In its 41 years in Jackson Hole, year-round outdoor specialty shop Skinny Skis has become a local retail institution. Owner Phil Leeds has been hosting an avalanche awareness event for at least the last 10 years straight, and it has become so successful it physically can’t grow much larger – there aren’t many venues in town that can hold its audience of hundreds of backcountry shredders.
We asked Leeds how he does it, and he shared advice for making a huge community impact with events that matter. The short answer is that he has every ingredient for a successful event that’s social yet educational; fun yet productive.
“The whole idea is to get people off on the right foot,” Leeds said. “It’s not a substitute for any class – it’s to provide an awareness of what’s going on. … This event is geared toward beginners and experts alike.”
In December, roughly 500 people crowded the Center for the Arts in Jackson. It’s a small town, and that’s roughly 5 percent of the city’s year-round population. The event ran from 5 to 9:30 p.m. and included presentations by speakers from The American Avalanche Institute, Teton County Search and Rescue and the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Forecast Center. Topics included “Mysticism, Weather, Avalanches & The Winter of 2015-2016,” packing for the backcountry, avalanches on local ski mountain SnowKing and the basics of the three most dangerous types of slab avalanches.
People paid $5 to get in, and in exchange they got food, access to professionals and representatives from gear companies like BCA, Black Diamond, Patagonia and Arc’teryx. Entry fees and gear raffles benefitted Teton County Search and Rescue and the local avalanche hotline. It’s almost like a mini trade show, Leeds said.
Anyone looking to start a similar institution in their community should take a page from Leeds’ book:
- Clearly define your objective, and communicate it clearly to everyone who’s involved in planning the event. For Skinny Skis’ avy awareness event, “the overwhelming objective is to provide good avalanche safety information for a cross section of people in the area,” Leeds said. It’s not meant to replace avalanche training courses, but it’s a bit of a refresher for the experts and a good first step for beginners. Add the social aspect of the event into the mix, and there’s something for everyone.
- Plan far in advance. Even though Skinny Skis is highly experienced with running events, Leeds starts planning in September for Avalanche Awareness, which happens in early December. They book the venue and ask reps for donated gear to benefit important local nonprofits months ahead of time.
- Invite local media, and establish good relationships with them. Your local newspapers, radio, TV news stations and those free publications you can pick up in stores and restaurants all have significant reach into your community, especially when you consider their presence on social media. Consider placing an ad. Get in touch with reporters or editors and share information about why your event is important for the community, and invite them to come. Even if they just include two sentences about it in an online calendar, that’s free publicity. Pro tip: Don’t email the crime reporter to cover an educational session about protecting your trails, and don’t ask the food writer to report on avalanche awareness. Research who you’re pitching before you send that email.
- Make your event a can’t–miss ordeal. Skinny Skis’ event involves two main parts: speakers in the main theater, and tables of gear companies set up in the lobby. People can come and go between the two sides as they please. Add gear raffles, free food and encourage socializing, and you’ve got the perfect storm in the works. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing,” Leeds said. “There’s so much competition. … You have to try to distinguish yourself to get some attention.” So make it a can’t-miss evening. Bring a local celebrity with expert knowledge of the topic at hand, and make your event so important that people will feel like they really missed out if they hear about it the next morning. “You have to almost get to the point where they’re like, ‘I can’t afford to not go,’” Leeds said.