The Pendleton Round-Up hopes co-branding and concessions to modern sensitivities will keep the iconic rodeo vital for years to come.
PENDLETON — For five minutes on September 14, Bill Levy will be the fastest cowboy in Pendleton. That’s when the president of the Pendleton Round-Up kicks off the 110-year-old event with a full-speed gallop around the arena. But right now, Levy is sore.
“I’m not much of a horseman,” admits the 39-year-old, speaking on the phone the day after practice.
Equestrian abilities aside, Levy grew up in the Pendleton Round-Up: volunteering as a teenager and serving on the 16-person board. After seven years, he was elected president, which is why Levy, usually found behind a desk as president and CEO of Pacific Ag, is sitting tall in the saddle, preparing for that opening-day ride.
Levy’s experience might be extreme, but it’s not unique. The cultural significance of the Pendleton Round-Up is undeniable, matched by its economic impact to the town of 17,000.
But is it sustainable? The very nature of agriculture is changing. It’s becoming more high tech, as evidenced by the city hosting the Ag Drone Rodeo — two days of flight demos, data presentations and predictive crop information — a few weeks before the big event.
And at a time when ideas about entertainment, comfort and animal welfare are evolving, rodeos feel to some cruel and unnecessary. “We have no regard for or understanding of the events of rodeo that are based on fear and pain,” says Rhonda Urquhart, director of Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, an animal rescue group in Oregon City.
Then there’s the west side’s benign ambivalence to the event. “I don’t really think about it,” says Joaquin Lippincott, president of Metal Toad Media, when asked for his opinion about the Round-Up.
But as the world evolves, the rough-and-tumble Round-Up is determined to stay vital and relevant.
After all, generations of Eastern Oregonians have embraced the Pendleton Round-Up since its start. Hard- core fans treasure their permanent tickets, willing them to the next generation or fighting over them in divorce court. More kids come home for Round-Up than Christmas. Local families, including nearby Native Americans who take part in the Happy Canyon night show and teepee village, see the event as a time to hold reunions, reconnect and celebrate their culture.
Ironically, the Pendleton Round-Up was created just as Umatilla County pivoted from raising cattle to raising wool and wheat. Not wanting to lose touch with their Western heritage and inspired by Portland’s newly launched Rose Festival, they stared the Round-Up as a “picturesque display of Western pastimes,” according to publicity director Randy Thomas.
Many of those early “picturesque” elements are still present. The Round-Up’s large grass arena and colorful 1940s-era wooden bucking shoots set the event apart from modern rodeos. The arena has no billboards, banners or advertising inside or out. Its authenticity inspired the Oregon Heritage Commission to name the Round- Up an Oregon Heritage Tradition in 2010.
Between 60% and 70% of the 50,000 tickets sold each year go to permanent ticket holders, according to general manager Casey Beard. Seventy-five percent of total sales go to people within a day’s drive of the event. The rest come from everywhere else — the East Coast, Canada, France, Japan — for the experience.
That experience, while still authentic, has changed to accommodate contemporary sensibilities. The Round-Up arena underwent an $8.5 million renovation before their centennial in 2006. Splintery, uncomfortable, scaffold-style seating has been replaced with modern bleachers covered against the sun. Bathrooms and vendor spots were improved.
This kicking-the-dust-off-the-boots upgrade has tweaked the experience for everyone.
“There used to be a certain amount of unruliness that came with the event,” says Thomas, recalling the dehydration and drunkenness that marked past events. Since the upgrade, he reports that the event has a different vibe, and attracts a different demographic. “There have been zero arrests, even though we sell more concessions and alcohol than ever.”
Whisky as catalyst
Interestingly, it was whisky that drove the change. As a not-for-profit the Round-Up generates about $3 million a year, most of which is channeled back into the community as donations and scholarships.
For years the Round-Up was scraping by with only about $1,000 in the bank to fund the next year’s event. A savvy co-branding deal with Hood River Distillers created Pendleton Whisky in 2002 and enriched the Round-Up’s bottom line.
Pendleton Whisky, with a bottle emblazoned with the Round-Up’s bucking horse symbol and “Let’er Buck” slogan, is hugely popular. Levy won’t say how much of the proceeds make it back to the event but admits that “it’s turned into a significant branding platform.” Thomas reports that the Round-Up now has $100,000 in its coffers to fund the next year.
Levy has ideas to make the Round-Up more appealing to urban fans who aren’t interested in a $28 general admission ticket. The 1910 Room is new this year. It offers a VIP foodie experience with tents, tablecloths and menu created by Portland chef Max Germano. Prices range from $150 per person to $3,000 per couple.
So far about half of the available tickets have sold.
Round-Up officials have addressed animal-cruelty concerns as well, a necessity in a time when animals are being phased out of iconic entertainment venues — witness Ringling Brothers Circus, which phased out elephants this year.
The Round-Up has spent $500,000 renovating stock pens, and they work with eight different livestock contractors to get only the healthiest animals and have veterinarians onsite at all times.
Every year, a contingent of west-side politicians and thought leaders — most recently, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales; University of Oregon president Michael Schill — makes the trip. But will the promise of well-rested animals and house-made gourmet s’mores convince young urbanites to travel to Pendleton for the event? (The average age of Round-Up attendees remains between 35 and 65.)
In a word, maybe. “If it’s part of the character of Oregon, then I’m interested,” says Lippincott.
Gerard Lester, director of strategic partnerships at Portland vacation rental startup Vacasa, calls the Round-Up the “Superbowl of Oregon rodeo season.” Actually, he’s never been to the Round-Up but he did grow up going to the St. Paul Rodeo. He thinks events like these help bridge the wet side/dry side divide.
“When urban Portlanders travel to Eastern Oregon and interact with those who live in rural communities, there is a new sense of connection between the two groups.” But Lester acknowledges, albeit indirectly, that treatment of animals can be an issue. “What I’ve experienced is … a great deal of sensitivity around the safety of the animals. They are really the stars of the show.”
For 110 years, the Pendleton Round-Up has done a great job of engaging rodeo enthusiasts and local families. Now the challenge is reaching out to potential fans with more urban tastes without diluting the brand. It’s a tough ask. Sure, they sell tickets, concessions, hotel rooms and restaurant meals. But the Round-Up’s real product is an authentic Wild West experience.
And while that’s not for everybody, officials are hoping it’s enough to rope you in — both the rodeo and that shot of Pendleton Whisky.
A version of this article appears in the September issue of Oregon Business.