horner said. “I think the pandemic really has highlighted the importance of the role that you play in something like running a theater. You played that important role in the community of bringing people together and having people, regardless of their backgrounds, enjoy a moment where they could all reflect on it together.”
After graduating from the University of Portsmouth, Horner returned home to a job working in the local pub. As young graduates often do, he questioned what he wanted to do with his life. He was in college right as the European Union was established, and he spent two of his university years studying in Madrid. When his father was packing for an extended business trip to Chile, Horner’s travel bug returned and he asked to tag along.
“I promised my mum when I was leaving, it’s just a year out. It ended up being a couple of decades, but the idea was always to return,” he said.
He met some other Europeans while he was there, and ended up living in a house with 10 of them, sleeping in a room above the garage, all $2,000 dollars to his name stashed under a floor board. He realized he needed a full-time gig and got a job in consulting. The company sent him to Houston to train, and that’s where he met his wife.
Just a few weeks into dating her, Horner’s tourist visa ran out.
“I figured I could just walk across the Rio Grande and walk back into the country and get a new stamp on my passport, but they didn’t allow that,” he said. “They said, ‘No, that’s not how it works in the United States.’”
He had 24 hours to leave the country, and 24 hours later, he stood at his parents’ doorstep. They had no idea he was coming. They thought he was still in South America.
Horner knew he had to get back to the United States. Not only because he needed his job back, but because he wanted his girl, too. A while later, once they married and Horner got his green card, they moved to his wife’s home state, Florida, and Horner took a job at Bacardi.
He worked his way up the hierarchy and ended his six-year tenure there as Bacardi’s senior marketing manager. He was part of a team that helped the biggest spirits company in the world grow even larger, and he developed a specialization in experiential and events-based marketing.
He took that expertise to MillerCoors from 2006 to 2007. In 2015, the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek came a-knockin’, and Horner was tapped as the one to market it.
With the Vail Valley Foundation, Horner was able to not only work on the World Championships, but also on the organization’s other offerings: The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, the Vail Dance Festival, the GoPro Mountain Games, Birds of Prey World Cup, YouthPower365, and of course, the Vilar Performing Arts Center.
When his predecessor at the Vilar retired, Horner assumed the role of executive director. Since 2016, Horner has spearheaded an effort to further connect the institution with the community of locals and tourists that enjoy its cultural offerings.
“It was just serendipitous, that I was in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Since then, Vail has made a tremendous impact on him and his family. They plan to keep an apartment for visiting.
“I ended up living in a spectacular part of the world and it’s hard just to kind of like, forget about Colorado,” Horner said. “The experiences that come along with living in such an amazing part of the world, the adventures and everything else you get up to, stick with you and they become part of you.”
One of his first and most impactful moves as executive director was to bring the Vilar’s programming function in-house. Previously, it was outsourced to a company in Rhode Island.
“We took a lot more control over the way that the venue was run. We managed to really challenge ourselves programmatically, to do things differently. And the audience responded to it, bought more tickets, the theater was generally full,” he said. “I think there was definitely a spirit of entrepreneurialism and experimentation that I was given to be able to switch things up.”
Bringing programming in-house meant that the venue was able to book artists that would directly resonate with local audiences. Horner used “every bit of data that he could mine,” Hutchinson said, from surveys and occupancy reports to historical ticket sales. That’s something Hutchinson experienced first-hand and hopes to continue.
“It was it was a huge risk that he moved through with incredible confidence and determination,” Hutchinson said. “We were able to have access to the artists that we wanted to see on our stage most, and that was very much attributed to his ability to navigate that.”
That entrepreneurial, creative spirit is one of Horner’s most notable characteristics as a leader, Hutchinson said. That’s been evident this year, as the Vilar was the first venue in Colorado to open for live shows after the national shutdown. The Ghost Light Sessions gave regional artists the chance to experience the stunning acoustics and intimate setting of the Vilar’s stage, which wasn’t able to offer those opportunities previously. The new winter Residency series offers a collaborative solution to provide unique arts experiences to both artists and viewers.
“The Residency is something that you couldn’t see at any other place or time,” Hutchinson said.
Horner’s ability to inspire others and collaborate on creative solutions, like Ghost Light and The Residency, propelled the Vilar’s mission forward.
“He was very open to incorporating new ideas and talents to better the organization. That was really something that was unique to him, compared to other leaders that I’ve worked with,” Hutchinson said. “He was open to taking risks to elevate how the VPAC serve our audiences and the community, which I think was extremely admirable. And his passion for the arts was always very clear. But it was also supported by an extremely savvy business and marketing skill set.”
Horner’s spirit as a collaborator also transpired into his personal relationships with friends. Hutchinson remembers conversations that pivoted from stimulating work talk to mountain biking in Avon. They enjoyed seeing shows and drinking beers at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.
“He brings a lot of authenticity to his relationships with his friends and with his staff,” Hutchinson said. “He’s had some pretty remarkable chapters of his career in his life. As a guy that was working for him and was coming up through the organization, he was someone who I really looked up to. He was a great mentor to me, so I always was just thankful that he brought people so close on his team and with his friends in the community.”