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Feature - Festivals & Events

Eventful events in festive Whistler

New organization planned to streamline event process

By Kara-Leah Grant

For those who attend them, festivals and events in Whistler are a fun way to take in some local arts culture, check out an up and coming Vancouver band, or test their mettle against other mountain bikers, snowboarders or skiers. They come around so often it’s difficult to make time to get to the best events, and it’s easy to take for granted the multitude of festival and event experiences on offer in Whistler.

But for those who spend their time organizing and marketing festivals and events in Whistler, it is a very serious business. A business, just like any other business, full of mandates and objectives and projected cash flow and profit margins. And like every other business in Whistler, events and festivals strive to remain profitable, constantly deal with rules and regulations and always want to meet the demands of their consumers.

One of the biggest event organizers in Whistler is also the resort’s marketing body, and Tourism Whistler’s number one goal is to get the Whistler name out into the market and drive traffic to the resort. The festivals they organize, from Weetama and Cornucopia, to the Whistler Jazz and Blues Festival and Oktoberfest, are all designed with that goal in mind.


Tourism Whistler’s objective is to drive business into time periods when the resort needs the business," says Jill Greenwood, Director of Brand Marketing.

"We are also trying to extend the length of stay of our guests, giving them reason to stay over on a Thursday or a Sunday night. If there is a four or five day festival it extends the length of stay and drives the business into the midweek period."

And Tourism Whistler is achieving its goals. Cornucopia in particular has grown rapidly over the six years since its inception and this year features a trade component.

But Tourism Whistler also wants the local community to embrace the festivals they produce, attempting to draw a local crowd with early bird specials on tickets and single ticket sales.

"It is very important that festivals attract locals," says Greenwood. "At Cornucopia we involve the local community by bringing in local businesses to run seminars or showcase their products, so we try and integrate the products and services of the local community into the festivals."

While Tourism Whistler has an eye on the locals’ needs and does want them to enjoy their festivals, ultimately their bottom line in gauging the success of any Tourism Whistler festival is whether or not it brings in guests. Sometimes, like in the case of the Whistler Arts Experience, it means Tourism Whistler stops producing a festival that locals may have enjoyed.

"It was an event we launched but it was more of a local community event and it wasn’t successful in drawing visitors to the resort," explains Gwen Young, Manager of Festivals and Events.

"We took a step back and this year we decided we would give it back to the arts council."

The Whistler Community Arts Council also produces festivals and events in Whistler, but it has a very different goal in mind.

"Our mandate is to foster and promote the arts in Whistler, by showcasing and supporting local artists as well as providing arts and entertainment to the local people living here," says Doti Niedermayer, recently appointed executive director of the arts council.

The council has produced the hugely successful Whistler Children’s Art’s Festival for the past 20 years, as well as the Bizarre Bizarre and Artrageous, the latter once a part of the Whistler Arts Experience.

"We used to produce the Whistler Arts Experience with Tourism Whistler, it was a week-long event and included artists working on the streets," says John Hewson, president and chair of the arts council. "But there were issues with the galleries in having local artists in an exposed position on the street, perhaps in front of a gallery that is paying thousands of dollars a month in rent. This year we did just the Artrageous event. We have to tackle those issues and manage them effectively, again trying to work for the good of the whole community rather than just the artists."

It is an issue every event organizer faces in Whistler. The needs of the community as a whole in Whistler are as diverse as the people who live here, and for an event organizer to address all those needs is nearly impossible.

Altitude, which brings an extremely affluent group of people into Whistler every February for Gay Ski Week, ran into a conflict between providing their clients with a world-class dance event and the municipality’s need to enforce a uniform 2 a.m. closing at the conference centre.

"We worked out our differences, and last year was the best year yet," says Brent Benaschak, producer of Altitude. "What led to improvement was the realization that the Whistler resort is drawing our people in and so the resort has to meet the expectations of that market they are bringing in."

Whistler embraces events and the business they bring to town, but like any small city, there are rules and regulations that must be adhered to. Those rules and regulations can be incredibly frustrating to an organizer passionate about their particular event.

Probably the most extreme example is the loss of the World Cup Mountain Bike event last year. The mountain bike community was outraged when Whistler-Blackcomb and the organizers of the event could not come to an agreement over the running of the event.

"It was unfortunate it got as inflamed as it did but the reality was sometimes the needs of the community and the event organizer may not match up, whether those are financial criteria or resources and facility criteria," says Rob McSkimming, Managing Director at Whistler-Blackcomb.

"At the end of the day it’s a simple thing, there is a group of people trying to make something happen but it has to be something that works for everybody and I think if the right criteria and people are in place then it is a lot more cut and dry – here’s the criteria, this is why the event doesn’t meet the criteria, sorry that’s why we are not going to do it."

But in the past it has not been that simple. Event organizers who want to throw an event that encompasses both the mountain and the village have to work with three major bodies, Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW.

"The major stakeholders get along very well," says McSkimming. "We share the same objectives. But from an event organizer’s point of view it’s a hard group to get together and it’s a hard group to make things happen in an efficient, fast manner."

Mark Taylor of MASEV knows what McSkimming is talking about. He’s been involved in festivals and events in Whistler for several years, previously as part of the Master’s Group, and now with MASEV. Their biggest event is the Nokia Snowboard World Cup event that takes place every December. MASEV, in partnership with the Canadian Ski and Snowboard Association and the Canadian Snowboard Federation, have also just secured the 2005 World Snowboard Championships for Whistler.

"In order to meet our accommodation requirements in the past we’ve had to do 28 separate agreements with 28 separate hotels," says Taylor. "That means 28 sets of negotiations and explanations of why and how it has to be done the way we are doing it, and it makes it very challenging. We couldn’t just go in with one sweeping request for rooms from the resort."

But everybody recognizes the old system does not work as well as it should, either for the event organizers or for Whistler Resort. Taylor says that this year Tourism Whistler is taking a more active role in securing the room nights for the Nokia Snowboard World Cup and it is a change he welcomes.

He also points out that running an event in Whistler is akin to running an event in a small city.

"It’s not the one stop shop that a lot of resorts are, and a lot of resorts are one stop shops for event organizers because they are smaller in nature, or they have been developed in a different light," says Taylor.

"That’s the issue of Whistler, it’s a city basically whereas most resorts are just small villages. A standard procedure for event organizers would be great because I think there are several events that are well worth while and could be developed to do a lot more for the resort if we had the support of all partners in the resort."

Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW all realize that it is in Whistler’s best interests to foster high profile events like the Nokia Snowboard World Cup, but up until now there has never been one body in town dealing with festivals and events. This is about to change.

Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW are currently working towards creating a framework, loosely called Whistler Event Corporation, for dealing with festival and events.

"There are probably three key objectives for this framework. The first is to streamline the process for event organizers," explains McSkimming.

"The second is to have the right kind of people in place whose job it is to deal with festivals and events – people who can work to have these things happen in an efficient way.

"A third one is to be more proactive as a community than we have been in the past in terms of events. We’ve tended to sit back and wait for people to bring events to us, instead of going out and saying for the broader community, what do we want to accomplish with events and if we don’t have those things in place, lets go out and find them."

With this goal in mind, the three major stakeholders have begun working together to provide Whistler with a one-stop shop for working through the red tape and acquiring community support for festivals and events. The results are already apparent.

"Without the Whistler Event Corporation in place bringing the different parties together, securing the Snowboard World Championships 2005 would have been much more difficult, because it required not only a commitment to host the event but it required a financial commitment up front," says Taylor.

The organizer of this month’s Whistler Mountain Bike Festival, Richard Juryn of Shore Events, also worked closely with representatives of Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW. His original vision of a freeride weekend with one or two events expanded to include more riding events, a mountain bike and adventure photography exhibition and an industry forum.

Event organizers recognize that this is the way of the future. A truly successful festival embraces art and sport, on-mountain events and village events, and the man who knows more about this than anybody else in town is Doug Perry. He is the visionary behind Whistler’s most successful festival, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, and he’s very aware of both the difficulties facing event organizers and the high number of festival failures.

"The WEC is a great move for Whistler because it will hopefully streamline the process involved in setting up a festival or event and help reduce the number of failures, which can be nothing but good," says Perry.

"For a festival to really succeed in Whistler it has to connect with the people. An event designed in isolation will never be appreciated or embraced by the community, plus there has to be a measurable economic impact to the resort. The community has to be able to influence the festival and the festival has to be designed with community responsibility in mind."

This is one of the goals of the WEC. Festivals in Whistler have tended towards embracing one focus, one goal. A race. An arts exhibition. A wine showcase. But the sheer number of events, and the limited impact some have on Whistler points to consolidation.

"If you look at the calendar of events over the course of one year in Whistler, this community is host to a greater range of festivals and events than any other community on the surface of the earth," says John Rae, formerly of Resort Communications Group and Tourism Whistler.

"If anything, Whistler may need to consolidate some of those events so we can have two, or three, or even four truly signature events akin to the WSSF over the course of the year. And we need to make sure they are at times that are deemed to be meaningful and to the benefit of the community."

John Hewson at the arts council agrees.

"We don’t have to start from the ground up to make something new and better, there are a lot of things that happen in Whistler already. A lot of them are predominantly sports related so how do we enhance the arts component so it appeals to a wider audience and showcases what we do have? You have to acknowledge the level of excellence in Whistler events, but how do we take that do the next level and include arts in those festivals?"

Mark Taylor has the same vision for the Nokia Snowboard World Cup.

"We have to build out elements around the event, we don’t want it to be just on-hill events. We want it to be music and animation and activities around the event."

And as Whistler takes a good hard look at what it needs from its festivals and events, it should take a good hard look at what must be considered the model for a successful festival, The World Ski and Snowboard Festival. It drives a huge amount of traffic to the resort in what was a traditionally slow time of year, it markets Whistler to a world-wide audience through widespread media coverage, it showcases local artists and athletes, and it throws a great party.

It took a few years of vision and belief, hard work and persistence, but the WSSF is now the snow sport event for North America in April. With a new body in place to support event organizers in Whistler, there is no reason why Cornucopia could not become the premier wine and food event for Canada in November, or September in Whistler could not become the place to be for mountain bikers all over North America.