PENDLETON — The days of the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds hosting only one big event a year are long in the past.
Round-Up Association president Dave O’Neill refers to the Round-Up Grounds as an “event center,” and recent years bear that out. The grounds are now home to the burgeoning Pendleton Whisky Music Fest, which wrapped its fourth year in July with headliner Post Malone, and for two years running in late July, motorcycles, not horses, have raced over the dirt track inside the arena. O’Neill said those events and others go hand-in-hand with what the Round-Up Association does.
“We’re in the business to serve our community and this town by bringing people to town,” he said.
But those business opportunities, O’Neill stressed, have to align with the Round-Up Association’s core values, including the preservation of Western heritage, volunteer stewardship and commitment to community.
Preservation, for example, is a reason the association still draws the line in the sand against allowing advertising in the arena itself. Attempts to chip away at the prohibition have come up over the years, but O’Neill said the revenue from billboards and the like would not be worth compromising the iconic imagery of the Round-Up Arena.
O’Neil does not consider the adherence to those core values as a box that limits the Round-Up’s economic opportunity but rather the litmus test for ensuring authenticity and a positive visitor experience, which he described as “profound.”
Visitors talk about the entirety of the Pendleton Round-Up, he said, from the rodeo to the Main Street show, to the Happy Canyon Night Show to the local bar scene. He said all of that goes into making the Round-Up what it is.
Pushing out the word of the whole scene is a crucial step in growing the Round-Up, O’Niell said, and for the first time, the Round-Up Association hired a social media expert, Mikal Wright, to that end.
Wright has been busy taking photos and videos of Round-Up activities and promoting them on social media. O’Neill said that reaches folks beyond the visitors who know about the Round-Up.
“To tell our story in small bites, in small videos goes a long way,” he said.
Social media, of course, also means instant feedback from fans and detractors.
“It’s not a one-way tool by any means,” he said, but the association considers the feedback valuable in the move to gain new Round-Up visitors.
Still, even the Pendleton Round-Up faces the immediate hurdle of attracting people to rural Eastern Oregon. Doug Corey, Pendleton Whisky Fest co-organizer, said big events here do not grow without drawing from a large radius.
“You have to attract people from out of town,” he said, because the local economy is just not enough. But getting folks to come here bumps up against the reality of overnight room and board.
The town boosts 11 hotels — not including the tower at Wildhorse Resort & Casino — several recreational vehicle camp sites and a smattering of bed-and-breakfasts. Many hotels raise rates for the Round-Up and require a minimum commitment of three nights.
Pricing for scarcity is a common economic tool, but it also could scare off folks due to the price. Corey said Whisky Fest tapped the market of concertgoers willing to camp in a tent for a weekend rather than a hotel.
That seemed to pay off. The July festival drew some of the biggest crowds yet, and a sizable share of the concertgoers camped out.
More concerts are the most immediate area the Round-Up plans on growing, O’Neill said, but anything new will not push out Whisky Fest and other established events. That would run counter to the commitment to community, for example, and other values.
“At the end of the day,” O’Neill said, “if it’s contrary to our values, it’s probably not going to work for us, quite honestly.”