Fizzle turns into Sizzle

Holiday is hot despite falling in the middle of the week

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Don't ask Mark Meade about inflatable water toys. He saw 500 to 700 pass in front of his cash registers last week and he won't be able to sell any more at his store for the rest of the summer.

Meade is the manager of the local Wal-Mart store. He said during the week of July Fourth he experienced a remarkable run on all things inflatable.

"Oh my goodness," Meade said Friday. "It was unbelievable. Anything that floats sells."

Meade was assuming that his customers were purchasing inflatable water toys for use in floating down the Yampa River.

His experience was just one piece of anecdotal information that begins to paint the picture of Steamboat's tourism during the long Independence Day week. This year was different from many others in several regards; first, July Fourth fell on a Wednesday, making it difficult for resort leaders to predict whether visitors from the Front Range would make a long weekend of the holiday. And second, the two-day music festival, Independence Incident, brought large crowds of youthful music lovers to Steamboat.

Local merchants are still sorting out the returns from the spending habits of the mix of music fans and visiting families.

Music promoter John Waldman said 7,600 tickets were sold for the July 3 Blues Traveler/String Cheese Incident performance during the Independence Incident. Another 10,300 tickets were sold for the July Fourth show when Ben Harper opened for String Cheese.

Of the total tickets sales of almost 18,000, 3,000 were sold locally, Waldman said.

Ten days prior to the concert, local lodging proprietors said they didn't feel the event was driving any room nights.

But Steamboat Central Reservations Manager Paula Sears said Friday that a late spurt in reservations drove bookings at her agency 22 percent ahead of last year. The Steamboat Grand Hotel alone counted 100 walk-up room nights on July 3.

During the final 5 days before July 3, reservations jumped by 64 percent, Sears added.

The budget for the concert was in excess of $500,000, Waldman said. He was hesitant to say whether the concerts made money or not, partly because his company was still going through receipts. When pressed, he said the concert essentially broke even.

"For a first-year festival, it gives us a good start," Waldman said.

Individual day tickets were $35 apiece and two-day tickets were $60. Had everyone purchased single-day tickets, 17,900 concert-goers would have generated $626,500 in gross gate receipts, not including concessions.

Waldman said the turnout was strong enough that the promoters who cooperated on the show would like to hold two or three here every summer and diversify the music. Waldman and partner David Laughren of Mountain Events Inc. worked with two divisions of SFX Entertainment on the shows including Chuck Morris Presents in Denver and Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco.

Waldman said the shows would not have been possible without the participation of the Steamboat Ski Area. He added that ski corp. officials feel the concert programming helps them form a relationship with their future customer base skiers and snowboarders now in their 20s.

The experiences of local merchants during the concerts and holiday week were mixed. Meade said he pulled in as many inflatable tubes and mattresses as he possibly could from other Wal-Mart stores and from the company's regional warehouse. It's part of a trend, he said inflatable products are a big category in Wal-Mart's Steamboat store and he estimates the number of units he's sold this summer number to be in the thousands. Nationwide, Wal-Mart has now shifted its attention to fall and winter merchandise, and Meade won't be able to order any more summer inflatable items.

The number of paying customers at the swimming pool operated by Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation (not including annual members) was off by 600 people during the first four days in July, manager Pat Carney said. That drop occurred in spite of the daily high temperatures in the mid-90s. During July 1 through 4, 2000, Health and Rec welcomed 2,500 customers through the turnstiles, compared to 1,900 this year. The shortfall was partially offset by the fact that the pool raised its daily admission by $1.50 to $7.50 this year, Carney said.

Health and Rec did feel the impact of the two-day concert.

"We had a lot of kids asking for free showers," Carney said. "When they found out they had to pay, they didn't like it. They felt there should be community showers in Steamboat."

Ironically, some of the same concert-goers who didn't want to pay Carney's not-for-profit for hot showers were among her best customers at a separate business in which she is a principal Healthy Solutions health food store and restaurant is virtually across the street from Health and Rec on Lincoln Avenue.

"Healthy Solutions did record numbers at the deli," Carney said. "They did three times the business they usually do. Every single day was packed."

The Howler alpine slide at Howelsen Hill also did brisk business during the past week. Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club operates the slide at the city's Howelsen Hill.

Winter Sports Club Executive Director Rick DeVos said the slide sent 685 people downhill on July 1 when a Triple Crown softball event was still in town, followed by 478 on July 2 and 470 on July 3. He said he didn't have the numbers for July 4, but the slide tallied 671 riders on July 5.

Bill Stuart of Market on the Mountain prepared himself for the Independence Incident by calling merchants at Keystone ski area, which had experience with large concerts last summer when a band called Widespread Panic performed.

"We had two of the busiest days in the history of the store," Stuart said.

Stuart, who is the incoming president of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said he stocked up on ice and bottled water in advance of the concert. Despite the fact that he was selling water, Stuart said he instructed his staff to cheerfully agree to requests for free cups of water.

His contacts in Keystone warned him that his single bathroom stall would be overwhelmed.

So, Stuart and neighboring businessman Tom Garrett of La Montaented a pair of portable toilets and placed them in their parking lot for public use. The strategy paid off with good will from their customers.

Jennifer Wilson at Moose Mountain Trading Co. was enjoying brisk business on Friday but said the Independence Incident didn't drive customers to her store midweek. Just the same, she was glad the music festival was a success. Wilson operates two stores that sell gifts and sweaters one in downtown Steamboat and one in the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center, almost adjacent to the concert site.

Wilson's landlord at the Sheraton store is the hotel's general manager, Chuck Porter. In his own words, the Sheraton was at "ground zero" for the concert and he said his property fared pretty well, in part because it went to great lengths to secure its perimeter.

"We really mobilized to control the property," Porter said. "We imposed some things on our guests."

Porter said he posted staff members at the entrances to the hotels and the elevators around the clock to control access to the hotel. Access to the upper floors was limited to paying guests. That didn't sit well with some hotel customers who wanted to bring groups of friends to their rooms, but Porter said he offered refunds to those people.

"I think we were polite and respectful," but firm, Porter said.

Waldman gave himself a letter grade of B+ for the promotion and management of the concert but expects to do better next

time around.

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