CHEYENNE – The first cancellation in the 124-year history of Cheyenne Frontier Days resulted in a $3.34 million loss in 2020 for the “Daddy of ‘em All,” according to an annual report released Wednesday.
The cancellation of CFD, which was announced last May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not deal a fatal blow to the iconic rodeo event, thanks in part to a more stringent savings policy instituted by CFD CEO Tom Hirsig and other event organizers a few years back. However, the canceled event leaves the rodeo with little wiggle room moving forward.
“It certainly was devastating to our organization,” Hirsig said of the cancellation. “It pretty much depletes our savings account to get to show this year.”
Looking ahead to this summer’s western celebration, which will mark the 125th anniversary of Cheyenne’s most famous annual event, Hirsig was optimistic, as he and other CFD organizers have started to meet with state health officials to discuss protocols that may be necessary in specific areas of Frontier Park.
“This (COVID-19) thing changes almost daily … and there’s some things that will change regardless,” Hirsig said. “You have to become more diligent, no matter if we’re full on for our event or 60% capacity. Whatever we are, I think some of those things will have to be enacted.”
Hirsig added the rodeo will still have a small amount of savings heading into the event this year, though it is likely to dwindle due to ongoing maintenance costs at Frontier Park, as well as to pay for the rodeo’s 16 staff members.
“Let me put it this way: If we don’t have a show this year, Cheyenne Frontier Days will probably have to reorganize everything it does,” Hirsig said. “(But) things are looking good in our county right now – people are getting vaccinated, everything’s moving the right way – so I think we’ll have a show.”
Of course, the cancellation’s effects extended well beyond CFD’s own coffers. The “world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration” generates roughly $27 million in local economic activity each year, according to recent impact studies. Without CFD last year, local tourism officials organized other events, such as Cheyenne Days, Legendary Nights and the Hell on Wheels rodeo series, aiming to offset some of the hit from the cancellation. However, those efforts could only do so much.
“Obviously, it’s not the same. You’re not going to have the hundreds of thousands of people that we get here in the community (for CFD),” Visit Cheyenne CEO Domenic Bravo said Wednesday. “For instance, our lodging tax was down about 52% for the month of July, and a lot of that is not because their occupancy wasn’t doing decent – their occupancy was only down about 20% – but the hotels couldn’t charge anywhere close to what they normally get on supply and demand for Cheyenne Frontier Days.”
Despite the undoubted economic hit brought about by a year without CFD, there were a few unexpectedly encouraging trends that emerged last year. In July 2020, sales tax revenue was only down 1.3% compared to the same month in 2019. However, the buoyant tax revenue only makes up a sliver of the lost economic activity from CFD.
“I always describe (Cheyenne Frontier Days) like a second Christmas season,” Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce CEO Dale Steenbergen said. “We were able to stop the leaking and keep a disaster from happening without that second Christmas windfall, but it was still a loss to this community.”
Beyond the local events that aimed to fill the void left without CFD, the rodeo’s organizers also tried to increase their engagement with the community on other fronts, from hosting several high school graduation ceremonies at Frontier Park to accommodate social distancing to removing several deteriorating planters in downtown Cheyenne.
“It was really a shift in our organization to say, ‘We’re not going to drop that $28 million into the community, so what can we do?’” Hirsig said.
With the rodeo organizers’ attention now moving to this summer’s events, plans are underway for CFD’s 125th anniversary. Three performers originally scheduled to perform last year – Thomas Rhett, Eric Church and Blake Shelton – have already been rescheduled to perform during the night concerts this summer. More performers will likely be announced in late March or early April, Hirsig said, with plans to wait until organizers have a better idea of what the venue capacities will be before opening up ticket sales.
For CFD General Chairman Jimmy Dean Siler, his hope is that the western celebration this summer will inject a sense of togetherness back into the community.
“We would love to be a part of bringing us back to the Cheyenne that we’ve all known and loved,” Siler said.