It's quiet on a Thursday afternoon at Watermark headquarters. The shades are drawn and the event management company employees are slumped over their computers, finalizing details for the 2011 Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival.
But it's quiet in here. A little too quiet, it would seem, for an office tasked with throwing Whistler's biggest annual event in only two weeks.
"We had the volunteer recruitment party last night," says Jess Smith, Watermark's communications manager. "It was probably the biggest turnout we've ever had for volunteers."
She says a bulk of this year's 280 volunteers showed up to the GLC for the event, which meant a big ol' party and that explains the mellowed vibe in the office. Hangovers will do that, but Smith assures that it's not normally like this. No, the pressure has been on, and is on. Like, right now.
"It doesn't look like it but everyone's keeping it internalized," she says. "This is a bummer free zone, see?" She points to cardboard sign on the floor that had fallen from its post on the wall, with "Bummer Free Zone" scrawled in black Sharpie. No one has had the time to pick it up.
Now in it's 16th year, the 2011 Ski and Snowboard Festival will likely be the biggest and certainly the most hyped. The Pro Photo Showdown and 72 Hour Film Competition sold out five weeks before the festival even started. The films to be shown will feature some of the best athletes from around the world. And some are saying the free outdoor music line up, featuring Broken Social Scene, Black Mountain and Tokyo Police Club, is the best it has ever been.
In many ways, TWSSF is as much about the culture as it is about the sport.
"There's an irony in calling it the Telus World Ski and Snowboard festival because there's so much more to it now," says Sue Eckersley, Watermark president and executive director of the festival.
Eckersley has helped organize the festival for 12 years and has been executive director for five, when Whistler Blackcomb hired Watermark to manage the event. In the early days, the festival was ski and snowboard specific, with two thirds of the budget reserved for sports contests. The Pro Photo Showdown was conceived fourteen years ago as way to showcase the sport, not the art itself, and was first on the chopping block if budgets were tight.
But as snowboard companies' revenues dropped and there was less money to throw around, festival organizers had to target new sponsors. A growth of the festival's arts and culture offerings became a method of survival.
Now it's bigger than ever, with 10 core staff, most of them under 30 years old, managing nearly 300 volunteers, 300 media, and the nearly 300 people that make up sponsorship marketing teams setting up tents around the Village. And then there's booking music acts, organizing the arts competitions and the awards and the prizes and the parties and on and on. It's a months-long process that demands the cooperation of everyone in the office and beyond.
"It's this world class event but at the same time it's a community event as well," Eckersley says. " There are so many people who are a part of this event and have been a part of this event and there is so much that goes on behind the scenes... that it's something that is very unique."
As a community event everyone at Watermark has to interact with the town's major players -the RMOW, Tourism Whistler, and so on.
"We always say right before the event that we're throwing a big party," says Jasmine Robinson, the festival's creative director. "It's a big town party and everyone loves it and everyone has fun."
The festival is also an important economic driver for the resort at a time when it shoulder-season blues are setting in.
A third-party report done in 2006, the most recent available, showed the festival brought $21.3 million to Whistler.
Arlene Schieven says the festival has been vital to extending the ski season and in previous years has had a positive impact on visitors' overall impressions of Whistler.
"It is responsible for our success in April," she says. "Occupancy on the weekend nights averages around 70 per cent and higher even in some other years. We've had weekends where it's been near 80 per cent, and that's really, really strong for the end of the ski season and that speaks volumes to the importance of the festival."
The arts and music offerings play a huge part in that as well, as they attract a demographic that may have little or no interest in the sports component.
"In our research, we've found that the number one influence for why people come to the festival is the music," Eckersley says.
The calibre of acts completely depends on sponsorship dollars. Ninety-three per cent of the festival's revenues are made up of sponsorship dollars and while some years have been loaded with funds, other years, particularly in 2010, have been more challenging. Following the Olympics, many sponsors and media had already visited Whistler once and Watermark found it more challenging than other years to draw them back out.
"That may be why there's a renewed interest this year," Smith says. "A lot of people missed out last year. This year it's just exploded again."
Three days before the festival is set to kick Watermark is tracking numbers 41-per cent higher than 2010 and 19-per cent higher than 2009.
Smith says, "People are back being interested, coupled with the amazing snow. It's a PR piece made in heaven."
Schieven agrees, noting, "There has been a lot attention on Whistler so it was a tougher one last year. I think that we're seeing a whole new level of interest this year, almost like we're benefiting from the lower interest last year. It has translated into higher interest for this year."
But the TWSSF is more than just a revenue generator and more than just a Whistler festival.
Mayor Ken Melamed believes it's a flagship event to showcase international mountain culture innovation, all of which is contained within one of the leading edge mountain towns in the world.
"I heard this from one of the big sports manufacturers, they say 'Y'know, really, we should have our head offices here in Whistler because this is where so much of the innovation is happening," says Melamed.
"So many pro skiers, snowboarders and innovators are based here and they're really creating the industry. They're shaping the industry around the world."
And when it's over?
Well, the media head home. The sponsors migrate somewhere else. The volunteers rack up their free swag and go back to normal life.
And the Watermark people, they sleep. They hide away for a few days before emerging, crawling back to the office where the stress and hustle had overtaken their lives, to sit quietly at a desk with a phone no longer ringing off the hook. They'll write a few concluding reports for sponsors, ask some questions, settle their brains and rejuvenate for the next big go around.
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