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Feature - Playing by the rules

Under the spotlight, Whistler clubs express some of their frustrations

By Kara-Leah Grant

Ask a guest why they come to Whistler and the answer is invariably skiing, or snowboarding, or mountain bike riding. But there is another reason why people come to Whistler, and it’s the reason that makes some people choose to ski here rather than at another resort. People come to Whistler to party.

We have a great reputation as a party town and it is a reputation fuelled by our nightclub industry. There are not many towns in the world with a population of 10,000 that can boast six nightclubs (or seven if you include the Boot) featuring world class DJs and live acts on a regular basis. For those of us who live in town, there is no doubt we are spoiled rotten.

But this year has been hard for those who work in the nightclub industry. The changes in the liquor act, while initiated with the intention of streamlining the rules and regulations, have made things more difficult. Isolated violence in the village has left the impression the clubs are a violent place to be. Toss in the downturn in the American economy, which meant fewer Americans and less money in town, and during a time when the clubs are traditionally busy, you’ve got a difficult few months.

For years the nightclub industry had asked the government to address inconsistencies and outmoded laws in the convoluted liquor act. They were excited when it finally happened. But change doesn’t always work out the way you think it will. While some rules were changed for the better, some rules, like those governing identity cards people are required to carry, have become almost ridiculous. Under the changes, if a 24-year-old carrying a passport and no other piece of ID is "caught" in a club, the club can be written up.

Accompanying the changes in the Liquor Act has been an increase in enforcement. There is no doubt that enforcement of the Liquor Act was slack in Whistler for many years, but now the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way.

Mike Hofbauer is the general manager of Garfinkel’s, Whistler’s largest nightclub. "It has been a very frustrating year because despite our efforts to be 100 per cent compliant with the Liquor Act, we’re still treated like we’re breaking the rules all the time," he says. "There is no acknowledgement of what the bars are doing right."

What the bars are doing right is adhering strictly to capacity, (the number of liquor seats allocated to each establishment), stringently checking IDs and ensuring nobody is over served. Unfortunately, this ‘by the book’ running of the clubs can leave a bad taste in the mouths of many international customers.

"It’s difficult explaining to a 24-year-old with a passport that he needs two pieces of ID before I can let him in the door," says Hofbauer. "I know he’s over age, he has a passport as ID, and I still can’t let him in? With the way the rules are enforced, there is no room for me to use my discretion."

But while there are some frustrations with enforcement, overall the increased police presence in the village and in the clubs is welcomed by the nightclubs.

"People feel more secure when they see the police walking around in the village and checking out the clubs," says Dale Schweighardt, general manager of Buffalo Bill’s. "It can pre-empt any problems that might arise."

Peter Roberts, general manager at Maxx Fish, agrees but adds that sometimes the way the police approach people can be problematic.

"I don’t mind that the police are out there and walking around and coming into the clubs I just don’t like it when they harass our clientele," says Roberts. "You can approach people in a nice manner. Obviously some times you do have to step it up a bit, but for the most part, the way they approach people has to change."

It’s a problem all the managers have experienced – stories of police walking on to a dance floor and pulling a girl away from her friends and demanding to see her ID.

"It’s just not the way it should be done," says Hofbauer. "Whistler will get a reputation it doesn’t want – it won’t be a fun place to come and party anymore."

It’s something that worries the industry. Reputation is everything, and people have always come to Whistler to party. Jon Tischuk is the general manager of Tommy Africa’s. He used to work for Intrawest and he understands the symbiotic relationship between the hill and the bars.

"People might come to Whistler to ski and to ride, but many people choose to come to Whistler instead of going to another resort because the Whistler nightlife has such a great reputation," he says. "They know they can go out and party and have a wicked time. That’s what Whistler is all about."

Roberts at Maxx Fish hopes it continues to be what Whistler is all about because he believes it is important to the resort as a whole.

"The nightclub industry is very important to the community because Whistler as a resort attracts a young crowd," says Roberts. "If Whistler was to lose the bar scene we would turn into Mammoth, where everyone skis during the day and just goes home at night. We would lose our vibe – is that what we want?"

Schweighardt has been general manager of Bill’s for eight years and he has seen a lot of changes over those years. While Bill’s is perceived as primarily a tourist bar, Schweighardt is aware of the role the nightclub industry plays within the wide community.

"We don’t often get a lot of locals coming into Bill’s," says Schweighardt. "But I try to encourage locals to come in and enjoy what we have to offer. People who don’t go out anymore have lost touch with the club community and they don’t understand what goes on. They think that there is a big drug problem, which is not true, and they think that Whistler’s club scene is violent, which is also not true. I’d like to see people who don’t come to the bars come out sometime and have a drink and see what really goes on."

What really goes on is a community of people working very hard to provide both locals and tourists with a great experience. They do this through the busy times and they do this through the slow times. The nightclub industry in Whistler is different from most in that there is a real sense of community. The general managers meet every month to talk about what’s going on. At night, managers are in constant contact with each other to ensure that any problems, or problem people, are reported straight away. Doormen from one club will assist doormen from another club when problems do break out – which sometimes they do.

This spring saw the now annual influx of Lower Mainland groups cashing in on cheap hotel deals and bringing their brand of violence and intimidation with them. It’s a level of violence most Whistler doormen are not trained for and not paid enough to deal with. The perception was the violence was the clubs’ fault – they were over serving and encouraging rowdiness. It wasn’t true.

"The police blame certain things on the bars, like violence in the village, but it is not the bars’ fault, it’s the hotels that let them drink in the hotel rooms, walk around the hotels drinking and then they walk through the streets drinking," says Roberts. "We can’t control that. We control our door, I have great doormen and we try to keep the riff raff out and the intoxicated people out."

But as Tommy Africa’s found out, doing a good job controlling your door can easily backfire. In spring of this year, on a Monday night – Tommy’s biggest night, a group of Abbotsford youths were denied entry because the doormen felt they could cause problems. The group harassed the lineup out the front of the door to such an extent the doormen were forced to move everybody inside for their own safety. They then locked the front doors. What happened next was erroneously reported in local papers – a gun was never fired. The group threw rocks at the club and brandished a gun. Police later apprehended the suspects in their hotel room, where they'd been drinking that night.

All of Whistler’s nightclubs were disturbed by the incident and immediately got together with local officials, including the RCMP, to discuss possible solutions. It’s an unusually co-operative way of working together that works in the entire industry’s favour.

"We are all competing with each other, but working together enables us to take a unified approach to problems as they come up," says Tischuk. "When we had problems with violence during spring, we got together along with other partners in the community and we addressed that problem."

Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly was also pleased with the co-operative approach, saying at the time: "What is good and really positive is that I am getting a lot of people e-mailing me, phoning me, and giving me further suggestions about how to deal with this.

"This is a really, really a positive attitude," O’Reilly continued. "This is a community-wide issue and we recognize that just putting on more police, or what have you, isn’t the answer."

Most of Whistler’s violence stems from a few tourists, and this reflects the two different groups of clientele clubs are trying to please. Balancing the different needs of these groups is a delicate act and something that only clubs in resort towns need worry about.

"Locals’ needs are different from tourists’ needs. For one thing, they are far more immediate," says Schweighardt. "Tourists need to feel like they’re being treated equal. It can be hard to explain why a local is walking past a lineup a tourist has been standing in for half an hour."

Sometimes locals can get quite vocal about what they expect from "their" bar.

"Locals can be demanding," says Tischuk. "They don’t want to pay cover and they don’t want to line up. It can be hard to manage when we’re already at capacity and everybody else is paying."

But the relationship the bars build up with locals is very important. Hofbauer says he thinks that for a bar to be successful in Whistler, it is absolutely key that both locals and tourists enjoy the experience.

"Tourists come out expecting to be shown a good time – they want to party, but they want to feel like they are checking out the ‘real Whistler’, and in order for them to experience that, they need to be partying with the locals," says Hofbauer. "This means as locals, we need to almost provide tourists with a show, to put on something that they really enjoy and want to come back to."

Because, in the end, putting on a great night out is what the club industry is all about and it’s something Whistler’s nightclubs are very good at. Whistler is fortunate enough to play host to top music acts all year round. We’ve had the Commitments, Jully Black, Swollen Members, The Rascalz, De La Soul, Tall Paul, John Lee Hooker and many, many other outstanding acts. This is on top of the great club nights that every week feature Mat the Alien and Kilo Cee at Maxx Fish, Milton at Garf’s, Peacefrog at Bill’s, the Whole Damn County at Moe Joe’s and Czech at Tommy’s. Schweighardt says he often gets locals asking for more live music, but when Bill’s throws a show, as they often do, people aren’t motivated enough to come out.

"I think locals are a little bit spoiled," says Schweighardt. "They are so used to world class acts they don’t realize quite how lucky they are."

It has been a challenging year for the club industry, but those who work in the clubs do so because they love their jobs. They are passionate about the experience they provide for both locals and tourists and they are always looking for ways to make it a better experience. Club managers hope that as the police realize the bars are eager to be completely compliant with the new and existing rules, aggressive enforcement will settle down and the over-all fun will return to the clubs. It’s something the whole community should be thinking about.

"Partying is very important to Whistler’s economic health, as important as skiing," says Roberts. "If we don’t watch out and if we are not careful the club industry will die off and I think the resort as a whole would regret losing it."