Lauren Ripko has coordinated some of the Front Range’s biggest festivals: Rocky Mountain Showdown, Denver’s Big Air, People’s Fair, and the Colorado Restaurant Association’s Taste of Pikes Peak.
But it was her dad — a smalltown high school shop teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser — who gave Ripko her first taste of event planning.
“I was raised in a small, three-streetlight Kansas town. Events captured my heart when I was really young,” she recalls. “My father ... was the designer for prom, and the committee chair. When I was 10, he brought me in to see a prom — and I got to be a part of construction.
He went so far as to drape landscape fabric over the gym with lights above it, creating a twinkling starry sky. He built a deck and a pond underneath. It was so exceptional … you questioned being in a gym. I watched the glamourous juniors and seniors react to the space, and I was hooked.”
Today, Ripko has her own business, Studio Q Events, and in 2020 she was part of the team that created Support the Springs, which provides resources for residents and local businesses to create a stronger community through the pandemic.
COVID-19 dealt a tremendous blow to Ripko’s business, but with vaccinations increasing and businesses reopening, she has been contracted to organize events inside the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame.
“They have three or four event spaces, and I’m working on the ribbon cutting ceremony for the nearly finished bridge that goes from the museum over the railroad tracks and into America The Beautiful Park,” she said. “It’ll likely open in June.”
Ripko talked with the Business Journal about balancing brides and athletes, burning out, and building a real sense of community in the Springs.
Tell us more about your life before Colorado Springs.
My father operated a greenhouse as part of his agriculture program for the high school. I grew up in a greenhouse, watering flowers and planting seeds while he taught class. I also spent time in the shop, building with my dad. ... I was raised with creativity, and a passion for people collaborating together.
In high school, I studied horticulture and nursery landscaping … and competed nationally. I knew all the scientific names of plants and worked in flower shops. After high school, I moved to Denver for art school … for multimedia. I had dreams of becoming the production designer for the Oscars and film credits — like the Bond movies — but I quickly realized I’d need to learn coding. Numbers are not my thing, and I was redirected to graphic design, where I found my passion for layouts and color.
I also discovered enthusiasm for party planning … and was abruptly escorted out of student housing as a result. I had too many parties with too many people in the dorms, eventually got in trouble, and got kicked out of student housing. My roommate hated my parties. She was so anti-social, but I tried so hard to get her involved. I found a house in Capitol Hill and continued to have parties there — under a peach tree, actually.
I graduated with all the hours for an art degree along with the experience to host impressive gatherings.
During school, I worked for a company that does million-dollar weddings — we would take three semis of flowers to Aspen and stay for a week to build out incredible floral arrangements. However, when I graduated, that job went away. This was right after 9/11 … there were no jobs in the art world. I had bartending as a backup but got poached by Marriott and worked as a manager of events. I did that for only a year because I met my future ex-husband — and he wanted to be a ski bum. I quit my great corporate, management job at 21 and moved to Utah. We lived and worked at a resort, and snowboarded every day for two years.
After two years, we moved back to Mile High. I got a job with an event marketing agency — Creative Strategies Group — managing sponsorships — when I really got into the world of festivals. I learned a lot about the overlap in corporate dollars providing revenue and stability for an event … learning how all components come together, and watching events come up from nothing to 250,000 people. My first event with Creative Strategies was the People’s Fair in Denver — it was a quarter million people in Civic Center Park.
In 2010, I produced the first Denver Century Ride, soup to nuts: permits, aid stations, registrations, all of it. I ended up doing Denver Big Air, a 10-story snowboard ramp in Civic Center Park with ESPN, X Games, the International Ski Federation, and NBC Sports. Rocky Mountain Showdown — the Colorado-Colorado State football rivalry — we brought that back to Mile High [Stadium].
I got married and pregnant, and realized I couldn’t keep up with my schedule. After my son was born, I decided to focus on my own business. I left Creative Strategies and started Quintessential Events. Nobody could spell it; it was a terrible business name. I’ve since rebranded as Studio Q Events. I did weddings, but people kept asking me to help with various festivals and events. I was balancing brides and athletes.
How did you end up in Colorado Springs?
Life hit hard: I went through a messy divorce. My kids were going to start school. In the midst of a relationship falling apart, I needed help … particularly weekend child care because of travel. My parents lived in Manitou Springs and were a source of support.
Don’t be a wedding planner while getting a divorce. I became quiet, bitter and dismissive of concerns: ‘Who cares if your bridesmaid’s dress matches the ribbon on your bouquet?’ I don’t think many event planners go through a divorce while celebrating marriages twice a week.
Eventually, being a single mom and managing a business became too much, especially while I was still licking my wounds. I wanted more stability. Garden of the Gods Resort hired me, but I also had so much booked up on my own that I was working two jobs for a while. Then someone from the Garden of the Gods team left, and I adopted 60 weddings as a consequence. From July through October, I worked every single day, seven days a week — and I burned out. At the end of 2018, I decided to leave Garden of the Gods. I left in January 2019.
What did you do after leaving?
I freelanced behind the scenes for a Denver event company as a project manager, coordinating the shipping of materials — 2019 allowed me to reconnect with my children, calm down and figure out what I was doing. Financially, I took a hit, but it was worth every dollar lost. I also used time to network and get to know Colorado Springs. I’d work remotely at Loyal Coffee or Building Three. I met with the Colorado Restaurant Association … knowing Greg Howard, the president of the Pikes Peak Chapter.
Understanding the restaurant industry of Colorado Springs was eye opening — learning about the struggles and road blocks that food and beverage has here in comparison to Denver. Anyways, I coordinated Taste of Pikes Peak in 2020 at The Broadmoor. I changed the concept and programming … [and] tried hard to push for new things. It was really great. Then the next day was COVID — everything was shutting down very quickly, and I was panicking.
Talk about being an event manager during the pandemic.
By April 2020, I had lost 85 percent of my business. I had burned through a lot of my savings taking the previous year off. I was on the phone with SNAP to get food stamps, and by that time, my entire income dropped to $1,100 a month. I had bills, a car payment, a mortgage and two kids.
Also, when you own a business and you have that pride of supporting yourself and suddenly the rug is pulled out from under you … with no control and you can’t fix it, it took a toll on my mental health. It was dark. I was probably clinically depressed.
When the [Paycheck Protection Program] loans became available, I applied but Wells Fargo wasn’t doing small business because the first round of PPP loans got really messy. I was able to work with a small, local bank to secure a loan for myself — after a lot of tears and panic. As far as unemployment, I fell into this unfortunate loophole where my assistance was incredibly low. I was ultimately saved by the $600 federal payment.
I still tried to book some events last year, but every time the rules would change. I booked and lost more than $100,000 of revenue last year. Eventually, I quit. My mental health couldn’t handle it. I decided to take some time — and I continued to build great relationships with people here in the community. That was the carrot that kept me going — turning Colorado Springs into my home. I spent even more time with my kids, going on small road trips and exploring together, while being cautious and mindful of the pandemic.
That was COVID. I wouldn’t change it because I am where I am now, much more deeply rooted in Colorado Springs — but I never want to experience that again.
What about now?
I have a large client here in Colorado Springs. I’m contracted by them for consistent work — concert series, event development, event curation and more. It’s the coolest job. They’re very cautious and careful about press, and I don’t want to mess it up, so I’m going to leave them nameless. They’re doing really amazing things here. They’re very intentional — so much thought goes into each project. They do a deep dive into all the components before starting … concerned about the environmental impact and more.
I’m starting to get back into my own independent endeavors through Studio Q. I have an office above Bread & Butter [Neighborhood Market]. I got a lovely, surprise grant that allowed me to have the space to heal and the space above Bread & Butter to work.
I have passion again, with several festival concepts. I have weddings booked for this year. Taste of Pikes Peak is tentatively planned for Sept. 19 — but due to the lack of labor within restaurants right now, it’s not set in stone. Currently, restaurants would not be able to staff both their restaurant and the event at the simultaneously. Denver Century called me back too. It’s my baby; I started it from nothing and now it’s been the top event in the state nine or 10 times over.