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Creating economic impact through year-round, large-scale events in Northern Wisconsin

August 9, 2022
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Ben Popp, Executive Director, American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF)

Ben Popp

Ben Popp is the Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) and co-founded the SISU Nordic Ski Foundation in 2008.

The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) is proud to host the world-renowned “Birkie” cross-country ski race. Since 1973, this race has served the world’s thirst for outdoor competition, while introducing thousands to the pristine beauty of Northern Wisconsin each winter.

The Birkie has provided significant economic impact to Northern Wisconsin over the years. In 2014, it accounted for 20 percent of the total economic impact to the area. Yet when I started at ABSF in 2013, I realized that running a seasonal business is not ideal – it’s either boom or bust. We needed to bring visitors to Northern Wisconsin all year with new events and an experience that makes them return every year – possibly multiple times a year.

Since that time, ABSF has expanded from what was a yearly winter event, to five events that bring visitors year-round. When we conduct our next study, we are anticipating a significant jump in economic impact.

Yes, we started as a cross-country ski race, but now we have just as many mountain bike races and running events. We currently host the largest fat bike race in the world in March, which brings thousands of visitors. This year, we are hosting a new gravel duathlon in June when people traditionally aren’t visiting Northern Wisconsin.

Throughout our growth, we have stayed true to our vision that everyone in the world should experience an active outdoor lifestyle. It is the combination of that mission, additional events, outdoor opportunities and programs that have shaped our year-round model. This all contributed to diversifying revenue streams and implementing an appropriate business plan to become a viable year-round destination.

Thousands of skiers and spectators attend the American Birkebeiner.

Thousands of skiers and spectators are drawn to Northern Wisconsin each winter, 80% of them return during a different season.

We hang our hat on providing the best experience that motivates visitors to come back to that event the following year – and perhaps to some others along the way. Our latest survey from the Birkie shows that over 80% of visitors will return in a different season. Since we know from the data that they’re coming back, it’s our job to introduce them to the area. We recognize that if we’re great hosts during an event, it will pay dividends.

It’s amazing to be able to bring back repeat visitors who truly care about this community. They love the trails, lakes and all that the area has to offer. This is best represented by the recent rising trend of second-home buyers driven by silent sports. It’s a sentiment also expressed by our business partners. Some of ABSF’s largest donors have told us they’ve invested in us because they want the community to be even stronger when they return – what a powerful message that is.

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