“We are much stronger”
By Katherine Nettles
As Gunnison county prepares its budget for 2020, the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) gave a report last month of its past year’s performance and requested next year’s funding.
The TAPP team painted a picture for commissioners of the stabilizing effect the organization has had on the ICELab programming, on its new charge for fostering economic development within the valley, and how it plans to focus increasingly on existing businesses and opportunities within the Gunnison Valley.
TAPP’s overall budget is estimated at $2,577,735, and 83 percent of that budget comes from the Local Marketing District funds through the county. Another 8.7 percent comes from ICELab (economic development) income, and the remaining 7.9 percent comes from tourism grants.
TAPP executive director John Norton said tourism marketing and economic development are the biggest expenses, accounting for 68 percent and 22.4 percent, respectively. He reported that TAPP took on the ICELab as the county had requested, and a lot of TAPP energy has also gone into improving and marketing local trail maps.
TAPP has leveraged a lot of public relations wins, from a full-page feature in The Wall Street Journal, to the Blister Speaker Series, to Teton Gravity Research video footage.
Norton addressed TAPP’s controversial $350,000 award to Blister (offered for two consecutive years and totaling $600,000) for relocating team members to the Gunnison Valley.
“We left last year with the mis-impression that we paid $350,000 and they moved here. I didn’t make a point of it as an ad buy-in,” said Norton. “Besides the economic development, we got real value out of that. We are working with Blister to do more social media marketing, and we are doing more data collection… They are getting outreach from major outdoor companies,” he said.
Last year was tumultuous for the ICELab, said Norton. When TAPP took it under its wing, “Catapult was in jeopardy. They had some communication issues and had 100 percent turnover.” The café there had also lost its vendor, and “Laurel [Runcie]’s departure paused branding work internally.”
With a new director and other personnel, that enterprise has now stabilized and even expanded. This fall, the ICELab’s accelerator program has three local, established companies (Internet Colorado, Camp4Coffee and Third Bowl Ice Cream) paying for the curriculum in order to expand their markets—a first in the ICELab’s history.
“What I see happening at the ICELab is a lot of people coming down to see David [Assad, ICELab director] and Darci [Perkins, assistant director] because of their intellectual value… The ICELab is a real resource. We’ve got more revenues than we’ve ever had in the co-working space, and it will be the end of the free deals at the end of this year,” said Norton.
The Coffee Lab is located in the café space now, and when the Western Colorado University dorms flooded recently, the ICELab temporarily housed displaced students.
Assad said the longer-term focus is on fall accelerators for existing businesses, and the spring incubator program’s growing reputation within the accelerator industry. They will also try to grow the co-working space. “It’s still our base, and the other three pillars come from that,” said Assad.
All three of the current accelerator participants are looking to export products out of the valley, said Assad. “So they would be bringing in money, instead of just circulating money within the valley.”
Airline marketing is back on, and more may come
“We’ve been pretty nervous about air, and we turned on our air program full throttle,” said Norton. That marketing is concentrated in Dallas and Houston.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort had formerly given $250,000 to the marketing program, but Vail Resorts has determined it will not do so anymore, using it for its own independent marketing instead.
“We didn’t squawk about it because we figured they were going to be better at ski marketing than we were. But as we’ve seen, our marketing still works,” said Norton.
The relationship between Vail Resorts and TAPP concerning air service is uncertain, said Norton, with a little disconnect coming into this winter.
“I think the assumption was that Vail’s got winter. We’re going to focus on something else… but if we get to mid-December, we are going to jump in. We’ve got our support for Nordic, for Fat Bike Worlds [a winter event], and then, if we need to do alpine skiing, we will,” said Norton. He said the biggest winter booking day is typically the Monday after Christmas, so that decision would come in advance of the rush.
Expanding markets and telling new stories
Norton said that wrestling camps are a big thing to market for the valley, as is a new concept called gravel grinding. “It’s the migration of people leaving road biking because of the danger of getting hit by cars,” explained Norton of the gravel road bicyclists. It appeals to a lot of Midwesterners and Texans, he said, and TAPP plans to host a gravel grinding event in and around Gunnison next September.
TAPP’s public relations manager Andrew Sandstrom also discussed going after Bureau of Land Management conferences, and other large public-funded organizations to host their events in the valley.
County Commissioner John Messner asked about marketing tactics. “What are some of the stories we are telling?”
Sandstrom described the “Never Never Land” campaign, which includes ten videos. “Generally it follows local characters and why they moved here, why they stay here. Why these people are choosing to be here,” he said.
Sandstrom said they are also recycling some former campaigns on the Crested Butte Creative District sites.
Messner and County commissioner Jonathan Houck asked how to market more mountain sports and Western Colorado University connections. Houck pointed to the number of business owners on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte or Main Street in Gunnison who are Western grads. “A lot of people have built their lives here walking out the door of Western,” he said.
Houck said he appreciates the organization taking the direction from the Board of County Commissioners about adding economic development to the former Tourism Association entity, including its role in participating with the Sustainable Tourism and Recreation (STOR) committee. He asked several general questions of the group as a whole about “how to determine what paths we have as a community,” and “being thoughtful about the opportunities we are choosing.”
“This is definitely a good ongoing conversation to have,” replied Norton.
County commissioner Roland Mason also addressed an often-heard reprise from constituents who question why these entities are still marketing with busy seasons getting busier and more crowds showing up on weekends “I think there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of questions,” said Mason.
Finally, Messner addressed the budget. TAPP’s budget has been eating away at reserves, he pointed out, so he and county manager Matthew Birnie asked about putting some money aside “for the inevitable recession.”
Norton responded that he doesn’t think the spending this year will eat away at reserves (projections from TAPP show a $26,000 surplus), and Assad said he thinks the ICELab will actually spend less this year. Messner suggested there might be some benefit to adding more spending to the ICELab, and less on marketing.
Tourism spending is basically flat year-to-year, said Marketing manager Daniel Kreykes.
“This is a conversation I’d love to have at the end of winter,” said Norton.
Messner said de-funding some things in order to balance other budget items out might be necessary.
“We’re going to have our rainy day,” agreed Norton. “It just happens.”
“We wouldn’t want to plan forever on having the best revenues we’ve ever had. So that’s certainly a consideration,” added Birnie.
In closing, the commissioners expressed their appreciation for what the TAPP is doing. Messner said the curveballs they’ve thrown have been a lot, to include STOR, ICELab and integrate economic development.
“You guys have adapted and moved quickly,” agreed Houck.
“We are much stronger,” concluded Norton.