Sundance steady, but retailers not a hit with crowds
Town officials analyzing the success of the Sundance Film Festival say early returns indicate this year’s event was pretty typical, though not all businesses in town felt a Sundance spike.
Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, said the number of overnight visitors in town was in line with previous years. The town saw a large influx of visitors for the first weekend of the festival, then experienced a midweek lull before picking back up again for the second weekend.
The fact the town seemed as full as normal was important, given the festival started a week later than usual. Park City’s contract with the festival delaying the event some years to create availability in town over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend went into effect this year.
"At least from our vantage point, it looked like a pretty normal Sundance," Malone said, noting the Chamber/Bureau’s official numbers won’t be available for about a month. "It wasn’t much different than last year in a lot of respects. There was obviously the shift to a little bit later to accommodate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the patterns looked very similar."
Elizabeth Latenser, media relations manager for Sundance Institute, told The Park Record via e-mail that Sundance officials preferred to wait to comment on how successful the festival was until an economic impact study from the University of Utah is released in May.
Despite the town appearing packed, and the typical crowds jamming the sidewalks and streets, Sundance was not a blockbuster for many Main Street retailers. Alison Butz, executive director of the Historic Park City Alliance, said restaurants and bars bustled as usual, but a survey of Main Street merchants shows business was down compared to previous years.
While many retailers saw good sales, about 35 percent of those Butz surveyed reported that business dipped during the festival’s opening weekend. About half reported a drop during midweek and the final weekend.
One such retailer is Don Higginson, who owns Rocky Mountain Shirt Company and Shirt Off My Back on Main Street. He said his sales plummet every year during the festival, but he got hammered particularly hard this year.
"The city does well, restaurants do well, and lodging does well, but we take a pounding," he said, adding his sales typically drop about 20 percent during the festival but declined roughly an additional 15 percent this year. "As soon as (Sundance) is gone, the sales go back up. Granted, most of those people aren’t interested in a Park City souvenir or T-shirt. But if they closed Sundance, I’d be the happiest person in the world."
As Butz noted, Sundance-goers often aren’t heavy shoppers — they’re in town for movies, food and star-gazing — but sales usually pick up as the festival goes along. She said the warm weather was a possible reason for this year’s dip, though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause.
"We’re trying to delve into that, trying to figure that out," she said. "Was it the good weather, people not needing gloves and boots? Or is it a different clientele that we’re drawing in? We’re trying to analyze that. There could be factors that we don’t even track that could have impacted it. That’s the hardest part, and sometimes we do chalk it up to, ‘We don’t know why it was this way, and it will be different next year.’ You can’t predict it."
Higginson was also flummoxed but wondered if the visitor turnout was as heavy as usual.
"It didn’t seem like there were the people in town," he said. "I don’t know where they were, but they weren’t shopping."
Making things even more difficult for Main Street merchants is the difficulty of advertising to the Sundance crowd. In most cases, Butz said, all retailers can do is ensure their storefronts are attractive and enticing. Figuring out how to get festival-goers through the doors remains a priority.
"We want Main Street to continue to be the center of Sundance," she said. "We also want to figure out how we can make it work well for merchants."
While people may not have been flocking to local shops, they were, in fact, flooding the streets, according to Destry Pollard, Park City Transit operations team leader. He said bus ridership was down about 10 percent from last year — though not all bus lines had reported their numbers as of Wednesday. He attributed that not to a decline in the number of visitors but rather to the good weather.
"A lot of people who might not have normally walked were walking," he said. "Because on the one day we had bad weather and started to see a little snow, our numbers creeped back up there even or flat from the year before."
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