Vendors play big role in Tucson Rodeo’s ongoing success

Jon Gold Special to the Arizona Daily Star
12 Min Read

Alan Sanchez looked up to the sky and asked for a sign.

The clouds over Tucson last February were angrier than a bucking bronco about 6.7 seconds into an 88-point ride, and Sanchez continued to glance up, wondering if his big break would be blown out.

He arrived in Southern Arizona on faith and a favor, hoping his gutsy gamble would pay off.

Here’s a dude who gave up med school to make customized cowboy hats, trading in a stethoscope for a Stetson. He’d had moderate success and a burgeoning social media brand with a ton of followers and engagement, but Alan’s Lids hadn’t really taken off yet.

Scrounging up five figures to head to the La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo was not going to be easy. He didn’t really have $15,000 cash on hand to pay for the travel, his employees’ time and their travel, plus a vendor’s fee.

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Alan Sanchez, the owner of Alan’s Lids, finds the center of a customers a new hat before making indents to the brim during the 99th Annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo on Saturday.

Grace Trejo

But the Tucson Rodeo powers-that-be saw something earnest in his fresh face and wide smile, a willingness to follow through and an eagerness to break through. They told him they would forgo the fee for the year but only if he promised to return this year at full freight.

Standing there in the rain, the rodeo about to kick off, he wondered if he’d made the right call.

They stacked up 10 at a time, 20, then 40, then 80. He’d sent out a clarion call to his followers and to Tucson Rodeo fans that he was in town, and they came from all over. He ended up making more money that day than he’d ever made.

Some folks drove in from Phoenix just for a hat. Some from San Diego.

But it’s not just a hat, Sanchez said. It’s a calling.

•  •  •

The Tucson Rodeo means a lot to a lot of people, as it has for nearly a century.

The 99th edition of the famed rodeo — it’s considered one of the top 25 in the country out of around 700 sanctioned Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos — rolled out on Saturday, starting a nine-day extravaganza that promises to be a win for all involved.

Alan Sanchez, the owner of Alan’s Lids, uses his fingers to make indents to a customer’s hat during the 99th Annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo on Saturday. Sanchez, of Crowley, Texas, credits being on site selling his custom-fit hats as a vendor at last year’s Tucson Rodeo as part of his business’ growth growth over the last 12 months.

Grace Trejo

It ain’t much fun lasting five seconds on a bull and having nothing to show for it but a bruised back.

But for the cowboys and the cowgirls and the fans and the rodeo committee and the volunteers, it is a special time on the calendar.

And for the vendors who hitch their wagon to Tucson’s passionate and loyal fanbase, it proves to be a profitable venture.

Estimates toward the end of the last decade were that the rodeo adds approximately $17 million to the local economy, though those numbers have not been updated in recent years.

For vendors like Sanchez, the rodeo can be a bonanza.

“There are so many people who bring value to this rodeo,” Tucson Rodeo committee chair Jose Calderon said. “It’s a business; we throw an event but we also have to run it like a business. You can’t put the money in a coffee can and get ready for next year like the old days.”

They’d need a pretty big can for next year.

While the rodeo committee chose to stick with standard fare and entertainment this year in anticipation of a blowout 100th anniversary in 2025, Calderon said the level of offerings has grown to the point where they didn’t feel compelled to offer anything new. From head to toe and mouth to stomach, the rodeo has got something for you.

“People, vendors, cowboys, contestants — they come here for a reason,” Calderon said. “We seat 11,000-plus, as well as grazing tickets. You times that by six days, and there are a lot of people who come through here, and our vendors make money because they make it affordable for the fans who enjoy it. We’re proud of the vendors who come here. They bring quality stuff and they’re excited about their product.”

Calderon points out that Tucson offers a prime market for purveyors of western wear and flair, along with the giant turkey legs and pretzels the size of a small back.

“Tucson is the Southwest,” he said. “We’re hugging Mexico, we embrace that Western lifestyle, and the sombrero, it’s not going to go away. And now, when you get these shows like “Yellowstone,” the fashion world goes nuts. Everyone wants that hat. But that hat is Tucson. It is the Southwest. In the stands, 90% of those people don’t wear Western wear into work every day. They’re in suits and ties.

Customers browse Alan’s Lids in the vendor portion of the 99th Annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo Saturday at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds, 4823 S. Sixth Ave.

Grace Trejo

“But they wear their hats proudly at the rodeo.

From suits and ties to chutes and (bolo) ties, there’s something for everyone.

•  •  •

That right there is Sanchez’s guiding principle.

He started Alan’s lids in 2018 as a side hustle, a way to scrounge up some extra bucks for tuition.

Two years prior, when he was just 16 years old, he’d begged a local milliner in his small Texas town — Crowley, just south of Fort Worth — to teach him the trade. The old-timer demurred, and Sanchez was motivated to learn the craft on his own. And to make it his own, as well.

Sanchez gets the modern cowboy because he is the modern cowboy. He rode bulls for a while, but “I fractured enough bones. Now I team rope.”

After taking his hobby full-time in 2020, he’s made a splash in what was a staid country-western marketplace, one that can often seem homogenous to outsiders. All cowboys look alike, it seems, so Sanchez realized his opportunity was to offer two main customer service pillars.

Authenticity and individuality.

For Sanchez, a cowboy hat is someone’s signature. It’s their style. It’s more than just their personality — it is them.

“It’s their hat, not yours,” he said. “That’s what it is. That’s where I catch everybody. That’s what the western industry didn’t understand. These people weren’t getting to express themselves differently. We’re not all built the same. Everyone becomes a cowboy in their own way.”

That message has resonated with fans, which include famous rodeo cowboys and country musicians, Tejano bands and professional athletes. Alan’s Lids now boasts more than 2.5 million followers across its social media channels, with more than 1.5 billion impressions.

Truthfully, he doesn’t need to set up shop in Tucson for eight days. But he made a promise to return, after the Tucson Rodeo welcomed him with open arms — and eventually open skies — last year.

“I don’t do rodeos anymore,” he said. “But Tucson has a special place in my heart. Last year, I didn’t have the money, but they still asked me to come. So I come, and I make the most money I’ve ever made in my life in one day. At this rodeo. To me, man, I shed tears. Going from having a hard time doing small little fairs and rodeos. You’d hit places, and they’re just not into it, but you still have to pay your guys to not make a penny.

“Came out here, first time outside of Texas and Vegas, and it was a whole different ballgame. We went from having a crazy rainy day to starting to set up and no more rain. It rained whenever we were not set up. Tell me how the hell the forecast just changed up completely?”

For Sanchez, it was a sign. Just one of many.

Watch the entire Feb. 23 rodeo parade in just 4 minutes.

Henry Brean

The 98th Tucson Rodeo Parade hit the streets on Tucson’s south side Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023 and included local band performances, floats and plenty of horses. Video by Pascal Albright / Arizona Daily Star

Pascal Albright

The Tucson Rodeo Parade hit the streets Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023 and included local band performances, rodeo floats and plenty of horses. Video by Pascal Albright / Arizona Daily Star

Pascal Albright

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Jon Gold Special to the Arizona Daily Star , – Vivrr Local Results in news/local of type article , 2024-02-18 14:45:00
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