Northern Arizona’s high-elevation winters have long been desert havens for snow sports like skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and even dogsled racing. A growing number of visitors have been choosing Northern Arizona as their wintertime destination for more simple pleasures – enjoying local shops and restaurants and recreating at newly-opened snow play areas like Wing Mountain and Fort Tuthill.
The recent growth in Flagstaff’s wintertime tourism economy is no coincidence, according to Jacki Lenners, marketing manager at Flagstaff’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our number one inbound market is Phoenix, and many of those from the Valley originally come from the Midwest and have that desire to reconnect with what they consider a real winter.”
Statistics show the Phoenix metropolitan area has represented a quickly growing winter recreation and tourism market for Northern Arizona. According to 2010 census data, Arizona recorded the second fastest population growth among states between 2000 and 2010, adding 1.2 million residents for a total of 6.3 million. Maricopa County represented approximately 59 percent of Arizona’s growth in the past 10 years.
Less than a three-hour drive away from the Valley, Flagstaff is a convenient and novel wintertime destination. “We’ve been fortunate this year – you can be sledding, snowboarding, skiing, or your kids can be building a snowman,” said Lenners. “Summer is our high season, but we try to keep that momentum going through the winter. We position ourselves as a destination for all seasons.”
According to data from the Arizona Office of Tourism, the growth of Coconino Country’s tourism industry roughly correlates with the rapid population growth of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Their 2010 year-end report shows total direct travel spending in Coconino County jumped from approximately $700 million in 2001 to $948 million in 2010.
Greater collaboration and marketing among Northern Arizona’s businesses, arts and cultural associations have been important to maintaining tourism revenue throughout the wintertime season. According to Lenners, February tends to be one of the year’s slower economic periods due to its placement between the winter holidays and spring break. That is where the annual Winterfest celebration comes in.
“Winterfest is great filler. It’s all about people working together to get that message out that Flagstaff is a great winter town,” said Lenners. “It’s not a frigid, bitter cold. We’re still Arizona, so we have 300-plus days of sunshine a year.”
The Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, Pepsi and Arizona Snowbowl have been organizing Flagstaff’s 26th annual Winterfest celebration taking place throughout February 2012. By organizing and marketing outdoor recreation activities with arts and cultural events, Winterfest broadens the High Country holiday message and provides a greater pull for visitors. This year’s Winterfest also coincides with Arizona’s Centennial celebration.
“Raising awareness of the delights of winter in Flagstaff is a great way to promote our community and bring new customers to local businesses,” said Chamber President/CEO Julie Pastrick.
Kicking off the month-long Winterfest celebration will be a live concert and debut of the Flagstaff Urban Ski & Snowboarding (FUSS) event on Feb. 4. The two-day FUSS event will transform a downtown Flagstaff Street by adding various props for grinding and jumping. Other events include the Robert Burns Supper, celebrating the noted Scottish poet; the 2012 Library Quilt Show; a keg-tapping of a limited-edition Winterfest Brew at Lumberyard Brewing Co. as well as various concerts and theatrical events.
One winter sport with a long history in Flagstaff, mushing, or dog sled racing, is a local favorite and has historically been a pull for visitors across Arizona during Winterfest.
Mushing includes competitions such as weight pulls, dog sled racing and skijoring. Gery Allen, vice president of the Arizona Mountain Mushers spoke with Flagstaff Business News about mushing’s unique contribution to Northern Arizona’s winter recreation community.
“Our club has been around more than 20 years – you’d have to consider it one of the many winter recreation activities. There are people who like to snowshoe, people who like to ski, and people who just like to be outdoors with their dogs.”
The Arizona Mountain Mushers have traditionally attempted a sled dog race, dog weight pull or both during Winterfest. According to Denise Richards, a 20-year veteran of the Arizona Mountain Mushers, past races have been a big hit.
“People love to watch it – back when we had our races off of Highway 180, thousands of people would show up. Parking was an issue, along with traffic. But most people love dogs, and to see them doing what they love to do, it’s a lot of fun.”
Recently, races have been moved to Mormon Lake and shorter winters have necessitated earlier January events while the snow is still packed. However, the weight pull has traditionally taken place during Winterfest. Shirley Hendricks, the club’s weight pull chair, said, “We’ve had dogs that have pulled as much as 1,200 pounds, and that’s conservative.”
The boom in Flagstaff’s wintertime tourism economy has resulted in other increases – most noticeably, weekend traffic in and out of town.
“There are some capacity restrictions, particularly on Highway 180, so expanding recreation opportunities in that corridor is problematic,” said David Wessel, of the Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Elsewhere, however, there may be plenty of opportunities. Part of it is balancing the supply of recreation opportunity with demand for access and roadway.”
According to Wessel, regular growth along the Highway 180 corridor has added to what is called “background traffic.”
“That background traffic eats up the capacity, and so it takes fewer cars every year to push us over capacity. Part of the challenge is also communications infrastructure – letting people know what is available and what is full. There are impacts to business if we’re turning people away,” said Wessel.
The Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau has also been working to get the message out about the many different snow play locations around town, according to marketing manager Jacki Lenners. “In the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to push Fort Tuthill. They have built a smaller sledding hill especially for people with younger kids who have never seen snow. It’s also a great place to stop without having to deal with traffic.” FBN
The Arizona Mountain Mushers are putting on two back-to-back sled dog races Jan. 14-15 and 21-22. A full calendar of 2012 Winterfest events will be available at the end of January 2012 on the Chamber website, www.flagstaffchamber.com, and a printed calendar will also be distributed to dozens of hotels, restaurants and other venues.