ACRA Lunch

Debbie Braun, CEO and president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, speaks during Thursday’s business luncheon at the Hotel Jerome.

Aspen’s business community came together Thursday on the eve of the defacto start to the lucrative summer season, in part to honor long-term stalwarts of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

But the annual ACRA Food & Wine luncheon at the Hotel Jerome also brings together hundreds of chamber members and guests to celebrate numerous upcoming events and the onslaught of tourists on which many local businesses depend.

And of course, the first such event of the season is three days of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which starts today.

“It brings jobs and visitors along with sales and lodging tax collection, and is considered the gold standard in green event production,” ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun told the crowd.

Braun opened the event with a joke, and encouraged everyone to live by the “YOLO” principle over the weekend’s festivities: You Only Live Once. She used GIFs of people enjoying wine directly out of a bottle, or streaking at a sports game, to indicate the different levels of fun to be had at Food & Wine.

What she didn’t know was that a video was made in her honor as a surprise nod to her 20 years of working for the chamber.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about Debbie’s tenure with the chamber has been the amazing growth of destination marketing,” said Warren Klug, former chair of the ACRA board.

Outgoing Mayor Steve Skadron also was featured in the video. He highlighted her policy work through the business community.

“One of Debbie’s standout achievements has been the lodging tax, as it’s gone a long way to support the direct marketing efforts of the Aspen chamber and keeping Aspen a vibrant economy,” Skadron said.

Braun reflected back on the changes she’s seen in her decades of bringing the local business community together.

“When I started here my very first chamber programming was the Y2K seminar,” she said.

She also was in charge of sending fax updates to all members, and thought pagers were the wave of the future. She said Aspen had no centralized marketing or sales effort at the time.

Now, ACRA includes a sales and marketing team, and has taken on tourism campaign slogans like “defy ordinary” and “the secret season” in attempts to keep visitor numbers up through the shoulder seasons.

“With this activity, it means more complaints from locals, more lines, more selfies, more bad behavior,” she acknowledged. “But I just want to remind everybody that it also means more cross-cultural exposure, more investment, more global connections, and really more awe and wonder and I think we all need that.”

Jennifer Albright Carney, vice president of event marketing for ACRA, was honored as well for her 20 years of service to the chamber. Albright Carney runs the local, on-the-ground operations for Food & Wine, as well as ACRA’s other local signature events including Winterskol and the Fourth of July parade.

Kim Allen spoke in a video honoring Albright Carney, saying she remembers how excited her friend was to get the job at the chamber and organize community events.

“One of the things that struck me most was her calm and cool demeanor about (Food & Wine), how she was just really laid back and at ease as if she was just throwing a little garden party for friends,” Allen said.

ACRA oversees recruitment and management of volunteers for Food & Wine. Volunteering is the most accessible way for locals to get a day pass to the nearly $2,000 weekend event.

Also at the luncheon, Braun introduced Aspen’s new mayor, Torre, and two new council members, Rachel Richards and Skippy Mesirow.

And ACRA board chair Cristal Logan took the time to acknowledge the chamber’s outgoing board members, including Steve Skadron, who concluded six years as Aspen’s mayor earlier this week; John Maloy, outgoing Aspen School District superintendent; Linda Crockett, who is stepping down as dean of Colorado Mountain College-Aspen to return to teaching; and Simon Chen, managing director of The Little Nell.

Braun said the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which is marking its 37th year, is still considered the premier event for top chefs, food journalists, and food-and-wine enthusiasts of all types to meet and celebrate the industry. She said the weekend brings thousands of visitors to Aspen, and raises the reputation for tourism year-round.

A portion of the proceeds from this year’s ticket sales and the 5K celebrity run will go to charity.

“It’s really not just about the wine, which is why the city of Aspen along with the business community continue to support the event as it kicks off our summer season,” Braun said.

And, in her signature style, she also threw in a final joke about her role for the weekend.

“It’s the only job where you can be drunk on the job and it’s OK,” she said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at or on Twitter @alycinwonder.