On Tuesday morning, Randy Thomas and Casey Beard couldn’t deny the fact. They were short-timers.

That very night, Thomas would conclude eight years of serving as a Pendleton Round-Up director, mostly running the organization’s publicity arm. At that evening’s stockholder meeting, he and two other directors would take a step back and let three newbies come forth to take their places.

Beard will retire as the Round-Up & Happy Canyon’s first-ever general manager in May.

The two men seemed perfectly positioned to reflect on one of the world’s biggest rodeos and its past, present and future. They sat in Beard’s office, which is tucked under the south grandstands, and let their minds roll.

Both started coming to the rodeo as spectators decades ago when chainlink surrounded the campus instead of a stylish wrought iron fence. Some of the seating was nothing more than “a plank for your feet and a plank for your butt” in some sections, Thomas said. Over the decades, the rodeo has morphed in many ways, while simultaneously staying rooted to tradition. To this day, no advertising signage is allowed in the arena or photographers who aren’t properly attired in cowboy hat, long-sleeved shirt and jeans.

The refurbished grandstands offer comfort undercover and a mezzanine lined with places to procure food and drink. Spectators can find hard liquor at three bars, including the historic Let ‘er Buck Room. Foodies enjoy fancy cuisine and arena-side seating at the 1910 Room or find anything from Indian tacos to elephant ears on vendor row.

The Round-Up’s footprint is growing. The organization bought property across the street, this year tearing down the old Albertson’s store to make way for a 10,000-15,000-square-foot building to house administrative offices, retail space and a ticketing area. Additional property will provide space for an arena and classrooms for Blue Mountain Community College students and the school’s rodeo team.

Spectators are finding their way to Pendleton in record numbers.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the popularity of the event,” Thomas said. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the type of people who are coming to the event. In years past, it may have been more like a frat party on some Saturdays. Now we have people buying tickets for all week long. They’re coming not only for the four performances, but for the slack. They come early and they stay.”

Turns out, when a 108-year-old rodeo meets modern technology and social media, good things happen.

“The Round-Up’s never had a budget before to produce video, never had a budget to purchase widespread advertising,” Thomas said. “The budgets have always been really small. Now with the right tools and new software, we’re able to create video content, high-end still imagery and launch that out into social media.”

They use geofencing, which launches a location device on people’s phones, searching everyone within targeted areas such as other rodeo locations.

“In many ways it seems like we’re just cracking the surface,” Thomas said. “There are new tools and new interest.”

The demographic is changing. Nowadays, along with cowboy hats, you see pork pie hats and other clues that many spectators hail not just from cowboy country. The number of international visitors is up. A few years ago, Beard said, the Round-Up even did a hipster campaign.

“You see more millennial looking people,” he said. “They come and they have a good time. People don’t feel ostracized here.”

“Round-Up’s goal is to reach out and create new audience,” Thomas said. “To bring people to Pendleton. To perpetuate the western lifestyle in a big way.”

Both men continually pulled the conversation back to what they called “the Round-Up’s core mission.” Beard referred back to Roy Raley, local lawyer and cattleman and one of the rodeo’s founders.

“He created this event for the betterment of the community and to draw people to town,” Beard said. “That’s one reason volunteers are so actively engaged. The Round-Up contributes to core founding missions, which are to support educational and charitable events.”

Beard said he often asks himself, “What would Roy Raley do?”

He and Thomas ticked off a list of charity and educationally related deeds. They included giving the high school and college use of the facility for a nominal fee (though a wash after contributions back to the schools). PHS culinary students spend the four days of Round-Up working in the 1910 Room with a professional chef and earning wages. Annual scholarships, given by the Round-Up and Happy Canyon foundations, now top $50,000. Each day of Round-Up is dedicated to a different charity, such as Tough Enough to Wear Pink and Farmers Ending Hunger.

“Round-Up is very interested in being good for the community,” Thomas said.

That was true in the rodeo’s early days, as well, they said.

“In 1918, they took all the proceeds of the Round-Up and donated it to the American Red Cross,” Beard said. “They sowed good deeds back then.”

The men linked a good portion of the Round-Up’s success to Native American involvement.

“You don’t see the Native American presence at this scale at other rodeos,” Thomas said. “All week long we have the dancing, the drumming, the beauty pageant, the performance within the rodeo and the Happy Canyon show. I cannot overstate how important that is to the success of the Round-Up.”

The men say the future is wide open, the international market ripe for tapping.

“The story will be told with tools yet to be determined,” Thomas said. “The audience will be bigger and younger. The financial impact to the youth of the community will steadily grow.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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