The excellent presentation last week by economist Ralf Garrison could be summed up with a childhood parable: Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
In our case, the golden goose is tourism, and the fact that, believe it or not, our community relies on visitors and their families, friends and companies, in order to thrive.
The numbers tell our story: The tourism and hospitality industry is associated with more than two-thirds of Blaine County’s economic activity. Out of a nearly $2 billion total GDP for Blaine County, the tourism industry generates some $1.3 billion.
Or just look at Ketchum: According to the Sun Valley Economic Development group, about 45 percent of jobs in the city of Ketchum are directly created by tourism-facing businesses.
So, it seems like a straightforward consideration for us to spend money reminding visitors that we’re here, and that they should come to Idaho’s incredible mountain playground for a visit.
As a member of the Visit Sun Valley board of directors, I’m seeing how this works first-hand, and I’m grateful that Garrison offered a little straight talk.
Meanwhile, other mountain towns with a similar situation are promoting themselves all-out. Compared to places like Jackson Hole, Steamboat or Aspen, we’re the shy kid at the party. Garrison’s presentation made that plain—compared to these other destinations, Sun Valley is falling further behind, both in our spending on marketing and promotion of our area, and with the sort of lodging occupancy rates we need.
According to the research, tourism-dependent businesses in a ski town (read: most of them) need 30 percent lodging occupancy to cover their fixed costs. But to turn a profit or even, miracle of miracles, grow such businesses, we need to see occupancy rates above 40 percent.
Unfortunately, Ketchum’s typical winter occupancy rate is usually in the 30-40 percent range in December, January and February. Those other towns on Garrison’s list? They’re at 50 percent occupancy rate on the low end and 65 percent on average.
So now why are we hearing that the city of Ketchum is considering a reduction in our marketing funding? It seems like our efforts should be more aggressive, not less.
To anyone who is worried about overcrowding on Baldy, I’d suggest they take a few laps during the middle of a typical, non-holiday winter day and then let’s talk about overcrowding. It just isn’t going to happen any time very soon.
That said, we are fortunate that next ski season our area will be a part of the amazing Epic Pass program, giving us extra appeal for new audiences to sample “our” mountain.
But even with this exciting new incentive, the challenge of just getting to central Idaho insulates us from the dreaded overcrowding.
Instead of fretting about that, I hope instead that one day we collectively realize that the Sun Valley area is through and through a place that relies on visitors for a good economy. The day we do that is the day we get real about promoting that fact to the world, and get them to bring their business here, to enjoy this magical place with us, and then go home, leaving behind a local economy that’s much stronger—for all of us—as a result.