It was unquestionably a good summer. Buoyed by good weather in July and August, and driven by premier festivals, Tourism Whistler (TW) anticipates summer 2012 to be the third best on record.
Some of this success can be linked to the $2.68 million Festivals, Events and Animation (FE&A) program, which included summer-long concerts, street animation and other cultural events. While it's difficult to quantify, it at least appears that the RMOW has reached its intended goals of enhancing visitor experience (TW says it's so, based on visitor surveys) and driving incremental room nights.
The bustle in the village is due, in part, to the festivals Whistler played host to...but is the money being spent correctly? Jane Milner, managing director of the Whistler Film Festival, says the RMOW should consider aligning its funding policies with those of the provincial and federal governments, which only provide funding to not-for-profit organizations.
Milner says the issue is the RMOW is assisting for-profit (Wanderlust, GranFondo) organizations in the execution of their festivals through augmentation grants. None of this money was used to offset or recoup festival debts or expenditures, yet the augmentation is still used to drive the success of the festival.
Milner argues that the money given to Wanderlust, a for-profit organization based in New York, is problematic because the money does not stay in Whistler.
"They come, they make the profit, they leave," Milner says. "The profit doesn't stay in the community, for one thing, and if they grow, they may or may not choose to come back. It's more valuable for the resort to invest in things that are ours."
Milner, formerly the B.C. assistant deputy minister of arts and culture, says the same revenue streams are not available to not-for-profits as they are to for-profit or private business, which is why governments offer these subsidies in the first place.
"If you look at the BC Arts Council or the Canada Council of the Arts, or any of the arts councils across the country, to qualify for that kind of grant, you have to be a not-for-profit. If you look at Western Economic Diversification, the Cultural Heritage Spaces grant, those capital grants, it has to go to a not-for-profit and not a for-profit organization," she says. "This is something that we don't even seem to be aware of.
"We should be very aware when we go outside (the status quo)," Milner continues. "I'm not one to be such a stickler for the rules but I want to know when I'm breaking them. I want to know when I'm pushing the envelope. For us, it might be a good thing but when you read through the criteria (for RMI funding for local organizations), it's exactly the opposite. If this organization can't be self-sustaining, then we're less interested in investing in it, which is the opposite of what the standard across Canada is."
Of the $2.68 million 2012 FE&A budget, $475,000 was earmarked for augmenting existing festivals: $125,000 was given to the upcoming Whistler Film Festival, $100,000 was given to Wanderlust, $100,000 to Crankworx Whistler, $75,000 to GranFondo, $45,000 to the Children's Arts Festival and $35,000 to the upcoming Cornucopia.
Another $55,000 was been given to startup festivals, including $34,000 to the upcoming Spirit Within Festival and $5,000 for the Readers and Writers Festival.
The money has been a boon for both local and out of town festival organizers. The downside is the RMI funds have created a sort of class system of local events, with the Oversight Committee as the panel judges. Intentionally or not, the amount of money given equates the cultural and social worth of the festival to the town.
William Roberts, founder of the Intercultural Festival (which received $5,000 of the $20,000 that Roberts had asked for), there's a preference for "party" and "lifestyle" types of events, which he argues is made obvious through the large sums of RMI money given to them.
Comparatively, he says very little attention has been paid to the Intercultural Festival or the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, both of which are committed to the continued learning and advancement of Whistler culture and society at large.
"Since these are public funds, they should be well-stewarded to have a long-term impact, and I say a social or cultural benefit," Roberts says. "I guess my concern is how much of it is going to match corporate money so people can just kind of have a good time," he says.
He points to the Aspen Ideas Festival as a model for what he hopes the Intercultural Festival can become — an intergenerational festival that brings the general public together with leading and high profile thinkers to engage in "socially meaningful" activity.
The Writers Festival and the Intercultural Festival both have plans to move beyond their current incarnations, to add more speakers and forums to the mix. They need more funds to do so. The Writers Festival received only $4,000 of its requested $25,000 to help pay for its expansion.
Councillor Roger McCarthy, who sits on the RMI Oversight Committee, says organizations received money based on the proposals submitted, outlining the economic benefits for the community and the potential growth for the festival.
"A big piece of it comes from the request," McCarthy says. "It can't just come with, 'We need $1,000, $10,000 or $100,000.' It's got to come with some sort of proposal that financially we can look at and say, 'Is this going to get it done?' And I can tell you in some cases, we might give more than what's requested if we think the potential is great, that we can grow this thing on a longer-term basis."
He adds, "There's a balance there, where you ask how we measure success. Is success measured by room nights? OK, that's one measure. What about the cultural diversity of the community? How do we measure that? How do we look to enhance or support cultural diversity, not just in the community, but in the region?"
He admits that the funding decisions were rushed, along with booking talent and everything else FE&A-related, because the province handed down the RMI funds so close to the summer season.
"The thing was a scramble from the beginning and the meetings that we had went (very long)," McCarthy says. "A hell of a lot of work went in from the people who sat on the committee. I think we did the best we could, given the time available."
The Resort Municipality Initiative-funded FE&A program is designed to ultimately eliminate spring and fall shoulder seasons through robust cultural programming. It's actually quite a diverse program, composed of various arts and cultural components, of which music is the most visible. It has set the base for what the village can and, if all goes to plan, will look and feel like throughout the year.
Louise Walker, Tourism Whistler's vice president of marketing and strategic planning says FE&A has driven a fair bit of "energy and traffic" through social media channels, which in turn has driven traffic to the TW website, which then turns people on to Whistler. In August, nearly 8,000 people viewed a single Wanderlust image.
Through visitor surveys, Walker says TW has found that the summer program has also "definitely" enhanced the visitor experience.
"Our hope is that if you have a good experience you'll go in and tell your friends about it and you're more likely to return. It's a long-term strategy there," Walker says.
"(But) it's a little more complex than to say that numbers were up and that was a result of one thing that we did. There's a multitude of things, like what's happening next year, what the weather, what's happening at our competitive resorts."
McCarthy says that both the FE&A and RMI Oversight Committees are planning and making decisions with the under understanding that FE&A, and Whistler's entire cultural development, is very much a work in progress.
"It takes three years to build an event," McCarthy says. "You don't just pull it out of the box and throw it at the wall and there it is. It takes three years for it to become something."
He says that the committee will be meeting in the next few weeks to review what worked this summer, what didn't, and how they can start planning for next year.
The RMOW has made a commitment to start planning for the 2013 FE&A program in November, without secured RMI funding. McCarthy says they're already thinking about next year's concert series and how to maximize visitors.
"We've already made the commitment to set aside a certain amount of money to get rolling, then we can get out and book bigger names that will attract people from a further distance," he says.
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