Boerner Seeks to Create Connections, Memories Through Winterland
Success often comes out of random connections — for those who recognize the potential of those connections.
That’s the case for Chris Boerner, who, with her husband, Mike, founded the highly successful Augusta on Ice experience in downtown Augusta last year. This year, they are moving their venue to collaborate with Lights of the South to create a new holiday experience called Winterland.
“It’s very random that we own a holiday ice rink,” Boerner said.
Until a little over two years ago, she’d lived her entire life in Seattle. Much of her career had been working for Seattle icon Starbucks in marketing and developing strategy.
“It was awesome to work for Starbucks,” she said. “But I felt I was eight PowerPoint presentations from an actual customer.”
Desiring a closer connection to people, and not wanting the end up as a corporate mom who never attended her kids’ events or shared family meals, Boerner decided to leave Starbucks at the end of 2012.
“I left with no idea of what I was doing next,” she admitted. “My first objective was I wanted to make time to be around family. Objective two was to figure out how to help people connect in a meaningful way.”
In her own version of building a better mousetrap, Boerner created Cielo Pill Holders, high-end designer pill holders, a vision that emerged out of her own experience dealing with illness.
“I wanted to make an experience that for an individual usually sucks — being sick — and create a product that creates a positive experience,” she said.
Amazon liked her story so much that it did a documentary about her.
Then, about 2 1/2 years ago, the Boerners visited Mike’s parents, who had retired at Savannah Lakes. They liked the Augusta area’s climate, slower pace and lower cost of living. Since both had flexible jobs that could be done from anywhere in the country, they decided to move to Augusta three months later.
Then the Boerners began looking for a way to put down roots in the area to feel more a part of the community. That’s when a random conversation with friends about a holiday ice skating rink in Savannah, Ga., sparked an idea.
“Mike for years had been telling me about his customer in Northern California who ran holiday ice rinks as a second business,” Boerner said. “He was fascinated by it. I thought he was crazy.”
But that random conversation launched the idea of Augusta on Ice, which they set up on Augusta Common last year. It met a need, as 30,000 people attended.
“It did exactly what we’d hoped for; it brought people together in the community and connected them,” Boerner said. “I don’t know if I ever saw anyone texting. If they had a cellphone it was to take pictures.”
But with the success came the realization they had overextended themselves by trying to incorporate too many things too soon, including a performance stage.
They knew they wanted to do it again in 2018 but needed to simplify. They were still thinking through what to do when the next random conversation occurred.
The Boerners attended Rock for Dough at Lady A Pavilion during Masters Week and wound up sitting next to a couple they’d never met before. During the course of the evening, they had a good time getting to know each other. Later in the evening, they discovered the husband was Mark Jackson, co-owner and manager of Lights of the South, a longstanding holiday experience in Columbia County.
Lights of the South already had many of the extras that the Boerners had tried in the first year of Augusta on Ice. But it didn’t have an ice rink. A few weeks later, the Boerners and Jackson decided to collaborate — Augusta on Ice, still run separately, would move to the sprawling acreage of Lights of the South in Grovetown, and the two events would be marketed as Winterland.
“We can both do what we do better and market it together — and grow together,” Boerner said. “We want to make this a place people recognize as a place where they can come together to make memories.”
The Augusta on Ice rink is a real ice rink that uses the same technology hockey rinks use. There is even a scaled-down version of a Zamboni machine to refresh the ice.
Winterland opens on Nov. 16 and will be open every day though Jan. 6, including Christmas Day.
In her own words
What are you passionate about in business?
“It’s about giving people a place to come together. That’s what Starbucks is. Winterland is a place to come together to build traditions and memories. Everybody is so busy and rushing around, it gives them a chance to pause and build stronger connections. Connections help people care more about the people in the community. It’s a virtuous cycle. It benefits everyone to have more meaningful connections.”
How has it helped with your own family connection?
“My kids love it. Jordan is 4, and last year she had her own pink skates. By the end of the season, she didn’t need to use the walker. Casey (almost 3) will be out there this year. They’re so excited about it. In fact, Jordan is the one that when I call it Augusta on Ice corrects me and says, ‘It’s Winterland!’”
How was the first-year experience?
“It was the best time and the worst time we’ve ever had. The best was that it did exactly what we hoped for. People tell me this is the best thing they’ve ever seen happen in Augusta. I think it will be a tremendous positive for the region.
“The worst time was that we bit off more than we could handle. We weren’t trying to take on a risk, but it cost more than we’d anticipated. We’ve tried to stay objective. I know if we’d have had all the information at the beginning, we’d have never done it. But I’m glad we did.”
How do you feel about the random events that have led you to this point?
“You never know where it’s going to go, or where you’re going meet that person who’s going to matter or lead to an opportunity I’ve never had before. I don’t know what else I’m going to do in this community, but I’m excited about it. Sometimes I feel I can’t even sleep at night because I’m so excited about what’s happening next.”
What does the future hold for Augusta on Ice and Winterland?
“The intent is for it to be a tradition for years and for generations to build on — that people will tell their friends and they’ll keep coming back year after year.”