Summer research buoys festivals program 

VSO, Wanderlust, Crankworx prompt significant growth in room nights

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Municipal investment into festivals and events is paying off according to the latest research, giving credence to the multi-million program which has been under the microscope.

Room nights are up for the summer's festivals events, and while other factors may have played a role in the increase — namely the sunny weather — the research also suggests the municipal investment is making a difference, too.

Tuesday's council meeting included a report from John Rae, manager of strategic alliances, on the $2.68 million Festival, Events & Animation program funded by provincial Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) monies.

The hit of the summer, he said, was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at Whistler Olympic Plaza for two free shows.

"That was the bullseye, the homerun, whatever metaphor we want to use," said Rae. "It had a direct impact on room nights."

With the VSO whetting Whistler's musical palette this summer, discussions are underway for a future expansion, and it would appear the sky is the limit.

Rae mentioned the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its summer home of Tanglewood, Massachusetts. The BSO played there one summer in 1937; it's now the symphony's 75-year-old summer home.

Tanglewood is what Whistler wants to be to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The municipality is looking at sponsorship opportunities with VSO partners and ticketed performances at Millennium Place for the future.

Rae also pointed to third party events that the municipality pumped up with FE&A augmentation funds — $475,000 in total of the $2.6 million budget.

Crankworx, with its funding primarily focused on the first weekend of the ten-day festival, contributed to a 13 per cent increase in room night that first weekend versus the same dates in 2010 when the event also occurred in August.

Room nights for the Wanderlust event were 15 per cent up over the same weekend last year when the event did not exist.

The GranFondo road race contributed to a one per increase over 2011, a modest growth on top of a seven per cent increase in 2011 over the first year in 2010.

And finally the long-running Whistler Children's Art Festival weekend saw a jump of seven per cent in room nights over 2010, when the event last occurred in July.

Councillor Duane Jackson asked Rae if the research tested the demographics of attendees. His question was prompted by a strongly letter from Jim Davidson, owner of Whistler Village Art Gallery, who claims FE&A had a negative effect on his bottom line. Business at the 21-year-old gallery hit a 10-year lows in sales this summer.

"I have never seen a less affluent group of visitors in town than that which now makes up most of Whistler's summer tourists," he wrote. "I believe that my poor business performance was largely due to the downgrading of the Whistler brand due to our singular marketing focus on cultural tourism and festival and events."

Municipal administrator Mike Furey, however, said that events like GranFondo and Wanderlust are targeting participants with a high socioeconomic profile. Wanderlust participants, for example, are generally university educated women between 25 and 40 years old with an income between $100,000 to $150,000. Ironman and Fondo are similar.

"That's what these people who run these events and who organize them are targeting," he said.

Councillors also asked Rae about the potential of targeting Whistler's winter guests with in-resort marketing about the summer line-up. Part of the difficulty is the timeframe for booking acts — generally early in the New Year. But Rae said it's a valid point and something the Working Group is tackling.

The research is buoying municipal direction to keep investing in FE&A in 2013 and beyond; to continue free concerts while exploring sponsorship opportunities; to continue working on a strategy to develop local talent with street entertainment; and to continue to "create a fertile environment for growth" of third party events. As well the RMOW is looking at the potential for more ticketed events.

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