Virtual access to Cordova festivals boosts bottom line

Renfeldt: I’ve been told that the hybrid festival format is here to stay

Cordova’s Chamber of Commerce invites people to visit the community in person and virtually, with the message that the city offers the best things in life, nestled in a community that never takes it for granted. Cordova Chamber of Commerce photo

Time was when Cordova’s shorebird and fungus festivals rolled out the welcome mat to visitors in town. Now, thanks to Internet technology, guests may roll in from all over the world.

While millions of birds began their northern migration last spring managers of the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival opted for a hybrid event from May 6-9, offering festival fans many of the benefits of participating, with none of the health and safety risks posed by the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.

“We had 200 participants and 40 came into town,” said Cathy Renfeldt, executive director of the chamber. “The virtual participants came from 13 different countries. They paid to participate virtually and people across the globe heard about Cordova for the first time.”

Buoyed by the success of the response to the virtual option for the shorebird festival, the  chamber offered fungus fans a digital participation option for the Sept. 10-12 festival, to be enjoyed from wherever they call home, and attendees again included virtual enthusiasts.

“Virtual really helps us reach way more people to learn this is a very special place, Renfeldt said.

“The hard thing about virtual festivals is they don’t provide as much economic business.”

The chamber took on that challenge by purchasing an assorted quantity of items from a dozen local businesses to fill “Love Cordova” boxes for virtual shorebird participants to purchase. All 50 boxes sold out. The packages include a taste of Cordova ranging from Pete’s Treats chocolates to post cards, canned salmon and Knot Crazy creations from recycled fish line to a glacial mud mask from Cordova’s Alaska Glacial Mud Co.

For the fungus festival the chamber reached out to local businesses and prepared a list of local specials that people could purchase locally or online, Renfeldt said.

Cordova Chamber helped the city launch the Cordova Cash Card program in 2020 and used it again in 2021 as a vehicle for prize money in their VaxCash Raffle. These cards enabled over $1 million to stay in Cordova, benefiting local businesses. Cordova Chamber of Commerce photo

The Net Loft, for example, put together a pretty robust in person or online list of specials, she said. “They had all kinds of fungus related items in a collection on their website for people participating virtually. They are also so supportive of our events and that has had a good long- term benefit for them.”

The Kayak Café has items, including food, more geared to in-person purchases, but they also have different boutique items, Renfeldt said.

“The café put out a call to artists for fishing or fungus related items to sell in a special collection and got artists to offer everything from earrings to headbands to art,” she said. “They also put together box lunches for anyone who would be out foraging during the festival; a great example of businesses buying in and working with us,” she said.

Witch Kitchen offered a mushroom soup and a mushroom burger. A lot of businesses just got into the spirit of it, and we worked with them, all to stimulate the economy, she said.

“We are doing everything we can to support businesses to survive and find new ways to thrive,” she said.  The chamber also has on board a business support person, Cobi Lynn, who is reaching out to businesses directly and can be reached through the chamber by any business seeking more ways to survive and thrive, she said.

The 2021 summer season overall saw Cordova area lodges very busy, thanks in part to people who moved their 2020 reservations from 2020 to 2021 because of the onslaught of the pandemic. These independent travelers have always been the bread and butter of Cordova tourism and adventure anyway. “We were just coming off of a pandemic and for Cordova a year when we had almost no ferry service,” Renfeldt noted.

“This year was a good one for the seine fleet and when there is a good year for fishing that also trickles down,” she said. “We work hard to keep that money in town.”

Last year the chamber came up with a Cordova cash card, to encourage more spending in town.

This year the process was already in place, and it was time to use those cards for a vaccination incentive.  The chamber put out $13,500 in cash cards ranging in value from $500 to $5,000 and anyone who wanted to enter the competition and won just had to show proof that they were vaccinated, at least 18 years old and lived in Cordova.

“It was never about pressuring people who don’t want to get vaccinated, but an incentive for those who were considering it,” said Renfeldt.  “It was a nudge.”

The chamber meanwhile has continued to communicate with local businesses, asking how they can help, sharing resources that are available, helping local businesses to find COVID relief funds to celebrate anniversaries and grand openings. The chamber is also offering links to financial support so they can evaluate where they are at if they are thinking about expanding their business model and find ways to better adapt to the current economic situation.

This year has offered some new government programs to help businesses, but not nearly as much as in 2020. 

The chamber itself got an Alaska Cares grant to help fund staff and its programs.  “Like everyone else we had a tough year,” Renfeldt said. Chamber members pay annual dues and this year the chamber offered a 30 percent hardship discount, staying afloat through Alaska Cares grants and other partnership grants, including a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that became a grant, she said.

Money is always tight in the city budget and this year, like many others, the chamber is hoping that businesses and individual citizens who support the chamber’s work will share their feelings with the Cordova City Council, by calling in to the council’s Oct, 6 meeting or sending an email to cityclerk@cityofcordova.net is support of funds for the chamber, she said.

The city of Cordova provided the chamber with a grant and the chamber also secured a tourism marketing grant of over $300,000 that financed building a new brand and a new tourism marketing campaign.  “We worked with tourism and marketing experts in Anchorage and Cordova to target COVID conscious independent travelers,” she said. Over 13 million people have seen it on the chamber’s website which has seen a traffic increase of over 900 percent, she said. “We put it out there that Cordova has adventure for all seasons and there are lots of reasons to come here.”