We were disappointed last week by the mediocre attendance at a business seminar hosted by Main Street Steamboat Springs.
In particular, we think the business owners who opted not to attend the seminar by destination retailing expert Jon Schallert missed an opportunity to make their businesses stronger.
Schallert, an engaging speaker, was hosted by the economic restructuring committee of Main Street Steamboat. He was selected because he speaks to an increasingly common complaint among Steamboat's downtown merchants -- sales during the past 5 1/2 years have been flat.
Using anecdotes about real mom-and-pop businesses, Schallert teaches a method that has helped owners transform their shops and restaurants into attractions that draw customers from beyond their immediate geographic areas. He urges business owners to focus their marketing efforts on one service or piece of merchandise that sets them apart from everyone else in their industry. The result can be an increase in revenues and a more competitive historical shopping district.
Of the 90 people who attended Schallert's presentation, about 60 percent were from Steamboat Springs, and 40 percent were from communities such as Woodland Park, Laramie, Wyo., Craig, Meeker and Hayden.
Main Street Executive Director Tracy Barnett said she sent out e-mails, handed out fliers and implored several business owners to attend the presentation because she thought they would benefit from Schallert's message.
"I don't know what it was with people in Steamboat," Barnett said. "Some that I really hoped would be there didn't show."
A breakout of sales tax receipts collected in the downtown area this decade seems to confirm that the "miscellaneous retail" category of downtown Steamboat is underperforming. Other categories, such as restaurants and sporting goods, are doing better, partly because the number of stores in those markets is increasing.
Downtown's miscellaneous retail sales tax receipts were up 5.4 percent in 2005 to $1.526 million. But that number doesn't come into focus until trends are examined -- receipts were $1.5 million in 2001. The biggest single category of sales tax-generating businesses in the district has been recovering from a post-Sept. 11 hangover ever since. Despite the great snow this winter, the same category of businesses was up a modest 2.4 percent in January 2006, 0.9 percent in February, and 4.4 percent in March. Adjust those numbers for inflation and they represent virtually no growth.
It's no surprise that Steamboat's U.S. Highway 40 corridor is pulling sales from downtown Steamboat. What remains a mystery is why more business owners aren't taking advantage of opportunities afforded by Main Street to pump new energy into their sales.
Schallert's speaking fee was $7,000 plus expenses, and Main Street didn't break even.
But Barnett isn't discouraged. She said she received about 20 enthusiastic e-mails after the event. And we've talked to business owners who are excited about plans to act on Schallert's advice.
As one of those business owners said, if four or five of the businesses that attended the seminar last week follow through on their plans, the benefits could spread throughout Steamboat's downtown.