A slack state of mind?
Twice each year a hushed silence falls over Sun Valley and the surrounding communities. In local parlance, these economic valleys are called slack.
Longtime local writerGreg Stahl explores the echoing recesses of these seasons between seasons.
Photos by David N. Seelig.
Local merchants depend on the surrounding mountains to bring them customers, but it’s the peaks and valleys of tourist seasons that determine whether businesses live or die. Inmountain towns throughout North America, the summer and winter tourist seasons are the peaks. Spring and fall are the valleys.
They are the seasons between seasons, and they’re called slack for a reason.
Rob Santa, owner of outdoor equipment stores Sturtevants and Sturtos, said the seasonal nature of selling goods to tourists is his biggest obstacle as a business owner. What was formerly known as fall slack, he said, has turned into a fair business season. His businesses always do well in summer. Winter depends on Mother Nature and how much snow she brings, but spring slack continues to be a very bad business season.
Despite a history of dismal spring numbers, Santa has seen a slight increase in April, May and June over the past eight years. He simultaneously suspects his increasing comfort with the spring season is an exception to the rule.
"I’ve not heard many people jumping up and down with enthusiasm coming out of the second quarter of 2007," he said. "Spring is always going to be tough. Normally spring is mud season, and there can be some modest events taking place, but I just think it’s a cross that we have to bear to a large extent."
During spring slack, a person could literally lie in the street for a while without much concern. Tourists don’t come, and locals close up shop to travel.
But slack in the Wood River Valley is less conspicuous than it once was, and that is in large part due to a handful of new events, most of which have been around for less than a decade.
Last spring, the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau launched what it hopes will become an annual event, the Sun Valley Food & Wine Festival. Spring also welcomes the Sun Valley Wellness Festival, a celebration of all things holistic. In the fall, events such as the Ernest Hemingway Festival—now in its third year honoring Ketchum’s most famous resident, The Trailing of the Sheep Festival, and the 18-years-and-running Swing ’n’ Dixie Jazz Jamboree all help shore up these seasons between seasons.
"Really, our goal is to get people here who wouldn’t necessarily have come during that time of year," said Carrie Westergard, marketing director for the Chamber & Visitors Bureau. "We’re intentionally aiming events at the shoulder seasons. We wanted to give people a reason why they should come during that time of year."
Longtime Ketchum real estate agent Dick Fenton said there are also increasing numbers of second-home owners who are sticking around during slack. More people are living here for larger blocks of time. "Slack is really noticeable, but it’s not as pronounced as it used to be," Fenton said.
Historically, slack was a time when a hushed silence fell over the area as skiers quietly waxed their boards or cyclists tuned-up their bikes. The majority of the businesses closed—a trend that has been slowly reversing over the last decade.
"It used to be that dogs were lying in the street in front of the Pioneer," Fenton said of a local eatery on Ketchum’s Main Street. "And that was one of the only businesses that stayed open."
For those uninitiated to
resort-town living, the gist of slack is that the times of highest
retail sales coincide with the times when the most people are visiting
Lodging statistics provided by the Chamber & Visitors Bureau show that tourist occupancy has held steady since 2001. It is clear, however, that three months of the year are more challenging than others: November, just before Bald Mountain opens for the ski season, and April and May, just after the mountain closes to skiing but before the weather stabilizes for other outdoor activities. In 2005-2006 those three months saw 34, 36 and 35 percent occupancy rates, respectively. That compares with 66 percent in July, 67 percent in August and 60 percent in February, the three most occupied months.
The significance is that when the rooms are full of visitors attending local events and enjoying the outdoor recreation offerings, there are people shopping, eating out and quaffing at local watering holes. When rooms are empty, so are the businesses and restaurants. There is a direct correlation between tourism and the local economy.
A look at sales tax receipts from Ketchum and Sun Valley is also revealing. Retail sales are strong in December, February and March. They are also strong in July and August. The weakest three months of the year are, as with lodging, November, April and May, followed only by September and October. It’s a trend that’s changed little over the years, even though the valleys of these slack seasons aren’t as deep as they once were.
"If you look at the numbers from 25 years ago, our shoulder seasons now have four or five times the business they used to," said Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Company’s marketing and public relations director. "But it’s still less business than we used to do in the peak seasons. We’re talking hotel rooms here, but that trickles down to all the other businesses in the valley. There’s less people, less money to trickle through the valley."
The other side of the coin,
however, is that local residents can use slack as an opportunity to go
on vacations to far-away locations. Many residents are employed in
tourism or tourism-dependent industries. When the tourists stop coming
to town, local residents become tourists. So perhaps the most outwardly
obvious symptom of slack is the relative calm that settles over the Wood
River Valley. No people, no business, no stress.
The quiet slack seasons might be a welcome change of pace for some area residents, but the core of the conundrum remains that business owners watch their bottom lines slip near, or into, the red. Many choose to close for weeks, or even months, when slack settles over Sun Valley.
During one previous spring slack season, the sign in the front door of (the now closed) Expressions in Gold on Main Street in Ketchum proclaimed: "Gone Fishin’ Opening June 10th, Cya." Similar signs can be found in the windows of many local businesses, particularly during the slower spring season. For businesses that don’t choose to close up and lock their doors, special slack hours are often instituted. The Coffee Grinder and Gallery in Ketchum, as one example, operates on reduced hours during the slack seasons.
Another important distinction
is that slack is more of a North Valley phenomenon, affecting Ketchum
and Sun Valley.
Nonetheless, Spinelli said, the effects of slack are apparent in Hailey, too. The ripple effect of tourism throughout the entire valley is unmistakable. "Commonsensically, I know that if we’re not skiing, we’re going to have less traffic in here."
There is a difference between spring and fall, acknowledged Carol Waller, Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau executive director. "Fall has a few advantages. The weather is good. It is good for meetings and conferences, and it is enhanced by special events. The Trailing of the Sheep, Sun Valley Jazz and Ernest Hemingway festivals have economically and culturally revitalized our fall slack season."
In the spring, there is still relatively little to do, Waller said. The Wellness Festival is "very successful," but the chamber generally resorts to marketing shopping and weekend getaways.
Westergard pointed out that during the annual fall jazz festival, the Chamber & Visitors Bureau sells 7,500 attendance badges. Assuming people stay for five to seven days and spend an average of $75 per person per day, that equals nearly $3 million pumped into the local economy during a season that otherwise is relatively slow.
"Yes, we do have a cyclical economy, and spring is the worst," said Waller. "But we’re also fortunate. A lot of ski areas, when they hit the close of ski season, they have a nine-month slack. We’re one of the lucky ones."
Sibbach remembered that the summer season used to be the Fourth of July through Labor Day, "and that was it." He agreed, too, that the events have been successful. "I’m all for these events. I think the chamber does a good job with them, and I think we’d like to support them as much as we can. They bring people into the valley. They’re a lot of work. But the jazz festival is a great example of how we can extend. Twenty-five years ago, we made a commitment to extend our seasons. We’ve been reasonably successful."
That said, Sibbach also cautioned that slack is not going away. "It’s still a shoulder season, a slower time of the year for everybody," he said. "There’s always room to improve, but I don’t think we’ll ever eliminate the slower times of the year completely."