Businesses and charities reap benefits from WSSF 

'Heart and soul' of community stronger than ever

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE HUMPHRIES COURTESY OF WSSF - The end Preliminary numbers suggest the 2014 World Ski and Snowboard Festival may have broken its record for the most hotel rooms sold over the festival's history.
  • Photo by Dave Humphries courtesy of WssF
  • The end Preliminary numbers suggest the 2014 World Ski and Snowboard Festival may have broken its record for the most hotel rooms sold over the festival's history.

Preliminary numbers suggest the 2014 World Ski and Snowboard Festival may have broken its record for the most hotel rooms sold over the festival's history.

And that's with one of the tightest budgets in its history.

Festival data dates back 14 years in the 19 years that the festival has been transforming once-dreary April to an end-of-season celebration of music, art and sport.

"I would (hazard) to say that's the best ever," said organizer Sue Eckersley of the early indications in room nights sold in the 10-day time period.

She said the strategy of putting popular musical acts, such as De La Soul and Sneaky Sound System on the first weekend paid off in spreading the word.

"It definitely felt very, very busy."

Tourism Whistler's hotel data will not be officially released until the third week of May, but the early figures point to good results, boosted by the Easter break falling over the festival's second weekend.

Coming into the festival, room nights were pacing well ahead of the previous year with growth in occupancy on each day of the festival. April, as a whole is pacing ahead of last year, as is May.

"The festival remains critical to Whistler's economy and drives visitation to the resort at a time that would otherwise be much quieter," said James Buttenshaw, Tourism Whistler's director of planning and partnerships.

Those busy room nights translated to good business elsewhere.

"We're very, very happy with what happened on the mountain," said Whistler Blackcomb's Stuart Rempel, vice president of marketing and sales. WB does not share skier visit numbers, or how much it financially supports the festival, though it is likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The festival also had the biggest physical footprint this year, stretching from one end of the village, Whistler Olympic Plaza, to the base of the mountains.

"People were spread out a lot more than they have been in the past," said Eckersley.

On top of that, more than $25,000 was raised for charities — another festival record.

Whistler RCMP Sgt. Rob Knapton had a hand in that, alone raising roughly $4,500 for the Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event. That's more than half the total money raised for the Howe Sounds Women's Centre in support of violence against women.

"I think it's a great thing they're raising money for," said Knapton, who walked in his red high heels and RCMP uniform. "It's something that's always there and probably needs more awareness."

If charities reaped the rewards of a busy 10-day festival, so too did local businesses.

Joey Gibbons, who put up $50,000 to save the Big Air on the last Saturday when he officially launched Gibbons Life (see related story page 23), said his five bars and clubs also saw good numbers and business.

"I think it was our best festival as well, as long we we've been measuring it," said Gibbons. "We got a lot of support from the community, a lot of support from businesses, a lot of support from the festival itself. It was unbelievable."

On a personal note, Gibbons said it was the positive vibe permeating town that really struck a chord with him.

"People weren't finding reasons to poke holes in it," said Gibbons. "I really felt like there was that sense of community back in Whistler. There's still so much heart and soul in the community here; I think it's stronger than ever and a stronger festival than ever, more soul, and more local talent."

And yet, the 2014 budget is one of the tightest in its history as festival organizers continue to search for a title sponsor.

The hunt continues.

"The effort that has been going in the last two years, that's not sustainable in the long term," said Eckersley. "We do need to find more financial backing."

She pointed to the $107,000 from the municipality in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding this year.

That funding is down over the previous year and its future is uncertain.

"Some of that financial backing is still coming from the municipality and no one knows how long the FE&A program will exist and how long they will see the WSSF as a good investment and a good return on that investment," said Eckersley.

That's what makes the Gibbons investment of $50,000 so critical.

"There are a lot more ways that businesses — small, medium and large — can get involved with the festival and support it," said Rempel, saluting Gibbons and other sponsors like Monster Energy, Samsung, Labatt's, Olympus and Coca-Cola.

"Because without the festival, April would really be a lot quieter month here. You only have to go to other resorts in North America to see the value this festival brings to this resort."

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