Whistler to put RMI money on display during GranFondo 

B.C.'s small business and tourism minister to witness fifth annual ride first hand

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVID BUZZARD / WWW.DAVIDBUZZARD.COM - The fifth annual RBC GranFondo Whistler will see thousands of cyclists and their supporters in the resort this weekend.
  • Photo by David Buzzard / www.davidbuzzard.com
  • The fifth annual RBC GranFondo Whistler will see thousands of cyclists and their supporters in the resort this weekend.

Whistler will be showing off the multi-million dollar return on its $65,000 investment into the RBC GranFondo Whistler this weekend.

It has invited Naomi Yamamoto, provincial minister of state for tourism and small business, to attend Saturday's fifth annual cycling event, in which thousands of riders will pedal 122 kilometres up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to the resort.

The invitation underscores just how critical Whistler views its $6 million-plus Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding, which flows from the province to boost tourism in the resort, and just how important it is to show the province the money at work.

"(It's) exactly what they intended us to use it for," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden of the GranFondo event.

This is the fifth year Whistler has invested in the event, from a peak of $130,000 in 2011 to the current $65,000. This year's funding is targeted at expanding the event with a family focus, via the Family Fundo kids' race that has been relocated from Vancouver to Whistler, and with new races within the race such as the Pursuit Challenge. Both the Family Fundo and Pursuit Challenge will take place Sunday morning, part of the organizers' goal to make the event a weekend-long celebration rather than a one-day event.

Three years ago, an Economic Impact Assessment report showed the GranFondo generated $8.2 million in economic activity in B.C., $2.7 million of which was in Whistler.

"We've got an investment in the GranFondo and it comes from our RMI monies, so we thought it would be an appropriate event for (Yamamoto) to see from that perspective," said Wilhelm-Morden. "Plus, it is one of the larger outdoor sports activities that occurs here in Whistler, and from the organizational aspect it's interesting and really quite informative to see."

Wilhelm-Morden will be at the start line in Vancouver and will fly up Howe Sound, taking in the thousands of road riders racing up the highway from the air.

"It's unbelievable," said the mayor of the bird's eye view, which she experienced two years ago too. "Because we flew right up the Sound and you could see the lead races out in front and the hordes in behind. It was really interesting."

Meanwhile, resort residents and businesses are being encouraged to plan ahead for the event's return. The GranFondo has become a late-summer staple on the local events calendar, and one that brings deep-pocketed guests to town during a traditionally slow period.

That's good news for Whistler businesses, said Whistler Chamber of Commerce's CEO, Val Litwin.

"We know our GranFondo guest is in the sweet spot for Whistler," he said. "We know they like to spend money when they're up here in the resort, and they're certainly going to stay here for a couple of days.

"They're the kind of guests that, post-race, want to enjoy what the resort has to offer, so we love the GranFondo and we love the riders that come up with it."

Several thousand cyclists will make a 122-kilometre ride up the Sea to Sky Highway on Saturday, Sept. 6, before reaching the finish line adjacent to Whistler Olympic Plaza, and many of those participants will have family and friends in tow.

So with that in mind, Litwin said the Chamber is making a few suggestions to local businesses to help them capitalize on the high volumes of visitors that will arrive for the weekend.

For hotels, that means being prepared for greater demand in health, wellness and bicycle storage services; for retailers, it means putting cycling gear and activewear front and centre in displays.

But no matter what sector of the industry they're in, Litwin said being prepared for an influx of customers will be vital over the next few days.

"Obviously, we're in a bit of a labour crunch right now. No doubt, every business has already considered this, but be very proactive about your staffing this weekend," he said.

"At the end of the day, let's make sure we provide a memorable guest service experience to everyone."

As part of the event, cyclists will once again have at least one full lane of highway closed for them, so traffic flow on Highway 99 to Whistler will see some delays during Saturday's ride.

With any event that involves road closures or traffic impacts in the Sea to Sky comes a conversation about whether or not the restrictions are a good thing for the local economy. But Litwin said events like the GranFondo are a boon for Whistler business.

"It may be a little bit tricky getting around for a bit (but) we've seen this summer with events like Ironman when you have massive road closures, the impact when you get those competitors here is just phenomenal," said Litwin.

Since the inaugural GranFondo Whistler in 2010, organizers have worked hard to minimize disruptions to traffic, said GranFondo Canada president Neil McKinnon, adding that this year is no exception.

"We constantly work with the Ministry (of Transportation and Infrastructure), with Miller Capilano, with the municipalities, with police, ambulance — everybody, every year — to see how we can make things more streamlined," said McKinnon.

"We have a very robust debrief, and we have monthly meetings throughout the whole year to see how we can make things more efficient and more exciting, but less impactful."

Several vehicle access points to the highway will once again be closed off for the morning in Squamish, which has been a source of frustration for residents there in past years. McKinnon said organizers are "very grateful" for the support they've received in Squamish to allow the event to come back year after year, and that the community plays an important role for GranFondo participants.

"We understand that there are implications there, but I can assure you as I (learned) last year as a rider, when we get to Squamish and start riding past the Cheer Zones there, it's the highlight of the ride for the cyclists," said McKinnon.

A detailed list of traffic impacts created by Saturday's GranFondo is posted at www.granfondowhistler.com.

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