How to sell Jackson Hole in October
By Jonathan Schechter, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 28, 2012
Today’s column is the second in a series about events that occurred during the week of Nov. 5.
Last time, I wrote about a report that showed that, for the first time in Teton County’s history, restaurants and bars now generate more taxable sales than lodging. Today, my focus is on the lodging tax board’s desire to boost the fall shoulder season by developing and staging an annual October event.
On Nov. 8, the board voted to allocate $50,000 to hire a coordinator to develop an annual event and another $50,000 to stage the inaugural event next October. If that goes well, board members envision supporting at least two subsequent events.
At this point, one of the great unknowns is exactly what the event will be. Its focus will be on conservation, but what that means isn’t clear. If done right, though, I think the lodging tax board’s proposal holds great potential for Jackson Hole. The rest of this column will explore that potential.
Given that facts and reality were among the big winners of the Nov. 6 election, let’s start by considering a few facts that frame the idea of developing an October event. One has to do with the tourism economy’s seasonality; the other with the reasons for focusing on October.
Regarding taxable sales, Jackson Hole is unique among major U.S. ski towns because winter does not drive our tourism economy. Over the past two decades we’ve generated an average of 49 percent of our taxable sales from June through September (the range has been 48-53 percent), 27 percent from December through March (24-29 percent) and 24 percent in the shoulder months of
October, November, April, and May (22-26 percent).
What’s astonishing about these numbers is that there’s not a lot of difference between winter and the shoulder seasons. This is true despite the fact that local businesses spend millions of dollars annually to lure hundreds of thousands of skiers. Yet over the past 22 years, average winter taxable sales have exceeded average shoulder season sales by only 11 percent. Even over the past decade, with all the improvements to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, far better winter air service and more muscular marketing efforts, the typical winter has generated only around 14 percent more taxable sales than the combined shoulder seasons.
Switching to the lodging tax, expenditures to date have focused on luring more skiers to Jackson Hole. To whatever degree they succeed, though, there likely are limits on how much winter tourism can grow. Why? For starters, the U.S. ski industry is stagnant. Even ignoring last winter’s drought, over the last 20 years, U.S. skier days have grown at a compounded annual rate of only 0.6 percent. In the Rockies, it has been 1.1 percent.
And while the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has enjoyed much higher growth rates, two clouds loom over all Rocky Mountain ski areas. First, U.S. and Rocky Mountain skier days have been stagnant since 2006. Second, in a stagnant market, the only way to grow is to steal skiers from other resorts. Since all of the region’s resorts recognize this, their arms race will produce no clear winners.
Which leads us to the lodging tax board’s focus on an October event. The reason for focusing on October is pretty clear: June, July and August are already maxed out with summer tourists. September and May are already maxed out with staged events. And the winter months are, well, the winter months. Throw in that no one wants to visit here in November or April, and that leaves October as the only month that hits the sweet spot of decent weather and no extant events.
So what will the proposed October event focus on? The feasibility study conducted by Strategy, a local firm specializing in strategy development and execution, suggests that Jackson Hole build on its history as “the crucible of conservation” and create an event celebrating conservation in all its forms, including culture, science, and activism.
If executed well, this is a fabulous idea. As with the development of any new endeavor, though, the devil is going to be in the details.
But before the details even come into play, a fundamental question needs to be answered: Who or what is the target audience? The way that question is answered will determine not only the event’s ultimate success, but whether it will prove a worthwhile community investment.
Here’s what I mean.
I’ve written ad nauseam that Jackson Hole’s long-term health — not just our economic health, but our overall success as a community — depends on remaining truly distinctive. Only three things distinguish us from other communities: our landscape, wildlife and culture/character. The beauty of the “conservation event” idea is that it can complement not just our unique landscape and abundant wildlife, but also the core of our culture that was formed by our conservation heritage, first by the creation of Yellowstone National Park, and then by the expansion of Grand Teton National Park to its current boundaries. Add in efforts ranging from the Muries’ role in forging the Wilderness Act to the success of the Jackson Hole Land Trust, and arguably no other place in the world comes close to matching our conservation legacy.
That’s the promise. What actually occurs at an October conservation event, though, might fall anywhere along a spectrum. Let’s call one end of that spectrum “Old Conservation Days” and the other end the “Davos of Conservation.”
“Old Conservation Days” would be an attempt to replicate Old West Days in October, with a focus on attracting tourists from regional markets. At the other end of the spectrum, the “Davos of Conservation” would be built on two pillars: our extraordinary conservation legacy and the changing nature of conservation.
As the world’s population grows, the 20th-century approach to conservation — i.e., locking up land — is reaching a dead end. Further, as technology makes it increasingly easy to replicate built environments anywhere, conservation is going to take on a new, broader, and more complicated meaning, encompassing subjects from anthropology to biology and geography to art. No one has really thought through “21st-century conservation,” but figuring it out and getting it right are arguably the most important challenges facing the planet this century. If done properly, an annual “future of conservation” conference will attract thought, business and activism leaders from around the world, and we’ll achieve a superfecta of successes by:
• bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of new visitors to Jackson Hole in October;
• more closely aligning our economy with our conservation values and cultural heritage;
• building our overall tourism economy by increasing Jackson Hole’s global recognition in a way no marketing campaign could hope to do; and
• harnessing our values, character and resources to make a significant difference in the world.
If we adopt this approach, I’m all in. If, however, we choose an “Old Conservation Days” approach, I think we’re wasting our time. Why: While Old West Days clearly help May’s taxable sales, right now May, with two “traditional” structured events (the ElkFest and Old West Days), outperforms October, with no structured events, by an average of only 12 percent.
If we’re going to go to all the effort to create and stage an event, do we simply want to aspire to re-create May in the fall? Why not swing for the fences and stage an annual event that holds the potential to make truly meaningful, 21st-century conservation synonymous with Jackson Hole? If we build such a reputation, the tourists will come not just in October but throughout the year, and commerce will take care of itself.
Put another way: When it comes to an October conservation event, are we going to spend our lodging tax dollars or invest them? If the lodging tax is not renewed in 2014, what will we have to show for it?
We could spend $400,000 over three years to build a nice little regional event. We know how to do that, and the risk is probably low.
But as with any risk-reward equation, so too is the likely reward. Alternatively, we can invest $400,000 in an effort to build something substantive, important and lasting. Could the effort blow up? Sure. But given that there’s nothing else in the world like a 21st-century conservation event, and given such an event’s potential to attract influential individuals, leaders and institutions, the payoff could be huge. If Jackson Hole can become synonymous with conservation as Davos is with bringing together the world’s movers and shakers, we will reap extraordinary returns on our investment.
That’s the opportunity at hand. Here’s hoping we seize it.
Jonathan Schechter column appears every other week in this spot. He is the executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson-based think tank. Complete versions of his columns, including graphics, are available at Charture.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.