The crowds were on the light side at the start of the Grenade Games Grand Finale on Saturday evening, but by the time the jam session wrapped up and the 10 final finalists were selected the bottom and sides of the course were packed with thousands of enthusiastic fans.
It was a crowd that wasn't supposed to happen, given Whistler's apparent post-Olympic exhaustion, but happen it did.
Later in the evening all of the tickets for The End all-night rave were sold out at the door, showing once again that the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival can survive just about anything.
Festival Director Sue Eckersley of Watermark Communications acknowledged that it was a difficult event to plan, but said attendance at ticketed events from April 16 to 25 generally broke records. Feedback from athletes and sponsors has generally been positive, although skier visits were down roughly eight per cent compared to last year - which Eckersley says was at least partly due to the weather. No numbers are available yet from the hotels, but she is also expecting accommodation numbers to be down roughly 10 per cent overall vs. 2009.
"We're not wildly happy about the (accommodation numbers) we're seeing because we've always strived to go up as opposed to down, but all things considered we're pretty happy," she said.
The Olympic Games impacted the festival in several ways, she added, although that wasn't the whole story.
"When we look at the Olympics purely from a festival perspective it was mostly a story of challenges," she said. "When we went out into the sponsorship market we repeatedly heard the words that the money they had targeted for the west in the first quarter (of 2010) was all heading towards Olympic activations and hosting and such."
The Games also had an impact on the music lineup as many of the top acts currently on tour played in Vancouver and Whistler during the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics and the festival did not want to book the same musical acts. As well, the decision to run nightly Fire and Ice shows during the Games led the WSSF organizers to cancel the World Skiing Invitational big air competition this year, yielding centre stage in the village to the Orage Masters instead - a decision that was welcomed by the Orage Masters organizers.
Aside from the various direct Olympic impacts Eckersley said the economy in general continues to be an obstacle for attracting visitors and sponsors, although the festival's core sponsors did come through with full funding and have indicated an interest in participating again next year.
Eckersley also says the idea that people were too "festival-ed out" to take in the WSSF was all wrong.
"Some people were talking about people being partied-out, and there was this idea that locals wouldn't come out and support the (WSSF) events as they had in the past because they were tired out from past events, but that didn't come to fruition," she said. "Locals were out supporting these events as usual, and to be honest there were some new local faces out there of a different generation that we might not have seen at past events.
"My thought on that is that some of these people came out during the Olympics and got into the spirit of getting out there and, for lack of a better word, partying, and being engaged in events happening in the community, and they enjoyed it."
For that reason the music selection was designed to appeal to a wider age demographics, Eckersley said, which showed in the crowds at the free concerts.
As for ticket sales, Watermark is very satisfied with the numbers.
The Sunday, April 18 premiere of the mountain bike movie Follow Me was completely sold out. The 3P0 multimedia showcase on Monday did not sell out, but ticket sales were up 25 per cent over last year when the event debuted. The display space was doubled in size as well and Eckersley expects it to sell out next year.
Both the Columbia 72 Hour Filmmaker Showdown and Olympus Pro Photographer Showdown sold out a week earlier than last year, with the Pro Photographer event completely booked up more than three weeks out from the event. The organizers held aside 50 tickets for each event to sell at the box office, and there were lineups for several hours to snap those up.
The organizers made the decision to keep the price the same as last year, although the Filmmaker Showdown ticket did go up $2 in order to increase the prize money for participants.
The Second Cuts event, which showed the top films a second time, also sold more than 50 per cent more tickets than last year.
The Schick Fashion Exposed event came within 100 tickets of selling out, despite the larger venue, and sold more tickets than last year.
The End all night party sold out at the door this year.
As for the free events, Eckersley said the spectator turnout to the superpipe events on Blackcomb Mountain was larger than last year and she believes the turnout to the free concerts was at least on par with past events. She is still waiting for the RCMP to estimate the crowd for the Grenade Games Grand Finale, but expects those numbers to be similar to last year as well.
"Attendance from the event perspective was really strong and we're really excited about that," said Eckersley. "The weather always has an impact in terms of accommodation numbers for us, and while it didn't seem to be as busy in the village mid-week on the weekends it certainly felt like we had that energy coursing through the village that people associate with the festival."
Given the relative strength of the festival with all the other issues at stake, Eckersley says long-term success will ultimately depend on the involvement of sponsors.
"Despite the great success we had with ticket sales, and exceeding our projections for money from ticket sales, that only accounts for eight per cent of the revenue needed to put on the festival, so the remaining 92 per cent is from sponsors," said Eckersley. "There is a misconception that we get money from Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb, and that's not the case. It's Telus, it's GM (General Motors and Chevrolet), it's Olympus, it's Coke, it's Monster, it's Kokanee, it's Dose.ca and all the other sponsors that make this possible. The majority of festival events are free, so we're largely at the mercy of the big companies and what they want to do to support these events.
"One thing that was missing this year were all the small tents in the village handing out samples. Those are smaller sponsors, but when you add it up it's a lot of money that goes to the festival. We're fairly confident in our major sponsors (returning next year) and that our smaller sponsors will be back next year as well now that the Games are over."
Next year has strong potential for several reasons, says Eckersley. For one thing, the second weekend of the 2011 festival will overlap with Easter holidays, which will increase the number of long-term visitors coming to the resort. For another, Whistler is expected to benefit from the increased exposure of the Olympics in terms of marketing. As well, Eckersley says there are signs that the economy is improving.
The festival was originally created 15 years ago to drive visitors to the resort at the end of the season. For the most part Eckersley says it's accomplished that goal, leveraging roughly $3 million of additional marketing at the end of the season.
"People might come for the festival, or they might come before or after the festival," she said. "The festival gets Whistler into people's heads at a time of the year when they might not be thinking about skiing."
She said the value of the festival is recognized by the resort, and supported by hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses. "This is something that is truly owned by the community and embraced by the community, and as long as that is the case there is nothing that can be thrown at the festival that can't be overcome."
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