Organizers of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) had plenty to celebrate following the close of the event's 21st edition this month, namely an estimated 20-per-cent bump in ticket sales.
Attendance to the 10-day celebration of snow sports and mountain culture was buoyed by unseasonably warm weather over the festival's first weekend, April 8 to 10, after the 2015 event was hampered by poor conditions and logistical challenges. Tourism Whistler confirmed the pace of room night bookings heading into the first weekend was up about four per cent over last year.
"It was a great festival for us," said WSSF executive director Sue Eckersley. "All the mountain events had great weather."
Last year organizers were forced to move the signature Gibbons Big Air event from Skier's Plaza to Blackcomb Mountain due to limited snow, leading to a major drop-off in attendance from the 15,000 or so spectators usually on-hand. The 2016 event returned to the valley after being rebranded as the Gibbons Style Session, a rail jam featuring 20 pairs of skiers and boarders teaming up to take on the same course. Eckersley said its ambiguous title allows organizers to tweak the event based on the weather conditions.
"One of the reasons Gibbons called it the Style Session is because it allows us to be flexible," she noted. "It doesn't always have to be rails, it doesn't have to be big air, it's something they can brand... and we just wait and see what Mother Nature deals us. Some years it might be biking down below — who knows?"
In a story last week in Pique, 20-year-old Whistler snowboarder Darcy Sharpe said he was happy to see a marquee snow-sports event in Skier's Plaza again because the festival was "getting a little low on the snowboarding and skiing side of things." But Eckersley said it's less a move away from athletics than it is being adaptable to shifting conditions year-to-year.
"In the 21 years of the festival, things will ebb and flow based on what things are working and what things are new in the ski and snowboard industry, and also based on sponsorship and where the funding is," she said. "I wouldn't say it necessarily indicates a new direction that we're going (in), I would say we'll just continue to be flexible around what our reality is each year."
The reality is the future is looking bright for WSSF, particularly with discussions ongoing with a handful of potential title sponsors.
"We're talking to three (companies) that have continued inquiries and one that actually sent people to the festival this year," Eckersley said. "We'll continue to have a great festival, and when the day comes that someone is smart enough to grab us up again as a title sponsor, I think you'll get to see another level."
Eckersley said every event held at the Whistler Conference Centre, which included the 72 Hour Filmmaker Showdown, the Pro Photographer Showdown and Multiplicity, either sold out or was within five per cent of capacity.
The fest also benefitted this year from a major investment by Fido, sponsor of the Outdoor Concert Series. Eckersley said the funding helped alleviate some of the strain of a weak Canadian dollar and will allow organizers to secure the lineup further in advance in the future.
"I would like to book some stuff in June and July, and take a stab at (acts) like I did in the old days like Black Eyed Peas, which I booked before anybody had ever heard of them," she added. "These are the things you can start doing when you have a great partner."
This year Fido leveraged a partnership with streaming music giant Spotify to bring in some of the most listened-to Canadian acts in the Lower Mainland, such as First Nations electronic group A Tribe Called Red and Juno award-winning rockers Monster Truck.
Brenton Smith of O&R Entertainment, which operates several village establishments, including Amsterdam Pub and La Bocca, said the free concerts helped drive walk-in traffic when the weather wasn't as favourable in the event's late stages.
"We had an excellent festival," he said. "Business was definitely up over last year."
Smith did remark, however, that turnout wasn't as strong as in years past at O&R's nightclub, Maxx Fish, possibly because "there are just so many activations and events, particularly during the Saturday night (End) Party (on April 16)."
Sales were also up at village sports shop Skiis & Biikes, where employee Cody Schmautz estimated "we almost doubled in our business" compared to last year.
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