New-look Whistler Pride festival wraps with strong attendance numbers 

Tourism Whistler confirms December room nights on par with last year

click to enlarge PHOTOBY JACKSON PHOTOGRAFIX / WWW.GAYWHISTLER.COM - stride of pride Festival producer Dean Nelson, right, holds the rainbow flag with Rick Leonovich of the Vancouver Pride Society during the annual Pride March as part of Whistler Pride and Ski Festival.
  • photoby Jackson Photografix / www.gaywhistler.com
  • stride of pride Festival producer Dean Nelson, right, holds the rainbow flag with Rick Leonovich of the Vancouver Pride Society during the annual Pride March as part of Whistler Pride and Ski Festival.

With a new name, look and major sponsor, 2015 marked a huge step forward for the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival.

The LGBT ski week, Jan. 24 to 31, welcomed attendees from 26 countries for its annual celebration of diversity that combined sports, food, wellness, music, comedy and other cultural events.

Rebranded as the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival this year, North America's longest-running gay ski festival saw a spike in midweek attendance bolstered by a comedy show headlined by acclaimed Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho.

Organizers were able to secure Cho thanks to $25,000 in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funds. In years past, the festival wasn't able to book a headlining act because of the municipality's budget timeline, but staff rearranged its schedule to release funds in September.

Nelson believes the money helped bring a new title sponsor into the fold.

"It was really significant because we were able to grab the attention of TD (Bank)," Nelson said. "Without that funding, we probably wouldn't have had those conversations with them."

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who attended two festival events and proclaimed Pride Week at last Thursday's banquet, said it's clear Whistler Pride brings significant economic spinoff to the resort; a 2012 report found that it contributed a $4.6-million industry output in the province and a $2.4-million impact in Whistler. But the event's true value comes in its spirit of acceptance, she added.

"Those of us who live here take it for granted that we are inclusive," the mayor said. "But when I get the response that I got last week from people who don't experience that in their hometowns, cities or countries, you realize it really is a celebration of inclusivity."

Despite strong attendance contributing to a near-capacity resort — Tourism Whistler (TW) confirmed occupancy levels were above 90 per cent during the festival's first weekend — Nelson estimated a drop in skier visits this year due to poor weather conditions.

"The one thing that is for certain is that we do need to look at the festival offerings and see if there are other opportunities for us to create some type of programming that isn't weather sensitive," he said. "Is it going to be a conference? Is it going to be a sporting event? We don't know, but we do know that we can't rely on the ski product alone."

A lack of reliable snowfall hasn't hampered visitation numbers so far this winter, with Tourism Whistler confirming a slight increase in destination visits, particularly from the U.S. and European markets.

Recently finalized figures from the month of December were nearly identical to the same month in 2013 during Whistler's strongest winter on record, thanks in part to Tourism Whistler's advanced booking push. Ninety-two per-cent of December's room nights were booked before the start of the month, which "speaks to our whole strategy around advanced bookings," said TW's vice president of strategic planning Louise Walker, who was not concerned with the resort's poor weather this season.

"The early season was a little challenging, but with the snowmaking facilities and the amount of acres we have in the high alpine, it's still an amazing experience," she said. "The thing to remember is we have one of the longest (ski) seasons in North America and we consistently have high levels of snow. Our impressions are that (visitors from) our destination markets are having a fantastic time on the hill. There's great skiing and lots of acreage open."

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