Pemberton Music Festival bigger and better in 2015 

Officials, businesses have few complaints

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK C. AUSTIN
  • Photo by Mark C. Austin

The biggest party of the summer came to a close this weekend, but officials aren't feeling the hangover from the Pemberton Music Festival, with mostly glowing reviews from the four-day event.

While the proceedings went off with relatively few issues, lists are already being drawn up for improvements to add next year.

At the top are more water stations and shaded areas for revellers to escape the scorching heat, while traffic patterns and security are also set to be addressed in 2016.

A new initiative to run a shuttle into the village was also a success, with local businesses reporting a considerable bump in sales.

After his festival booth and café in downtown Pemberton saw a dearth of activity in 2014, Grimm's Gourmet & Deli owner Marc Mendonca had plenty to criticize festival organizers for.

This year? He's changed his tune.

"It was absolutely a complete 180-degree turn. It was a super event," he said, estimating that sales at his booth were up 45 per cent over last year.

Part of the uptick was because Pemberton food vendors were given the option this year to choose their placement at the festival site, as opposed to being lumped together.

Many businesses in town also reported a spike in sales compared to 2014, largely due to the shuttle arranged by the Pemberton Chamber of Commerce that took attendees into town.

"When we're dumping a couple hundred kids in Pemberton every 40 minutes... there's a very significant impact to the community," said chamber president Garth Phare.

The Pemberton Valley Supermarket certainly felt that impact, with an "absolutely massive" rise in sales compared to last year's festival, said manager Mark Telford.

Visitation to Whistler was also up, with a three-per-cent bump in room night bookings, according to Tourism Whistler, although it's difficult to measure how much of that was due to the festival.

Festival producer Huka Entertainment didn't fare quite as well financially, with CEO A.J. Niland reporting that the festival lost money — although less than last year. He added that it's a normal trend for new festivals as they gain exposure and cement their place on the event calendar.

A hot ticket

Although additional water and misting stations were added this year, the tens of thousands of patrons who cycled through the site over the event's four days still struggled to beat the heat.

On Saturday, July 18, the same day the thermometer rose to 37.7 C — a record for the Spud Valley — guests took to social media to complain about the long lines at refill stations.

Dr. Sam Gutman, head of medical services, acknowledged the long waits but was satisfied with the level of water access.

"You can never have too much free water available," said Gutman, president of medical services company Rock Doc Consulting. "However, I think it was adequate and safe, but will we review the plan and improve it? Of course."

Niland said improving water and shade access is "absolutely" a top priority for next year's festival, and added that, with both the festival site and attendance expected to grow, there will naturally be more water stations in 2016.

The temperatures also resulted in a number of guests taking a dip in the nearby Lillooet River to cool off, something that had Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman concerned.

"The Lillooet (River) at this time of year is quite high and murky and it made me nervous, so it's something Huka will have to look at next year," he said, adding that he's confident organizers will address the issue. "Overall Huka has always been proactive in identifying and trying to solve problems."

Getting trashed

A photo showing the massive amounts of garbage left in the campgrounds spread like wildfire on social media, raising the ire of area residents who condemned the mess left behind.

"People are such pigs," wrote one Facebook commenter.

While acknowledging clean-up at the campsite was "a daunting task," Niland said it's par for the course for large-scale music festivals.

"It's the usual hangover," he said, adding that the bulk of the trash is removed within days of the festival's conclusion.

Some pointed out that, with the long hike from the parking lot to the campsite, it's natural that exhausted patrons would avoid the walk to trash bins onsite.

To that end, Niland said Huka is looking at ways to improve the hike, and is even considering using a horse-drawn buggie to ferry campers in.

'Shockingly low' number of major medical incidents

Medical personnel had an extremely low number of major medical issues to contend with this year.

In all, there were 1,182 patients treated at the festival's main medical tent, and countless more who sought treatment at one of the many first aid stations dotting the site.

Of those patients, only nine were sent to local hospital for additional care, and, of those, only six were festival attendees.

"It's a shockingly low number," said Gutman, who invited community groups to the event this year to offer drug- and consent-related counselling.

Between those measures and the level of integration between medical service providers, Gutman said the medical plan for an event that saw an additional 10,000 attendees this year was a model of success.

"People had tremendous access to first aid, medical and harm reduction (services), and investing in that and making that available is resulting in the small number of transports," he said. "Things happened, but they were dealt with safely and effectively on the site."

Security issues still a concern

In 2014, the festival's first year under Huka's direction, complaints arose over the lack of consistency in enforcement from the various security personnel manning the grounds.

While those quibbles seemed to have mostly died down this year, maintaining a high standard among the hundreds of security staff hired remains a concern for organizers.

"The one thing that continues to plague us is how informed the security is," Niland said. "For the most part, they're pretty well informed but it's still one of those humps we'll continually try to get over."

One security guard, 21-year-old Saul Chabot, took the opportunity to speak out about what he felt was a severe lack of training and unfair working conditions he was forced to endure.

Chabot claimed he was given little in the way of instructions from the private security company who hired him, or Huka staff.

He said he also became "overwhelmed" when droves of festivalgoers began approaching him with a flurry of questions he was not adequately prepared to answer.

The Deep Cove resident also claimed that on one particular day he waited hours for food to be delivered during his posting, and on another was given only two bathroom breaks during a 13-hour shift.

In the end, Chabot lost out on several days' pay after he was excused from work early due to heat exhaustion. He later went to a Burnaby hospital for treatment.

And while things like training and shift scheduling fall on the individual supervisors from the security companies contracted by the festival, Chabot still puts the majority of the blame on Huka for not thoroughly vetting them.

"The companies working their festival should be at a certain standard. Don't just hire three different companies and hope it works out," he said. "It just seems like they don't bother to put a lot of (money) into security because they know they can get away with things like this."

But Niland said it's provincial laws, not Huka's lack of oversight, creating challenges.

"Provincial regulations (dictate) that security guards' certification and training all comes from the certified (security) outlet. We as a festival have to give instructions through their supervisors and that has to be passed down to them," he said. "We feel a bit bound by what we can and cannot do regulation-wise and that hurts us a bit."

'Overwhelmingly positive' crowd made cops' jobs easy

On the policing side of things, Mounties reported few major incidents, with approximately 40 people arrested over the course of the event.

The vast majority of those were for public intoxication, said Whistler RCMP Sgt. Pat Mulhall, although there were 10 assaults as well, with charges being considered in several cases.

A total of 25 drug seizures were made, with one resulting in a trafficking investigation.

"The policing of the event went smoothly, with the crowd being overwhelmingly positive and peaceful," added Mulhall in a release.

Between July 16 and 21, traffic police were kept busy, with 13 vehicles impounded for speeding and seven stopped for impaired driving. Three drivers were issued an immediate roadside prohibition.

Traffic flowed relatively smoothly until Monday, July 20, when thousands of departing attendees took to Highway 99, causing significant delays. Drivers reported taking three hours to get from the festival grounds to Whistler that morning.

Niland said several options are being considered to reduce the backlog in 2016.

"One of the things we're looking at is taking control of the traffic lights in Whistler and keeping them green longer for a short period of time on the Monday so that it will help flush things out," he said.



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