Festival fortunes force us to focus 

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Walking the village, shopping, enjoying our many eateries or even taking a few turns on the mountain, it is hard to imagine Whistler needs to worry about tourist numbers.

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) has drawn thousands to town with many businesses relying on the event to round out winter profits.

Indeed the importance of the festival to business became crystal clear a few weeks ago with the announcement that Joey Gibbons of the Gibbons Hospitality Group had put up $50,000 to save the Big Air competition at the base of Whistler — yes, right outside the Longhorn, a Gibbons' property.

But the spin-off from the Big Air event goes far beyond the Longhorn. The line-up at Zogs last Saturday night, as the Shred Show slopestyle and the associated concerts filled the square, was perpetual and a sign of things to come this weekend. The retail outlets buzzed with wandering visitors — an awesome village vibe. The great weather helped too.

Losing Big Air would have meant losing that traffic and some of the vibe this weekend — no doubt.

The WSSF is facing its second year without a title sponsor and, while Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb came through with funding this year, there was no sponsorship for the Big Air. The Gibbons community support saved the event — and for that Whistler owes thanks to Gibbons and his support of the community.

The WSSF budget dropped from $1.8 million in 2013 to $1.35 million this year with $135,000 coming from the Resort Municipality of Whistler through RMI funds — funds to be used for exactly this type of event, bringing visitors to the resort and highlighting the amazing offerings of our festivals and events.

Indeed these funds have helped the resort realize some real gains in the tourist market. This is not something Whistler can take for granted. None of us can take tourism for granted — or the WSSF either. This festival has grown to iconic proportions under the careful, prudent and creative stewardship of Sue Eckersley and her team, and just as Gibbons stepped up to support it, so too do other community partners.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that according to an economic impact study of the festival in 2012 the total economic activity (industry output) generated by the WSSF was $27.3 million in the province, with $14.7 million occurring in Whistler.

Of the more than 70,000 guests attending the 2012 festival, 20,000 were local, more than 33,000 were domestic and more than 17,000 were international.

Combining the attendance estimates with the average spending per person and the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance assessment concluded that visitors to the festival spend $22.5 million in Whistler.

The largest percentage of that spend at $7.2 million goes to food and drink, followed by $4.5 million on accommodation, and $3.84 on recreation and entertainment.

Impressive numbers for a festival that is driven by passion, rather than absolute dollars.

In 2012 when Telus announced that it would not renew its title sponsorship, after 13 years as the top dog, there was a collective gasp — but the last two years have shown us that the festival is much more than the name on the banner.

The dollar value of the sponsorship agreement was "significant," and with Canada in a recession at the time Telus made its decision, finding a new sponsor has been challenging.

And the fact that habit often finds us still calling the event, "the Telus festival," probably doesn't help. Any new sponsor wants to make sure that brand equity or association is gone before taking over.

But really, what a great event to be associated with. Drink companies, automotive brands and others have an amazing opportunity to reach these visitors over multiple days in a focused environment.

And it's not just about the numbers though they are impressive in their own right — the festival comes with bragging rights that few festivals can boast in the world of sliding on snow.

For the next few days let's revel in the art, culture and entertainment of the WSSF.

But let's not loose sight of the fact that like all events it can be affected by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," and we all have a role to play in keeping it strong, vibrant and successful.

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