Tourism priorities: Events, conventions

Big special events such as Hot August Nights, Street Vibrations and the National Championship Air Races help define tourism in northern Nevada, and the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority wants to bring more of them to the region.

New special events either homegrown or wooed from other locations would fill slow winter months and generate business on free weekends during the summer, says RSCVA President and Chief Executive Officer Ellen Oppenheim.

But the challenge is balancing the needs of existing special events with the energy needed to bring new ones to the calendar.

"Special events are very important to this community. They are a proven draw for bringing visitors here, and as locals we have the added benefit of taking advantage of those events and being able to enjoy them," Oppenheim says.

Ideas for new special events include a Western heritage festival, or a singles festival.

The RSCVA seeks both small events that might establish a strong following, such as the Santa Pub Crawl, as well as large-scale events. However, Oppenheim cautions, such events often come with large price tags.

"We are looking for special events that are emerging in other markets and helping to foster new ideas," she says. "But we have to be prudent about what's achievable. What we are looking to find is new events that have the potential to grow and develop into the traditional strong events for this community, like Hot August Nights, the Nugget Rib Cook-off or Air Races, that develop a following and are significant events. But our first focus is making sure the ones we have stay healthy and continue."

Oppenheim says no new large special events are close to emerging in the area, but the RSCVA is receptive to new events and often is contacted by event organizers about possibly moving their event to Reno.

"Looking for new events is something we are very supportive of," she says.

One component of the RSCVA's strategic plan is to map how it could better support and nurture special events because of their proven attraction to the region. RSCVA reworked its funding program, tying it to elements that are crucial to the tourism industry, such as room nights generated and out-of-market visibility. The more an event generates visibility for Greater Reno-Tahoe, the higher it scored in the RSCVA's funding process.

This coming year, the RSCVA allocated $192,500 to special events that applied for grant support. The RSCVA also provides free in-kind support. Twelve groups applied for RSCVA promotional funding for 2011, down from 19 this year. The pool includes 11 events that have been in area before.

Well-established events such as Street Vibrations, Hot August Nights and the Nugget Rib Cook-off are self-sufficient and don't apply to the RSCVA for any type of funding.

Although some new events have either been launched or planned, Oppenheim says none have taken off because just as they began reaching a critical mass, the recession began pummeling the region and tourism flatlined.

An example would be the Biggest Little Tailgate Super Bowl party, held for the first time in 2009, but skipped in 2010. It's scheduled for the Super Bowl weekend in 2011.

"As the recession hit, not a lot of event organizers and organizations are coming forth with new concepts," Oppenheim says. "But some of that is still sitting out there hoping for better times and will get some traction and move forward."

The good news for Reno-Sparks, Oppenheim says, is that attendance for the 2010 special events season either held ground or increased an accomplishment considering the region's still-sagging economy.

The fact that most of Reno's premier special events are free helps increase visitor participation, she adds.

Events that have grown organically include the MasterCraft Pro Wakeboard tour at Sparks Marina, and the Reno River Festival in May. Oppenheim says the RSCVA seeks a good balance of new special events, both in the slow season and summer.

"We would love to fill out that summer season with more bigger events," she says. "It is a little more challenging in the winter because you can't take advantage of the outdoor venues."

New events outside of the region that impact northern Nevada, such as the Fallon Octane Fest, also remain on the RSCVA's radar. Burning Man has a big impact on Reno and Sparks, even though the event is conducted far north of the metropolitan area.

"You see their campers in our hotels while they are enjoying a few nights here, you see them in grocery and sporting goods stores, Costco, Walmart, buying out water, batteries and all their camping supplies," Oppenheim says. "Although it occurs in the Black Rock Desert, it is a very significant event in this community because it attracts people here as the gateway in getting them there."

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