Culture in the Vail Valley

Vail Symposium

Part of the Vail Symposium’s Geopolitical Series, the program on the Middle East was just one of the 2018 summer series programs. Other topics included discussions on China, North Korea and Africa—and that’s just one series, with other avenues including health and wellness, community issues and the environment. Founded in 1971 by then-Town of Vail Manager Terry Minger, the Vail Symposium started as an annual weekend “think tank” of sorts to guide change in the burgeoning mountain community. As the valley grew, the role and scope of the Symposium expanded and changed as well; it now has provided educational programming designed to inform and inspire for almost 50 years. “In the early years, the Symposium helped foster the development of the Vail master plan, the formation of the Eagle Valley Forum and was the platform from which President Gerald Ford made a major energy policy speech in 1976,” said Kris Sabel, executive director of the Vail Symposium. “By 1987, Vail was an established resort and other individuals and groups existed to define its future. The Symposium was cut loose from the town of Vail and created its new role in the community it helped to form.”

That role—and the mission of the Vail Symposium—is “to provide educational programs for the Vail Valley community that are thought-provoking, diverse and affordable.” “We are unique in the Vail Valley in that we provide pro- gramming on a wide range of topics,” Sabel said. “One per- son might be interested in our Unlimited Adventure Series and someone else might be interested in our Geopolitical Series. While not all programs appeal to every person, we strongly believe that the diversity of our programming will provide interest for most people. After most programs, someone tells me this was the best program yet, so as I al- ways say every program is someone’s favorite.” Based on the impressive rise in attendance in the past two years, interest has definitely been piqued: Sabel said that average attendance per performance is up 78 percent, year over year. The organization has now branched out tonew venues in order to accommodate audiences that are signing up to learn about Bitcoin and digital currency, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the challenge of after- death survival.

The Vail Symposium’s Board Chairman, Dale Mosier, attributes the success of the Symposium to two things: the quality of the programming and the leadership of Sabel. “There really were two pivot points,” Mosier said. “The first was getting better programs and getting the momentum so that we could do better in that regard. As an example, many of the speakers I now get, I work through speakers we’ve had before. It’s been easier: Success breeds success.” The line-up of programs and caliber of speakers that the Vail Symposium is bringing to the valley is impressive: From ambassadors and members of prestigious think tanks like the Brookings Institute to record-setting athletes like Tommy Caldwell and the director of Saturday Night Live, the Vail Symposium continues to set the bar higher and higher in regard to delivering a variety of programming from experts in their fields.

But Mosier also credits Sabel with the Symposium’s upward trajectory. Sabel, who took the reins as executive director in September 2016, has not only upped the quality of programming with better equipment and an eye for presentation, but has also worked hard on improving donor involvement to create long-term sustainability. This has led to the creation of a new position: Claire Noble joined theVail Symposium as programming manager in April 2018. It’s a small staff—three and half positions—with a small budget, but the Symposium makes producing these successful events look easy.

The Vail Symposium presents approximately 45 to 50 programs a year, divided between the summer and winter seasons. On deck for the Vail Symposium’s 2018-19 winter season are programs on topics like the rise of Asia in the 21st century, the return of the popular Unlimited Adventure series, a discussion of “fake news,” a first-person discussion on refugees and a panel on immigration issues here in the Vail Valley.


It’s timely and intriguing topics like these that are engen- dering support from residents. Ronnie Baker and his wife became donors after reading about the programs in the Vail Daily.

“We saw the series of programs that were being offered by the Vail Symposium and they were mind-broadening programs that gave you a perspective on things,” Baker said. “I always thought the Symposium’s mission was to make the folks in the valley more educated and have a better understanding of what’s going on in the valley and state and country.”

Cindy Engles, who lives in Arrowhead when she’s not in Texas or Florida, said that she thinks the quality of the programs have improved and that they’re timely and relevant. “The program on cyber warfare was both enlightening and frightening,” Engles said. “I thought the China lecture (with Minxin Pei) was informative, thought-provoking and current; I hope the Geopolitical Series continues.” One of the most popular series, the Geopolitical Series, attracts a wide audience not only because of the topics, but because it’s unique in the valley. This series, along with the Hot Topics Series, will continue to be a focus for the Symposium along with special speakers and topics that pique interest like Eric Maddox, the Army interrogator who found Saddam Hussein.

That’s part of the reason that the Vail Symposium is such an asset to the Vail community: It provides programming that is intriguing and thought-provoking for residents, sparking conversation and often contributing to changes in the community. Programs like the NIMBY Jamboree and panels on workforcehousing have brought about real change on issues that affect the community; discussions on conservation and resources in the valley illuminate new ideas and opportunities. “I think the Symposium is gaining momentum and the word is spreading that there’s interesting and relevant things to learn and know about,” Engles said. “I think that’s resonating with people.”

If you haven’t yet attended a Vail Symposium program, or if it’s been a while, check out the winter schedule. Froma discussion on how food impacts the environment and a conversation from veteran journalists about how the news gets made to programs about the science behind meditation and experiences of an adaptive climber, now’s the time to experience the Vail Symposium.