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Party in April. Sleep in May

WSSF organizers overcome economic challenges to produce crowd-pleasing festival

Sue Eckersley isn't hiding it: this was a tough year to organize the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

First, Telus, the festival's longtime title sponsor, pulled out. Then, it wasn't until February that the Resort Municipality of Whistler divvied up its Festivals Events and Animation funding giving the festival $135,000 to enhance its free outdoor concert series. It was a blessing to be sure, especially given the sponsorship blow, but it was still tricky to secure a lineup with such short notice when bands plan tours well in advance.

But despite the challenges Eckersley, the festival's event director, is upbeat and optimistic about the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) for 2013,

"This has been a year fraught with challenges," confirms Eckersley.

"Without Telus, without our title sponsor and a good chunk of change that drove the budget of the festival, it's been an extremely challenging year. Trying to replicate what we've done with considerably less money, the team has done an amazing job. I believe this is the best festival ever."

Although this year offers proof that organizers can create a world-class spring festival with around $450,000 less in funding, Eckersley isn't all that keen to try it again. Instead, they hope to woo a new company with this year's events to take Telus' place.

But even without a title sponsor Eckersley is adamant that the WSSF is here to stay.

"I've already put together a budget for 2014 that doesn't (include a) title sponsor, though we're having great discussions with some companies," she says. "We'd certainly love to have a title sponsor.

"But the World Ski and Snowboard Festival isn't going anywhere. It's something that's so intrinsic to who we are in Whistler. It's so critically important to Whistler."

And there is no need to just take Eckersley's word for it — the impact is confirmed in the Economic Impact Assessment for the festival — a report she released to Pique. In April, a month in which ski resort visits begin to slow to a trickle as winter turns to spring, the festival brought $22.5 million in spending to Whistler in 2012.

Those cold hard numbers are just what other partners are looking for. "You can look at that and really see the value of the festival," says Stuart Rempel, senior vice-president of marketing and sales for Whistler Blackcomb, part owners of the festival. "We hope all the businesses in town take advantage of this to promote it and make it more successful. We hope everyone who works in the Sea to Sky comes up to support it... The economic benefit isn't simply to Whistler Blackcomb, but to the businesses in Whistler and the residents. We get an amazing economic driver and a great event we can attend."

This year Whistler Blackcomb is backing up those sentiments with incentives. B.C. residents get 50 per cent off one-day lift tickets and rentals today (April 14), and up to 50 per cent off select snow school programs during the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

As the report indicates, people outside Whistler are also attending (and bringing their wallets.) Last year the festival drew 70,390 visitors with 20,000 from the Sea to Sky corridor, 33,151 from elsewhere in Canada and another 17,239 from outside the country. The further those visitors travelled, the more they spent per person, ranging from $54 for a day trip to $940 for overseas trips. The average was $451 per person.

In total, visitors spent the most on food and drink with $7.2 million, then $4.5 million on accommodation and $3.84 million on entertainment and recreation. There's hope that the data could help secure the festival municipal funding in coming years, Eckersley says. "I think (it helps) any time you're looking at empirical data as opposed to who is the squeakiest wheel, who out there is the best lobbyist," she says. "If we're talking about lobbying, I don't think the World Ski and Snowboard Festival is very good at it. We think we can rest on our laurels and you can see the impact we have."

It's also important to consider the season, she adds. The festival was conceived in 1994, in part, as a way to breathe life into Whistler during a slow month while drawing attention to spring skiing. "One of the things we need to do as decision makers when we're looking at whether this money is spent in a good way is imagine April without the World Ski and Snowboard Festival," Eckersley says. "I think each event needs to be looked at as, 'OK this is how much economic dollars it brings into the village' and if it didn't exist is that entirely going to disappear?"

Another concern for organizers this year was the timing of the festival, falling after Easter. Eckersley says that holiday weekend marks the end of ski season for many outside of the Sea to Sky. "We try to have it the week before Easter," she adds. "This year, (Easter was) two weeks before and to have this kind of strength in numbers of people coming to the festival, again, shows how important the festival is to the economic activity of the resort."

According to Tourism Whistler, also part owners of the festival, bookings for the festival are slightly behind pace compared to last year. But, adds Patricia Westerholm, communications manager for Tourism Whistler, in an email, bookings for the festival usually see a late surge. She adds, "We have seen a strong pickup in bookings in the last couple of weeks since the (music) lineup was finalized."

Added Barrett Fisher, Tourism Whistler's president and CEO: "The World Ski and Snowboard Festival is a tremendous asset to Whistler.

"Over the years it has evolved into the premier mountain culture festival and has helped to put Whistler on the map. The WSSF is supported by the community and our guests and draws media coverage that helps to raise our overall profile. It has brought business to the resort during what was established as a need period, driving room nights during the shoulder season."

That's a sentiment echoed by Whistler business.

"We have heard from a number of our members that the application of FE&A funding to attract and/or execute various events in Whistler starting last summer has positively impacted their business, particularly in the accommodation and F&B sectors," said Fiona Famulak, Chief Executive Officer for the Whistler Chamber.

"The WSSF is an important event for Whistler, particularly this year when it will help to drive business in April following a very early Easter week. And given the change in the Festival's funding model, it'll be important for all of us to support the 10 days of arts, culture and sporting events.

Eckersley is particularly proud of the 2013 lineup. In recent years, the free concerts series has become one of the main pillars of the festival, drawing crowds and attracting visitors. "I'm stoked," she says. "I think it's the strongest lineup we've ever had. We had more funds than ever because of the (FE&A) dollars. I think there's a great buzz in town about it. A lot of people are like, 'Nas isn't actually coming. It's a rumour.'"

But, indeed, the veteran rapper and actor is on the roster, thanks to the cash injection. Eckersley adds that without the extra money this year the shows would've gone ahead without him and Philly hip-hop act G. Love & Special Sauce. "One hundred per cent there would've been no Nas," she says. "It wouldn't have felt as full or as successful, for sure."

Organizers expected the lineup to look significantly different, though, as they began their search for acts. Peruse the Squamish Valley Music Festival's lineup for an idea of some of the bands they were courting, says Eckersley. They quickly discovered that brand.LIVE, the company that organizes the August festival, has a radius clause on their acts, meaning they can't perform within a certain distance of Squamish for a set amount of time around the event. "You don't think of Squamish (Valley Music Festival) as competition in Whistler, but in this case it definitely hampered our ability to get the lineup done as quickly as we wanted with the bands we wanted," she says.

Still, she's happy with the final outcome. "Music is absolutely a cornerstone for the festival," she says. "It is the number one thing that drives people and attention to the festival. As amazing as it is that we'll have nine of the 10 best free skiers here, it doesn't drive the same amount of traffic as Nas will or Arkells or K-os. Music is part of our culture. It's something people will be talking about... At the end of the day, it's the thing that draws people up for the festival. This investment by the RMOW into the concerts series is an amazing thing."

While the funding was important, looking ahead, sponsorship is a major key to the festival's success. With only a few ticketed events — including the consistently popular Pro Photographer Showdown and the 72 Hour Filmmaker Showdown, this year sponsored by Olympus, and sandwiched between two major parties, aptly titled The Beginning and The End — cash from companies makes up a huge part of the budget.

In the past, ticket sales have accounted for as little as seven per cent of the revenue. This year, it will be closer to 17 per cent. "It becomes very challenging when the market is soft," Eckersley says. "In 2010, we had a heck of a time securing sponsors. Brands spent money in Whistler during the Olympics. Whistler was a dirty word in the corporate boardrooms at the time."

The festival has considered charging for more events, but that would ruin the spirit, organizers ultimately decided. "It's not what we want to do," Eckersley adds. "This is the model we've designed... it's worked for us. We keep tweaking it. From a sponsorship perspective, it's great. If you've got your skrims on the side of the main stage where you're going to see Nas for free, that generates a lot of love for your brand at that moment."

The festival kicks off tomorrow, Friday March 12 and for ten days Whistler celebrates everything that mountain culture embraces. It's a 10-day-and-night showcase of the best of snow sports, music, arts and mountain culture. Of course it also features major professional ski and snowboarding competitions — turn to page 52 for the details on that — the largest annual free outdoor concert series in Canada, and cultural events that match up art lovers with the art makers.

As the festival motto says, "Party in April. Sleep in May."