Vail, Breckenridge & Aspen flourish as year-round desinations
There was a time when mountains were enough — when skiing down or hiking up forested slopes, fishing and rafting rivers or biking or riding horses through the hills provided enough entertainment to last a week.
As mountain resort communities grow and compete with one another for tourism dollars, the mountains simply aren’t cutting it. Visitors want more.
Ziplines. Trampolines. Alpine coasters. Extreme mountain bike trails. Paragliding. Ropes courses. Slacklines. Mini golf. Disc golf. Rock-climbing walls. Whitewater parks. Terrain parks. Skateboard parks.
Growth in visitors and sales tax revenues proves that ski towns are real communities no longer serving the very narrow niche of winter sports.
The in-your-face overload of countless activities doesn’t stop with recreation. Summer events and festivals are filling up the calendars, giving guests from far and wide all the more reason to find their Rocky Mountain high. Event planning has taken off in the mountain region, and in many cases the public sector has its hand in it like never before.
The mountains have become everything from a foodie’s paradise to a place to unwind to a spa or golf destination. Festivals focusing on music, art, food and dance plump up weekends that used to be desolate as recent as a few years ago.
More events have meant more people are visiting mountain resort towns during non-winter months, changing the way these communities have thought about their so-called offseasons.
In the last decade, the shift from winter to summer is evidenced by increased occupancy percentages and sales tax revenues. The offseason used to begin the minute the chair lifts stopped rolling and typically lasted until the Fourth of July. Now, the summer season kicks off as early as Memorial Day weekend and lasts well into September, and sometimes October.
John Rigney, vice president of sales and events for Aspen Skiing Company, said summer is more important than it used to be. He said his workload proves it.
“Summer’s a priority — there’s no two ways about it,” Rigney said.
With sales and lodging tax returns at record levels, it’s easy to see why local business groups and municipalities want to keep cashing in. DestiMetrics, a Denver firm that tracks mountain resort economic data, reported Aug. 16 that this summer is on pace to be the busiest ever for the 17 resort destinations the company tracks.
“While results vary widely among destinations, many resorts have now surpassed their pre-recession performance levels and are on track for their best ever summer,” DestiMetrics Director Ralf Garrison said. “There are a variety of probable reasons for this robust summer, among them continued strength in the economy, growing consumer confidence, and a maturing summer market with more attractions that serve as magnets to attract destination guests.”
Sales and use taxes collected in mountain resort towns have been steadily increasing, especially during non-winter months. Declines in sales tax collections when compared to the same month in the prior year are rare. In Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, the only declines in the last year occurred during winter or offseason months.
Otherwise the news is good — really good. When looking at June numbers alone, Aspen’s sales tax collections increased nearly 19 percent from 2011 to 2012, and another 5 percent from 2012 to 2013. In Vail, June increases were 7.5 percent from 2011 to 2012 and nearly 3 percent from 2012 to 2013. Breckenridge saw an 18 percent increase from June 2011 compared to June 2012. June 2013 numbers aren’t yet available.
In Vail, the town’s summer marketing budget has grown along with sales tax revenues. The town, through its Vail Local Marketing District, spends about $2.5 million on summer marketing. In 2013, the town is spending another $1 million through its Commission on Special Events, plus it will contribute another $1.5 million from council funds to special events. That’s $5 million in 2013 invested into growing Vail’s brand awareness and its year-round business.
Winter might make up about 70 percent of Vail’s annual sales and lodging tax revenue, but summer’s piece of the pie hasn’t reached its limit. The numbers look similar in Aspen, evidenced by 20 to 25 percent of the annual marketing budget spent on winter and the remainder spent on non-winter months, said Debbie Braun, president and CEO of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
When Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz unveiled the company’s Epic Discovery plans for summer on-mountain recreational development a year ago, he said he expects summer business at Vail Mountain to increase threefold once the resort’s summer program is fully built out. Fast-forward to this summer, with new summer activities already open at Vail Mountain and Breckenridge, Vail Resorts Mountain Division President Blaise T. Carrig said summer revenues at each resort are expected to rise from “a couple million now” to $15 million per year, about fivefold, once the projects are fully built.
The growth has been welcomed, especially in the years following the Great Recession when resort communities saw sales tax revenues dive. Some communities and event producers recognize a point when the growth can become too much and make efforts to control it, but most agree that the tipping point hasn’t yet been reached. The Food & Wine Classic, for example, caps attendance at 5,000 to ensure it doesn’t outgrow or overwhelm its Aspen venue. Food & Wine Classic spokeswoman Lori Lefevre said the event would feel like it’s spilling out with more than 5,000 people.
Capacity is a big issue in mountain resort towns, especially those built in the shadows of mountains in narrow valleys that have little space leftover for development. Breckenridge, for example, doesn’t have a large-scale event venue because of historic designations that mean even less land is leftover for development, explained John McMahon, president of The Breckenridge Resort Chamber, which markets the town.
Breckenridge’s character as a town is also not conducive to events with huge attendance numbers, either, he said.
If Breckenridge sought a major event, “I think the challenge we have is where we would actually put it,” McMahon said.
Vail Valley Foundation President Ceil Folz attributes much of Vail’s offseason and summer growth to one venue: The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. The Amphitheater, which was built by the Foundation on town-owned land, opened in 1987. It underwent a $9 million renovation in 2001 and another $3 million upgrade last year, with a further round of improvements in the planning stages. The Amphitheater can seat more than 2,500 people.
“There’s not one thing that has more changed this community than the construction of the Amphitheater,” Folz said. “It was a pretty dynamic shift.”
Vail’s Dobson Ice Arena can hold 2,800 guests, and concerts at Ford Park can host up to 7,500 people.
In Aspen, music venues include the Benedict Music Tent, which seats 2,050, the 450-seat Wheeler Opera House, the 500-seat Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall and a brand new musical campus featuring a central plaza, three rehearsal halls, student center, teaching studios and practice rooms. The new facility, called the Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus, is about 60 percent finished.
Then there’s Belly Up, a nightclub music venue that can hold 450 people and often hosts big name music acts.
At Snowmass Town Park, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s Labor Day weekend festival caters to upwards of 10,000 people daily.
Breckenridge does host a few large-scale events — its Oktoberfest celebration attracted 48,000 attendees over three days last year and the International Snow Sculpture Championships attracted 38,500 over a two-week period, according to a consultant report presented to the town’s marketing committee, but neither is restricted to a single venue.
The snow sculptures are located in an area around the Riverwalk Center, a venue used for concerts that can seat 750 people plus another 2,000 on its lawn, said Kim Dykstra DiLallo, communications director for the town of Breckenridge.
For the events that don’t require amplified sound or other specifications, the mountain setting is often the venue. Oktoberfest’s venue in Breckenridge is held on Main Street, and many Vail events happen on the streets of its two villages.
The Food & Wine Classic sets up at Wagner Park, utilizing the natural beauty of the mountains and the city of Aspen as its backdrop in a park stretching two blocks along the Mill Street Mall.
Utilizing town assets is something Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler thinks makes the most sense. He said the town of Vail recognized that it needed to think about what’s next after it went through a major redevelopment period in the 2000s. Every resort town is just trying to market their assets, Zemler said.
“We started think about how to bundle and focus these assets to promote and market the town,” Zemler said. “I think we’ve tripled the amount we spend on events. … I think the (Commission on Special Events) and (the Vail Local Marketing District) have gotten more organized and more sophisticated and strategic in what they do.”
Municipal strategies vary
In Aspen, event funding is weighed case-by-case.
“These events are not City events so there are no strategies per say employed in putting them on, but certainly the City supports them financially and otherwise,” said Mitzi Rapkin, the city of Aspen’s community relations director.
Vail Valley Foundation president Ceil Folz, who has spent a lot of time looking at what other communities do, said Aspen is unique in that its events have always grown organically.
“For us, within the community the Vail Valley Foundation was really the first driving event organizer, so it was less organic because we just hit the ground running,” Folz said.
While Breckenridge might face some venue woes, the town is taking a keen interest in what neighboring mountain resort communities are up to with regards to special events, specifically Vail’s strategies.
The Breckenridge Marketing Advisory Committee hired consultants at Creative Strategies Group to research how other towns are developing the special events business. The group’s report ranked Denver, Telluride, Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail on each their approaches to funding and attracting special events. The rankings, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing a so-called passive policy and 10 representing “a highly calculated and aggressive approach to supporting events,” provides insight:
Creative Strategies Group found that best practices include town council engagement, formal funding mechanisms, collaboration with event organizers, an active events committee, strong community partners active in event production, active recruitment of new events and accuracy in measuring success such as returns on investments.
In looking at current events held in Breckenridge each year, the group was surprised to find so few fell during shoulder seasons since the town has a “stated emphasis to drive visits during shoulder periods.”
Aspen invests in special events, for example, but does not track return on investment metrics, according to the report.
The city of Aspen is much more hands-off. City Manager Steve Barwick said there’s no formal criteria used when it looks at funding an event, adding that the city is comfortable with its approach. The city might learn from another community if there’s a truly great idea, but for the most part, the city of Aspen finds its new opportunities from within, he said.
Nonetheless, the workload is apparently increasing. The City’s special events department requested a new $76,800 support position in 2013 “in direct response to taking on new events and additional tasks associated with developing and implementing a new permitting process for citywide special events, the special events department is requesting a new support position to address increasing workload and outreach efforts.”
The advice from Creative Strategies Group to Breckenridge is to strategically weigh specific criteria, much like the way the town of Vail’s Commission on Special Events does. Events are scored on their marketing impact, guest experience, sponsorship potential, community and economic impacts and brand compatibility, all of which help the town determine if and how to fund an event.
Towns that get into the events business face challenges, though. In Vail, business owners in Lionshead Village have told the town they feel left out of popular town events. Many events bring most foot traffic through Vail Village and generate most of the revenue there. The town is making an effort to address that, though, in 2014. The Vail Commission on Special Events issued an Aug. 14 notice to event producers seeking applications for 2014 events funding, citing that proposals for events in Lionshead would get “particular attention.”
“Also, proposals that emphasize the increased role of “Health and Well Being” are encouraged as well as activities proposed for the following timeframes: 1) Thanksgiving and/or through the second week of December; 2) the second week in January through the first week in February; and 3) the last two weekends in August.
Vail is the leader in terms of special events strategy, according to the Creative Strategies Group report. Vail looks at events through the eyes of its Commission on Special Events, Vail Local Marketing District Advisory Council and the Town Council. The result is a well-defined visionary strategy that evolves annually.
“Of all the cities reviewed, the town of Vail by far has the most aggressive view of the positive impact on special events as an economic driver, brand building and contributor to the community’s quality of life,” the report states. “Its deliberate approach to funding events in order to attract quality event producers as well as nurture and support local, quality productions is remarkable. The integration of policies, protocols and procedures as developed and implemented by (Vail’s) Commission on Special Events serves as a ‘best practice’ model to emulate.”
The town of Vail’s Commission on Special Events has a new mission statement this year, to “deliver an annual special events plan which ensures world class events that are fully aligned with Vail’s brand. … The events plan will deliver measurable results in terms of specific goals; economic impact, optimization of the seasonal calendar, positive community experience and integration, as well as positive guest-centric results that lead to future loyalty.”
In Aspen, the goals are similar at the Aspen Chamber Resort Assocation. Braun said her group, which has a destination marketing budget of $1.7 million annually, is focused on maintaining the city’s already healthy summer tourism business as well as increasing early and late summer and fall business.
“Special events are a significant driver for tourism throughout the year, along with our arts and cultural programming and outdoor recreation,” Braun said.
There’s also a goal to increase international visitation during the summer, which Braun said is already strong in winter, as well as attract first-time Aspen guests.
The graduates of Vail Mountain School’s class of 2019 will be off to far-flung destinations next fall, set to enter college in one of 16 different states or explore the world on a gap year. One grad is even attending college in Canada.