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A word with Arlene Schieven of Visit Sun Valley

Arlene Schieven. Photo by Roland Lane.

Arlene Schieven. Photo by Roland Lane.

Arlene Schieven is the president of Visit Sun Valley, the marketing organization created in 2010 to perform the promotional work previously done by the Sun Valley and Ketchum Chamber of Commerce. Schieven’s group is also called the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance, and it was created specifically to increase tourism in the area. Its structure, bylaws, board, and other elements are different from those of the chamber it replaced.

Schieven, who is Canadian, was hired by Visit Sun Valley in 2011 from the Whistler resort in British Columbia, where she had been working as vice president of marketing. She has a master’s in tourism from the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

At her new position, Schieven found a small marketing budget, a business community that was greatly insulated from modern marketing methods, and a board that was very keen to shake off Sun Valley’s stodgy image and appeal to younger skiers. Since 2011, Schieven has doubled the marketing budget from $1 million to $2 million and developed strategies for meeting the board’s objectives. The new approach seems to be working. The number of room nights sold has increased year-over-year every month except one since June 2014.

Schieven talked to Idaho Business Review about her work to expand Sun Valley’s reach over the last four years. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you do first when you arrived?

I was unaware of the climate when I arrived. It was definitely a pretty emotional time for the community, and there were some people who were still unsure as to still what the new organization was about. We’ve worked really hard over the past four years to keep our focus and show results and we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of members we have .

We took a look at the business and realized Sun Valley is a much stronger summer destination than it is a winter destination. So we made a decision to focus 60 percent of the budget on the winter and 40 percent on the summer.

We looked at narrowing the budget into supporting markets where it was easy to get here. At that time, it was just Seattle, L.A., and the regional market. Since then, we’ve had our budget increase and we’ve also added more direct flights. That’s made a huge difference for us. We’ve been able to expand our marketing to San Francisco, Denver, New York, Chicago, and Portland, in addition to the regional Boise market, Salt Lake City, L.A. and Seattle.

How is Sun Valley tourism doing overall?

Some of the strongest numbers were in the 1970s and if you look at skier visits, we still haven’t come back to some of those stronger numbers.

There wasn’t a very strong focus on marketing, and at the same time, there was a lot of new competitors coming into the marketplace with large marketing budgets. Sun Valley was losing market share to other mountain resort destinations like Whistler, Park City, and Jackson.

What kind of marketing is Visit Sun Valley doing?

We have worked really closely with the Sun Valley resort. We partner on our creative, so we have the same look and feel in the marketplace, with the exception of our logo. We use our budget, and then Sun Valley resort invests in their marketing budget. We think it’s incredibly beneficial because it expands our coverage, and give us a cohesive look and feel in the marketplace.

The ads we’re doing promote the whole area.

Where does the group’s money come from?

The $1 million budget we started with came from the city of Ketchum, the city of Sun Valley, the Idaho Travel Council, and our membership. We’ve lowered our membership dues because we want to have as many people as possible be part of the effort, and to show visitors the breadth of everything that there is here.

Then, there was an additional local option tax that was passed in 2013 and started in 2014. It took two tries. It needed 60 percent of the vote to pass, and the first try came to 59 percent. It did pass in Sun Valley that time, but not in Ketchum and Hailey. The second time, it passed in all three committees.

That money is in a different pool. The additional tax that was passed can only be used for air service and marketing, so it is used to bring new flights into the area. To get those flights from San Francisco and Denver we have to have contracts with the airlines, so part of that funding is used to support the air service contracts. The other part is used to market in those areas so we can make sure flights are full and reduce those contract amounts. We also received a Small Community Air Service Development Program grant.

Are you able to manage Sun Valley’s growth, and what the result will look like?

It is our strength that we are still a really authentic mountain town. There are not chain stores here. Many people want to preserve that feel.

There also is certainly a desire for growth. We have the new Limelight hotel opening a year from now, and that will be great because we definitely don’t have a lot of accommodation here.

There is a movement underway to say, “What kind of growth does this community have? What does that look like?” A group of people gets together to discuss this, led by Harry Griffith of Sun Valley Economic Development.

We don’t have a goal yet for ideal growth.

How have you navigated differing ideas on change, and how to change?

I think that comes back to having a very clear mission, and having buy-in on that mission. That was very clear when I arrived, that the mission was to raise awareness of Sun Valley and our key target markets, focus on brand awareness and then attract a younger demographic, and third, focus on winter. The board has been incredibly supportive. Even when there have been rocky waters politically, that focus never wavered and that has contributed to why we’ve been able to grow.

Who are your main competitors right now?

Not everybody wants to give you those numbers, but certainly destinations like Park City would have a marketing budget of well above $6 million. I know Whistler’s budget is many, many times our budget. Jackson Hole has many more direct flights than we have, and that kind of factors in as well. We’re kind of competing in access as well.

What’s next?

We want to place a strong emphasis on video in the coming years. Storytelling is definitely a priority. Our research shows us that people know little or nothing about Sun Valley.


About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.