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The National Western Stock Show (NWSS) typically kicks off its 16-day event with a spirited parade through downtown Denver, complete with longhorns, Colorado State University’s mascot Cam the Ram, and cowboys and cowgirls from all walks of life. But this year, the streets were silent.
The NWSS, which would have taken place from January 8–23, was canceled in September 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s just the second time in the show’s 115-year history that it hasn’t taken place in-person. (A contagious case of hoof and mouth disease that was spreading amongst livestock put the event on hold in 1915.)
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The ramifications of not hosting what has become one of Colorado’s most storied traditions are massive. Typically, more than 700,000 attendees from 40 states and 30 countries show up for the stock show, according to Paul Andrews, president and CEO of the NWSS. That helps drive nearly $120 million into the area economy every January. It also creates jobs. “I hire 1,000 people for the National Western Stock Show, so all those people weren’t able to draw a paycheck this January,” Andrews says.
SSA Group, which provides food, drinks, retail merchandise, and catering for the stock show, usually hires 400 to 500 people to work the event each year, according to CEO Sean McNicholas, making the event a significant part of the Colorado company’s business. SSA’s partnership with the stock show has been active for nearly 50 years.
“The community relies on these jobs, especially the frontline staff, and for some, this is a way that they pay their rents or for transportation,” McNicholas says. “Some of them also help a family member, save for a new place to live, save for education, etc. It breaks my heart that we can’t help a lot of those people because they do rely on that job every year.”
The trickle-down effect, though, extends beyond temporary employment to local ranches, retailers, and hotels. For many mom-and-pop businesses, the stock show is their primary way to advertise. For example, Parker-based Stablemaster Products has been a vendor at the NWSS for what would have been 30 years. Owner Mark Moore says the stock show is the best way to get in front of customers and provide them with hands-on experience to test his horse stalls, even if they don’t make a purchase on the spot. Some customers reach out shortly after, or come back years later ready to buy, Moore says.
“It’s been hard to quantify exactly how much impact the stock show has had on our sales in the past, and this year I really have no idea what to expect,” Moore says. “I don’t know if those people will find us through different avenues—word of mouth, or what little advertising we’re able to do outside of the stock show. I’m hopeful that it doesn’t impact us too much, but I’m sure that there’s going to be an impact.”
Joey Freund, owner of Running Creek Ranch in Elizabeth, has been showing his cattle and bulls at the NWSS for over 40 years. For each show, he plans at least a year in advance, so he can bring 10 to 15 bulls and four to 10 cattle. Like Moore, Freund says the NWSS is also a way to market other livestock he has for sale.
Thus far, Freund says he feels “pretty good” about bull sales, but says cattle inventory is in a liquidation phase, meaning the number of cattle available for sale is declining. To keep business afloat, Freund says he’s filming his livestock and posting information online.
Other businesses that don’t have vendor booths or show cattle at the stock show also rely on the annual event. Denver-based Rockmount Ranch Wear, which was founded in 1946, doesn’t typically set up a vendor booth at the NWSS, however, the Western apparel brand does see an increase in business when the show comes to town. President Steve Weil says more than 100 people walk into his LoDo storefront each day the stock show’s in town. This year he says his storefront is seeing about half as many customers each day.
“What’s really important about [the NWSS] is that it drives business in many sectors, from hospitality to retail to food and beverage, in addition to the livestock business,” Weil says. “It comes at a time of year where we need it because the holidays are over, and there’s a lull. And this has been good for all these sectors in an otherwise quiet time of the year.”
Other businesses impacted include Denver area hotels. The NWSS provides a “nice boost in business each January,” says Ed Blair, dual general manager for the Crawford Hotel, Denver Union Station, and the Oxford Hotel. During a normal January, the Oxford and Crawford hotels are at 70 to 80 percent capacity. “We’re not even a third of that at the Oxford this January and not even half of that typical occupancy at the Crawford,” Blair says.
The bright side of not hosting the NWSS this year is that construction on the National Western Center—the massive, $1 billion in-fill project that hopes to update and expand the complex’s offerings in order to keep the storied show here in Denver—has been able to continue uninterrupted. This means that by the time the 2022 show rolls around, at least some additional features, including new stockyards and the Stockyards Events Center, should be open for use. Andrews says he’s optimistic that 2022 will be one of the biggest shows yet—and considering all that Coloradans have lost over the past year, we expect they’ll be ready to celebrate.