The Restaurant Association of Whistler is happy with the recent increased level of engagement with Tourism Whistler (TW) after its president and director expressed some concerns with the operation and organization of November's food and wine festival, Cornucopia.
Despite event producer Sue Eckersley of Watermark Communications estimating a doubling of ticket sales in 2013, the first year of Cornucopia's expanded 11-day schedule, local restaurateurs raised issues with what they saw as a lack of direction and engagement with the resort's dining sector.
Since the festival closed on Nov. 17, however, restaurant association president Edward Dangerfield said he's been impressed by the positive communication with Tourism Whistler and the long-term vision of the event moving forward.
"There were two problems," he said. "The first was there was a lack of dialogue between ourselves and Tourism Whistler and the second was the restaurant association wasn't organized and wasn't capable of making decisions as a group effectively."
The association now holds a directors meeting on a monthly basis that is attended by TW officials, Dangerfield said, who added that the association previously met only around four times a year.
Following the conclusion of Cornucopia, Dangerfield said association members were "blown away" by a Tourism Whistler presentation that outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the 2013 festival and the future direction of the event.
"Everyone around the table was just totally floored. It was really good to see, and you could understand why (TW officials) get the results that they do," said Dangerfield, co-owner of Alta Bistro. "I'm just impressed with how professional Tourism Whistler has been."
TW's vice president of marketing and strategic planning Louise Walker said the first step after Cornucopia was to ensure Tourism Whistler was engaging with the food sector, and admitted there were some challenges encountered ahead of this year's festival.
"One of the challenges we had was with the event planning timing, which doesn't always coincide with when the restaurant community is available to meet us," she said.
Cornucopia was extended from five to 11 days in its 18th year, adding a second weekend to the schedule and more than 100 new events. The long-term goal for Tourism Whistler is to build the festival's reputation up as a major attraction for destination visitors, a key economic boon for resort business, according to findings in last year's municipal Economic Partnership Initiative report.
A major point of concern for the restaurant association, and one that a small number of restaurateurs still hold, Dangerfield said, was that out-of-town visitors were not drawn to mid-week events without high-profile culinary personalities included in the programming.
Recent discussions have centred around trying to attract more esteemed winemakers to Cornucopia in an effort to draw visitors from outside of Whistler, Dangerfield said, which will require ongoing engagement with the resort's restaurant community.
"The reason I think people would come up mid-week is if there's an impressive winemaker or winery in town. People are fanatical about wine and they'll drive from Vancouver to come and taste back vintages from a top producer in Burgundy or Italy," he said, adding that wineries are more likely to be interested in participating in the festival if they can partner with local restaurants, as they tend to be their largest clients.
"You have to have engagement with the restaurants to get the wineries, and if you get the wineries, the people will come," Dangerfield added.
Although the dialogue has not included Watermark as of yet, Dangerfield said association members all commended the event producer's ability to organize Cornucopia events at the Whistler Conference Centre. He did acknowledge that there needs to be a position established for an individual who can liaise with all three event partners to further facilitate a successful festival.
"I think all parties agree that there needs to be a person that understands food and wine, marketing at a high level, and event organization and planning so they can interact between all three organizations," Dangerfield said, who added that it's yet to be determined whether the position would be filled at Watermark or Tourism Whistler. He's hopeful the new position will be in place by next year's event.
After Cornucopia concluded, association director and Mexican Corner general manager, Pepe Barajas, highlighted the need for an overhauled online booking system for future festivals. He said at the time that the system was not user friendly and that the website occasionally indicated that events were sold out when there were still tickets available.
"We're definitely looking at various options on how to make the booking system work better for restaurants," Walker said.
Recent engagement has also resulted in talks exploring ways to improve TW's Dine In Whistler program, which provides guests with special offers and promotions that showcase the resort's food scene. TW is currently discussing ways to expand the program to include other activities in the package, like golf, zip-trekking and spa retreats, according to Dangerfield.
Financial data from this year's Cornucopia is still being compiled, according to TW.
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