By Loreth Beswetherick
The official Tourism Whistler numbers are not in yet but the HSBC Whistler WinterStart Festival organizers are hailing the 10-day event as a record-breaking success.
Preliminary feedback is showing the festival helped attract an unseasonal number of guests to the resort. "We’ve had a very favourable response to the festival so far from the public, local businesses and sponsors alike," said festival managing director Doug Perry.
He said skier visits increased by 15 per cent over Whistler/Blackcomb’s projected figures and hotel occupancy was up in what is traditionally a slow time of year.
Tourism Whistler’s vice president of sales and marketing, Barrett Fisher, said the occupancy statistics during the WinterStart period Dec. 3-12, have not yet been compiled. Perry said, however, that while festival organizers will have to wait until month’s end for those stats, they do have an immediate read on skier visit numbers.
Whistler’s core commercial committee will be evaluating the WinterStart period at their next meeting, slated for the first week of January. Committee member Dave Davenport said the group will also be gathering feedback on business over the Christmas and New Year’s period but WinterStart will likely be at the top of the agenda.
He noted retail business, depending on the outlet, generally starts picking up on weekends in the first week of December. From the second week it starts to strengthen on weekdays as well and from there it grows stronger every day closer to Christmas week. It’s generally from around Dec. 6 locals start sticking their noses into the village, he said.
Davenport said it is difficult to gauge the actual effect of an event like WinterStart until you don’t have a festival. "But it certainly doesn’t hurt."
WinterStart was created by the board of the W5 Whistler Foundation following the cancellation of the 1997 World Cup downhill and super G. Organizers were looking to build a festival around season-opening ski races that would also provide a means to sell sponsorships, something the W5 Foundation couldn’t do with the ski races. They turned to Perry and his example of success in creating the World Ski and Snowboard Festival which takes place each April. The inaugural WinterStart, held in 1998, was deemed a success even though the two World Cup ski races planned to kick off the 10-day festival were cancelled. Feedback from businesses was encouraging and there was an increase in room nights sold.
It was decided after the 1998 festival that Christmas shopping in Whistler would be one of the pitches in selling the event to Vancouver and Seattle residents in the hopes of further boosting shoulder season business. Perry said shopping was only part of the promotional blurb sent out for this year’s event.
"The message was there are 101 different things to do in Whistler... everything from snowmobiling to cross-country skiing to Christmas shopping. It was promoted as one of many things you can do."
While snow in the valley was a little scant for cross-country skiing, Perry said about 1,700 visitors to the resort were surveyed during this year’s festival and there was a high level of satisfaction. He said an overwhelming majority indicated they intended to return next year.
Powder Resort Properties and the Coast Whistler Hotel both reported an increase in occupancy numbers during the festivities. "We definitely saw an increase in occupancy, particularly towards the second half of the week," said Camilla Say, marketing manager for Powder. "We have been working with festival organizers for the past two years and I felt they did a sterling job. I am thrilled with the results this year."
Bruce Weinberg, general manager of the Coast Whistler Hotel was also upbeat. "The festival definitely helped increase our occupancy numbers, especially on weekends when we were sold out," he said. "We had staff from our head office in Dallas visiting the resort and they were amazed at the levels of activity in the village in early December."
The Wintertainment concert series attracted large crowds on the bookend weekends. Promotions and entertainment manager Kristin Robinson said she has rarely seen the village so alive and animated at this time of year.
"Ivana Santilli’s performance on Saturday was definitely a highlight with droves of people packed into Village Square," said Robinson. "The Coca-Cola Classic Holiday Square also saw a steady flow of guests enjoying the entertainment of local choirs, dancers and musicians."
More than 700 people also filled the Whistler Conference Centre ballroom for the Epic Visions Film Premiere Dec. 10. Promoter Chris Winter said he was very happy with attendance. "It turned out to be an eclectic cultural evening of film, poetry, music and sporting action to inspire and entertain."
About 380 volunteers helped ensure events over the 10 day period ran smoothly.