Vail Symposium says goodbye to Kris Sabel after successful 6-year run
Sabel's leadership has set one of the valley's oldest nonprofits on strong footing for years to come
The Vail Symposium is celebrating the retirement of its former executive director Kris Sabel this week, recognizing his contributions over six years with one of the valley’s oldest nonprofit organizations.
Sabel joined the small but mighty Vail Symposium team in 2016 after 15 years as the executive director of the Vilar Performing Arts Center. Sabel had been working as a producer and director in the performing arts space prior to arriving in the valley, and the transition from creative to nonprofit leader proved to be a natural fit.
“It was a great opportunity, those years at the Vilar Center, to learn and grow and build my experience in running a nonprofit,” Sabel said. “It was over $3 million in debt when I took over, and by the time I left, we had erased all that debt and created a rainy day fund, and we had enhanced the programming and spent a lot of energy and resources improving the building so that we could do bigger and better programs.”
When Sabel left the Vilar in 2016, Vail Symposium board member Dale Mosier said that they quickly jumped at the opportunity to recruit him to their team, seeing many parallels between the work he did for the Vilar and the type of leadership they needed at the time.
“Kris was a great manager, a great leader at the Vilar, and also outstanding at working with donors in addition to dealing with the artists and the programs,” Mosier said. “We were struggling financially significantly, even to the point where periodically one of the board members might have to put in additional money in order to be able to meet payroll, and we felt that we really needed somebody who would be able to take us to another level.”
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For Sabel, reinvigorating the Vail Symposium was all about enhancing the quality and consistency of the programming. On the one hand, this called for upgrading the presentation of events. With his background in stage direction and production, Sabel took pains to enhance the lighting, invest in high-quality audio equipment, and utilize staging to create a more direct connection between the speaker and the audience.
The other focus was ensuring that every speaker provided attendees with an intellectually engaging experience. The organization moved away from a once-annual information week to a season-long, topic-centered model in 1999, pioneered by executive director Ebby Pinson, and Sabel leaned into attracting quality expert speakers as the organization’s main draw and strength.
“What I really believe, both at the Vilar and at the Symposium is that they are interesting enough that if you come one time and you have a good experience, you’ll want to find out more and you’ll want to come back,” Sabel said. “It’s the topic that’s the most important thing. You have to have a great topic, a great frame for what you want to cover and impart and share with the community, and then you can find great people who can talk about it.”
These initiatives, plus a relentless focus on donor engagement, tripled attendance at Vail Symposium events and more than doubled the donor base during Sabel’s tenure, putting the organization on strong footing for many years to come. The increased donor income also enabled the organization to hire a full-time program manager to continue enhancing program quality.
“We are very well set up,” Mosier said. “We have strong programming with increased quality and capability of putting on programs, we are also in our strongest financial position that our organization has ever been in — at least for my time of being involved with the Symposium — and Kris set up approaches so that we are able to take the process forward.”
Sabel said that he never wanted to be seen as the future of the Vail Symposium, but as a bridge to the future. He and his wife, Ruth Johnson, the former executive director of Roundup River Ranch, both retired at the end of 2022, and his goal was always to build a system that could be passed on to the next director to ensure the organization’s success once he was gone.
“For me, it was about creating a great transition so that whoever the future is has a great place to start, and I feel like I accomplished those things and feel really proud of that,” Sabel said.
Sabel said that he looks forward to spending his retirement skiing, snowshoeing, camping and having lots of time with his grandchildren. He is being succeeded by James Kenly, the former director of individual giving at Walking Mountains Science Center, and will remain in a short-term consulting role to ensure that the transition goes smoothly.
“I feel really fortunate that the two organizations that I was able to be a part of in this community are organizations that are about bringing people together to have a shared experience, that for an hour to 2 hours, people get away from their computer screen and their phone and their TV and they’re all together,” Sabel said. “Something happens when everybody’s in a room having a shared experience, and so I feel very fortunate that that’s what I was a part of helping to make happen.”
This Wednesday, Jan. 11, the Vail Symposium is holding a special post-program event at 7:30 p.m. at the Vail Interfaith Chapel during which Mosier, Terry Minger and others will celebrate Sabel’s time with the organization. The celebration will follow a program from 6-7:30 p.m. titled “Envisioning the World of 2023” led by Erik Peterson, the managing director of the Kearney Global Business Policy Council.
For more information about upcoming Vail Symposium programs, visit vailsymposium.org.