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Outdoors

Crested Butte lured an outdoor publication to town as a tourism bid. Now overrun by visitors, the partnership must evolve.

Three years after Blister’s move to Crested Butte, the gear review site's relocation yields deeper partnership and bigger picture goals.

Visiting from Fort Worth, Texas, the Gully family poses for a portrait outside of the Crested Butte, Colorado, town campground on July 25, 2021. For years Crested Butte has sought more visitors through promotion of the areas scenic beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE — The headquarters for Blister, an online publication known for longform outdoor gear reviews, occupies a converted conference room in the Elevation Hotel and Spa at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Built-in racks ringing the room store dozens of skis for reviewers to take out.

The slope-side location allows Blister’s editor and founder, Jonathan Ellsworth, and other reviewers to show up, boot up, walk to the lifts with whatever skis they’re testing, then swap out midday to compare across models, or even the same company’s models across years in the ski quiver equivalent of a very deep closet.

It also means Ellsworth can fit more than 100 ski days a year around writing and editing reviews, recording podcasts and all the other work of running a publication, in addition to timing outings around coming storms. But a lift-side office was just part of the lure, along with 750 miles of trails for mountain biking and trail running right out the back door, that made Crested Butte an ideal location for the publication.

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“It’s incredible to be ski-in, ski-out if your company is set up on testing mountain bikes and skis and snowboards,” Ellsworth said. “I think we’re the only review company in the world that has that kind of access.”

Context is a big part of the conversation about how gear performs, Ellsworth argues — was a ski ridden in super light powder, or wet, coastal snow? Backcountry? Steeps? So online reviews describe when and where a ski was taken out to help readers understand how it works and whether it’s the right ski to buy, and the printed winter gear guide’s images of skiers plunging through powder and threading chutes are labeled with the location. 

In both cases, Crested Butte often appears. It’s a tacit and consistent plug for the place among readers, and one the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) deliberately sought. Blister relocated to Crested Butte — as in, Ellsworth and the title’s managing editor moved there — in 2018 at TAPP’s invitation, and the place has been a steady backdrop in their reviews ever since.

Crested Butte has a history of unconventional marketing moves. In 2014, the mountain town essentially rented its downtown to Budweiser. The beer company turned it into “Whatever, USA,” covering the streets and storefront windows with its trademark blue, filling it with revelers, and filming the whole thing for a promotional video. The promotion came at the dismay of some locals, who can still point out hints of blue paint in store windows. Other strategies have been less obtrusive, like making a contest out of which mountain biker could ride the most miles around town as a way of inventorying the local trail network.

But Ellsworth is quick to steer the conversation from the unique marketing partnership that brought him to Crested Butte to the role he plays in making the Gunnison Valley an outdoor sports hub, and its university, Western Colorado, a top choice for students aiming for a career in the outdoors. 

As the town has felt a crunch of overcrowding and the housing crisis hit new highs, TAPP was asked to rein in its promotions, and so canceled much of its planned advertising. Ellsworth doesn’t anticipate huge changes will follow for Blister: His sights are set on the next phase of work as he seeks to level up an entire industry with a bit of a reputation for grungy ponytails, living out of station wagons and chronic underemployment.

“We need to raise the bar as towns are trying to shift away from the quote-unquote serious business of energy and coal,” Ellsworth said. “The old days of goofballs and nut jobs, and the hippie-dippie folks wanting to, like, be in their kayaks and ride their bikes all day — that’s not where we are now as an industry.”

Jonathan Ellsworth, founder of Blister, poses outside the company headquarters at the Elevation Hotel in Mt. Crested Butte. Blister, a gear review company, is an example of one of the ways the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association hopes to turn its focus away from promoting more visitors and trying to attract more outdoor businesses. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Blister’s funding approach made way for “partnerships” instead of gear ads 

Ellsworth was a philosophy major from Chicago building a career in academia when skiing drew him to the West. As he got more serious about the sport, he got more serious about the gear, but found himself disagreeing with what he read in reviews. When he learned magazines took advertising money from the same companies making the gear they reviewed, he said, “I thought that was, frankly, scandalous.”

He couldn’t trust publications to review outdoor sports gear honestly if it jeopardized revenue. (Publications try to keep a wall between ad sales and editorial departments to limit this influence.)

“We’re talking about a $1 trillion to $2 trillion a year industry, and almost nobody is telling the truth,” he said. “On the one hand, I think that’s a huge opportunity. But on the other hand, if I sound kind of fired up and angry, I am. And it’s why I started this.”

He launched Blister as an experiment while working in Santa Fe as a personal trainer. He spent winter days testing skis at Taos Ski Valley, crashing on friends’ slope-side couches and staying up most of the night writing reviews. Where most publications’ gear reviews run at a few hundred words, Blister’s will go on for thousands. 

In the decade since, he’s found an audience among skiers and mountain bikers with an appetite for exhaustive detail, launched a print guide to winter gear, recently added a digital bike buyer’s guide, and begun releasing four weekly podcasts.

“We aren’t trying to be all things to all people. This is about passionate outdoor enthusiasts,” Ellsworth said. “A lot of the manufacturers come to Blister. They know how we operate. When we come out and say this is what a ski or mountain bike does, they know we’re not saying nice things because it was an ad deal. We’ve never done that.”

Blister doesn’t take money from those manufacturers — though it does accept loans and gifts of gear to review — but partners with brands, like beer and whiskey makers and tourism associations. Tourism departments in Japan and New Zealand have covered travel costs for reviewers in exchange for becoming the context in which that gear was run through the wringer. After Taos Ski Valley sold in 2013 and Ellsworth started searching for new headquarters for Blister, TAPP saw an opportunity for Crested Butte to secure that position on an ongoing basis.

“We have a mountain that is fairly expert overall, and we have this huge mountain bike trail system, and obviously people reading Blister are people who are buying skis, buying mountain bikes, maybe buying trail running shoes — they’re a perfect audience for us,” said John Norton, TAPP’s executive director. As in, these readers are both doing the right sports, and likely spending money on the experiences around them. 

“People still have the impression that mountain bikers are dirtbags, and there is some dirtbag spirit in the mountain biker spirit,” Norton said. “But when you think about bikes costing $5,000 to $10,000, they’re relatively affluent dirtbags.”

The particulars of the deal, according to Norton, who helped orchestrate it, were, “We were going to give somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in advertising, in return for, among other things, Blister moving here.”

Just as a straight ad buy, the deal makes sense, according to Andrew Sandstrom, TAPP’s marketing director. Blister’s readers average more time on the website than other titles report, he said, and readership is increasing faster than other publications in which TAPP purchases ads.

“He has a growing, engaged audience that we’re after, so we’re able to do a lot of media buys,” said Sandstrom, who estimated total spending with Blister over the last three years at around $600,000. “Our deal is pretty all-inclusive — we get e-newsletters, banners, deliverables of video assets, the innate benefit of them testing here.”

Copies of Blister magazine are displayed on a table at the company headquarters. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Matchstick Productions, also based in and often found filming in the Gunnison Valley, has also received funding from TAPP.

When the deal was announced in 2018, Ellsworth wrote to the Crested Butte News that “the most direct and immediate way in which we will be promoting the valley on Blister is by baking the valley organically into our long-form product reviews.” (Nowhere in his editor’s note announcing the move did Ellsworth mention to readers the financial incentives Crested Butte offered.)

How big an effect has Blister’s presence had? It’s tough to say.

“I don’t direct school buses of visitors to come,” Ellsworth said. Blister’s members ($59 a year for access to online gear reviews, the print winter guide, and an option to email a staff member for personalized gear recommendations) are invited to stop by the headquarters, and he said he sees a steady stream. People were also explicitly drawn to Crested Butte for the Blister Summit in February, in which skiers could, for $350, spend several days riding the latest designs from a “curated group of companies,” giving brands feedback and attending panel discussions on boot and ski design.

But pinpointing is coming. TAPP is also spending money with a service called Arrivalist that links online ad views to location data from cell phones. Soon, they’ll know if a person from Dallas who saw an ad on Blister’s website shows up in the valley a few months later.

Easing visitation without letting up on business growth

There’s a sense, lately, that maybe Crested Butte doesn’t need more Texans in town, or more Oklahomans, or perhaps more out-of-towners at all. One resident described the community as basically “revolting against TAPP.”

“We really felt overwhelmed and bombarded last year just by the sheer numbers that came to the community,” said Cathie Pagano, director of Gunnison County Community and Economic Development. Summer, especially, “felt at capacity or beyond.”

Eden Tippie rushes an order from Secret Stash Pizza to waiting customers . Like many restaurants in Crested Butte, Secret Stash has been overwhelmed by the number of visitors coming to the area. A housing crisis for employees has cut down the number of staff available for work, doubling and tripling the workload for those who are doing the labor. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Though Crested Butte is often cast as a ski town, summer tourist numbers exceed winter’s, and this year, TAPP asked county commissioners for approval to cut back on tourism spending. TAPP canceled what ad buys they could and pivoted those they couldn’t to ads for Western or to sustainable recreation.

“Our mission has never been, ‘We’re going to keep trying to grow at all costs,’” Norton said. “The only reason we have tourism is to bring some measure of prosperity.”

TAPP isn’t even running its typical content creation efforts this summer, Sandstrom said, in which it sends photographers and videographers out to document this summer as a way of selling the next one.

A decade ago, about the time Sandstrom moved to town, Crested Butte was an out-of-the-way destination still trying to put itself on the map. He found a job at Mount Crested Butte and housing the next day — no lease or deposit required. But the job was at the Elevation Hotel, which closed for five months a year, the lulls in tourist traffic so severe that even keeping the lights on through mud seasons and before skier traffic picked up around Christmas didn’t make financial sense. Though now it’s not hard to find year-round work in the valley — housing is a very different question —  they’re still working to even out those peaks and valleys, Sandstrom said.

“The peaks are about the same as 10 years ago, but the valleys then were much deeper,” Sandstrom said.

Shallower valleys keep the hotel open all year, meaning year-round employment for people and moving them a step closer to making a life and community there. 

Still, he said, skier visits are nowhere near capacity outside holidays and spring break. TAPP is funded by a lodging tax Gunnison County voters approved increasing to 4% in 2002 from 1.9%, so he’s also got an eye on closing the distance between the average room price in Crested Butte of $150 to $180 per night, and Vail, where rooms often top $400 per night. Plus, they’re under a bit of pressure: United Airlines just added a third daily flight to the valley and if those flights aren’t filled, TAPP will have to compensate the airline for the empty seats.

Norton expects they’ll ramp marketing back up in winter, so some of TAPP’s “commitment” to Blister for the summer just shifted seasons.

Fishing guides wait for their clients to arrive on the Gunnison River outside of 3 Rivers Resort in Almont. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We did not want to leave them high and dry without our support because we’re an important part of this company,” Norton said.

Conversations are still underway about what this pivot will mean for Blister, Ellsworth said, but some of his contributors have already noted a change.

“Since Blister gets lots of money from TAPP, usually at the beginning of our podcast, it sounds something like, ‘We’re out here in Crested Butte, trails are riding great. Come visit us. It’s a great time to come out here,’” associate editor Dylan Wood said. “And now it’s like, ‘If you want to come to Crested Butte, know what you’re doing. We have links to like camping resources and whatnot.’ So, it’s kind of funny how that shifted gears, but I think it’s for the best.”

In a nod to the need to help the many newcomers sort out life on the trails, Blister’s inaugural mountain bike guide, a digital-only flipbook released this summer, opens with a two-page spread on trail etiquette. An editor’s note directs more experienced riders to the back chapters to dig into frame geometry and analyses by the ounce. It’s still filled with photos of riders plunging down trails around Crested Butte — and if not there, then likely near Buena Vista, which also bought ads.

Setting new, perhaps bigger, goals

Even with a marketing cessation, TAPP keeps plenty busy with the other half of its mission. The association was rebranded from the Tourism Association to the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership in 2019, adding the task of diversifying the local economy. In that capacity, the association works with the valley’s Sustainable Outdoor Recreation Committee and Western Colorado University, helping to oversee the ICELab at Western, a coworking space that runs business incubators and accelerators.

The goal is to provide someone who has a business idea with the resources to stress test it, Norton said, to weed out pipe dreams and cheap talk in favor of viable business ideas. They’ve already seen the likes of First Ascent (instant coffee), Hustle Bike Labs (bike pedals), SheFly (pants for women), Pact (outdoor bathroom kits), and Campfire Ranch (rental and demo camping equipment). Even Blister has attended the accelerator program.

There’s a longstanding gap between higher cost of living and lower median incomes in the Gunnison Valley that they’re working to close, Pagano explained. That means an ongoing effort to create careers that pay well and allow people to stay throughout their lifetime, rather than getting priced out when they want to start a family.

“I feel strongly that economic gardening is the most important part of what we do, compared to economic hunting,” Pagano said. “Rather than hunting for new companies to move to us, it’s supporting the businesses that we have here locally, helping them grow, remain in the community and meet their needs.”

Blister helps with a little of both — in addition to moving two salaried positions to the area, it’s hired locals to write reviews, and college students as interns, she pointed out. It’s a win, but the gains are incremental.

Beyond its work promoting the valley, Blister has found a role in boosting the overall profile of the place among outdoor industry leaders.

“The ecosystem that Blister brings here is really powerful,” said Scott Borden, director of the Outdoor Industry MBA and an assistant professor at Western’s School of Business. “They’re on everybody’s map and to have that right out of the Gunnison Valley is great for us.”

Jonathan Ellsworth, founder of Blister, poses inside the photo studio at the company headquarters inside the Elevation Hotel. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Western debuted the nation’s first outdoor industry MBA in 2018, an online-only, project-based curriculum that connects students with businesses that could use a boost. Students also livestream in from across the country for Blister Speaker Series, conversations with professional athletes, CEOs, and nonprofit leaders. Blister has received dedicated funding from TAPP to run the series. Through it, students have had a chance to speak with Flylow’s CEO, professional skier Cody Townsend, and professional climber Tommy Caldwell, among others.

“The outdoor industry is so much about connections and community, the better you can show that your location has that network, and has those resources available, it just helps to stand out,” Borden said.

The idea of shaping the Gunnison Valley as an outdoor industry hub was part of the draw to Crested Butte, right along with the ski terrain and mountain biking and running trails, Ellsworth said. He’s not shy about his ambitions for making Western Colorado University a place for “5-star talent” — for students who mirror his exhilaration and will for exhaustion.

“I want that kid in Vermont, or in the suburbs of New York who’s sharp as hell and is like, ‘Man, I don’t know, it’d be cool to work for Patagonia someday or work in the outdoor industry.’ And when people are like, ‘Where are you going to go to school?’ He’s like, ‘Well, I got into Dartmouth, but I’m thinking about Western,’” Ellsworth said. “Let’s go for the fences.”

Up next? After an exchange in which Ellsworth told Norton his bike helmet tested as the worst in its class, and Norton, who knew a previous edition of that helmet saved his life after hooking a handlebar on a tree trunk, asked how those tests are even run, the two are talking with the University of Colorado’s engineering school about opening an equipment and materials testing lab at Western. 

Who will pay for what and what it’ll all look like is still being hammered out (likely someone will contribute some money to Blister for helping to organize the whole thing), but, Norton said: “The engineers at CU on the Western campus are excited about that, and Jonathan’s excited about that, and we’re at the front end of talking about that, but we’re excited about that.”

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