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Virtual Sundance Film Festival Leaves Park City Businesses Out In The Cold

Photo of Main Street in Park City, Utah, during Sundance Film Festival.
Kelsie Moore
Park City streets are normally packed during the Sundance Film Festival. This year, the festival will be remote.

In a normal year, the Sundance Film Festival has a major impact on Utah’s economy. Last year, it attracted nearly 120,000 people, about a third of whom were mostly wealthy out-of-towners, according to Y2 Analytics’ annual report on the festival’s impact. They spent over $150 million, with out- of-state visitors accounting for close to $135 million.

This year, of course, the festival is taking place virtually. And while more people may be able to participate in an online format, Park City streets won’t see the usual influx of visitors, landing yet another blow to many businesses that rely on the festival and are already struggling through the pandemic.

John Kenworthy said most visitor spending is concentrated on Main Street, where he’s owned the Irish pub Flanagan’s on Main for 12 years. He said he’s built up a rainy day fund over the years that’s helped sustain his business over the last year. But not having Sundance on top of the pandemic is going to be difficult to come back from.

“Let me sum it up for you, it sucks,” Kenworthy said. “A lot of us are going to make it through, but we're going to be working for free. You're using your reserves to get through this pandemic.”

He said if he were just starting out, his business would likely go under. And he worries that other less established restaurants or nightclubs in the area won’t make it, forcing local businesses out and allowing larger, national brands to take their place.

For Zia Boccaccio, the absence of Sundance this year has given her a chance to reflect on how the festival has impacted her business over the years, She owns Alpaca International, a winter clothing store also on Main Street. Sales have been down between 40-60% throughout the pandemic and not having Sundance is going to deliver yet another blow.

Retail stores tend not to see the same level of spending as hotels and restaurants, but Boccaccio said increased foot traffic usually brings in plenty of customers and some of her biggest sales of the year. Last year, however, her business took a hit during the festival because of the way traffic was managed — which made it harder for film goers to shop on Main Street — and the rising cost of attending.

“We got feedback from a lot of people [saying] ‘I would love to buy this, but I only have enough for my drinks, my food and my lodging,” she said. “Park City is becoming extremely expensive for many people. I'm not sure how you can change that.”

Boccaccio said she worries that as more people move to Park City and real estate prices soar, the cost of attending Sundance is only going to continue to increase. But she remains hopeful that visitors coming to ski and Park City’s growing population will boost sales over the next few months.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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