With no title sponsor, event producer Watermark Communications had to overcome some funding challenges in producing the 19th rendition of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) this year.
But you'd never notice judging from the hustle and bustle of activity throughout the festival's opening days, which drew thousands of people wanting to take part in North America's largest annual gathering of winter sports, music, art and culture.
"I think if you look at the last two festivals that had no title sponsor, it is functionally the exact same event that we've seen year after year," said Watermark president Sue Eckersley. "We're going to just keep working hard and making it happen because that's what we've done for 19 years."
The biggest draw of the opening weekend was Saturday night's (April 12) Monster Energy Shred Show big air slopestyle contest, with North Bay, Ont. native Max Eberhardt taking home the win and the $15,000 top prize. The signature event drew over 10,000 spectators, Eckersley estimated, and was one of the finest groups of riders ever assembled, she said.
Leading into the contest was a full day of free concerts held at Skier's Plaza, with Whistler's favourite hip hop group, Animal Nation, kicking things off. Rapper Prevail of multi-Juno winners Swollen Members — WSSF regulars by this point — was joined by his nephew, Neph, to rock the stage. This was capped by Long Island rap icons, De La Soul, who dug into their extensive 25-year catalogue to delight the diverse Skier's Plaza crowd. Eckersley estimated more than 7,500 were in attendance for the free show.
Friday, April 11 marked the opening gala of WSSF's State of the ART exhibit at the Whistler Conference Centre, which drew over 800 attendees and featured work from over 50 local, national and international artists. State of the ART curator Kevani Macdonald said art sales have been on par with last year so far, and that affordable items like prints and jewelry have been selling extremely well.
"It went amazingly. We had a full house and lots of excited people looking at lots of great art," she said. "It was a good start for sure."
Whistler Chamber of Commerce president Val Litwin said village restaurants and bars, especially around Skier's Plaza, are seeing packed patios, and with retailers reporting high traffic over the first half of the festival, this explained why it's such an integral part of the resort's event calendar.
"You have this critical mass of people moving through the village, and they get hungry and thirsty and want to buy mementos to remember their time here," he said. "It's a unique world-class experience, so that alone just creates a special kind of energy. We wouldn't want to lose that energy let alone the economic benefits that come from it."
General manager of Pan Pacific Whistler, Lloyd Daser, also wrote in an email to Litwin that the hotel's mountain-facing rooms are in high demand, and Pan Pacific property Dubh Linn Gate has benefited greatly "due to the views from our patio and increased volume from people in Skier's Plaza."
Another business owner with a prime position near the festival's main stage is Wayne Katz, who owns Zogs and Lift Coffee Company by Skier's Plaza, as well as Gone Bakery and Moguls in the village. He estimated that business was up about 20 per cent at all of his establishments over opening weekend except Gone, which he put at a 10 per cent bump.
With no title sponsor on the banner for the second year in a row, Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb stepped up to help fund the festival, and local bar and restaurant owner Joey Gibbons kicked in $50,000 at the last minute to keep next week's skiing big air contest alive. Watermark is currently in talks with "a couple of big companies" interested in a potential title sponsorship, revealed Eckersley, who said even if a sponsor is not acquired next year, the festival will not be scaled back.
"If anything the last two years have proven, this property is sustainable no matter what. We lost a third of our budget in the last two years, and yet have we lost a third of the programming? Absolutely not," she said of the festival's budget declining from $1.8 million in 2012, to $1.2 million this year.
"This is a passion for us, and when you get something that's based on passion as opposed to dollars, it's what you see last year and what you see this year: It's going to come out the way it always has, because people are going to find ways to do it," Eckersley added.
The World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs until Sunday, April 20. Visit www.wssf.com for more information.
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