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Cancellation of Whistler Alpine Meadows represents a missed economic opportunity for the Sea to Sky

The event generated $717,000 in GDP for Whistler in 2022
Race director Gary Robbins greets John Maxwell as he crosses the finish line of the Whistler Alpine Meadows 100 mile race in first place in September 2022.

The worst-case scenario for Sea to Sky trail runners materialized on Feb. 10, with the Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) races nixed for good. Coast Mountain Trail Running (CMTR) co-founders Gary Robbins and Geoff Langford announced in a statement that not only is the 2023 edition of WAM not happening, but they will be looking to hold the contest elsewhere in future years.

“It is with great disappointment that we must announce that our [Whistler Alpine Meadows] races are officially cancelled, and our time in Whistler has come to an end," they said. 

“We will not be pursuing any further events within the township going forward. After six successful editions of the race, it has become crystal clear that there is simply no path forward for us to produce races of this magnitude, along the alpine terrain within the confines of Whistler."

This isn’t just a regrettable outcome for athletes and their supporters who were waiting with bated breath, hoping to return to Whistler’s breathtaking trails. According to a recently released report, it is also a notable loss for the local economy. 

Lost revenue

An Economic Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by Sport Tourism Canada and Tourism Whistler found that the 2022 WAM races generated nearly $717,000 in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the municipality of Whistler. British Columbia received $971,000 in GDP contributions from the event, and Canada as a whole $1.2 million. 

Moreover, the EIA found WAM brought in almost $273,000 in local taxes, $337,000 in provincial taxes and just under $416,500 in federal taxes both directly and indirectly. 

According to the EIA, visitors to Whistler during the races spent a total of $1.1 million locally on things such as accommodations, restaurants, entertainment, retail and transportation, far outstripping the $200,162 in operational expenses incurred by event organizers. An additional $4,045 was spent on capital items like machines and equipment to ensure the future success of WAM ultramarathons—a future that may no longer be in the cards. 

Information released by Tourism Whistler shows that 2,489 unique individuals attended last year’s WAM competition, including 1,158 athletes and volunteers. Together, they accounted for 1,789 nights staying in local accommodation. More than half of surveyed attendees (56 per cent) remained in town for two to three nights. 

Eighty-three percent of visitors came from outside of the Sea to Sky, with 70 per cent of that number originating elsewhere in British Columbia. 

Last year’s WAM competition included six different race types, from the relatively short but gruelling 5.75-kilometre Ascent Race up Blackcomb Mountain (with 1.2 kilometres of straight elevation gain) to the 100-mile (161-km) distance to the Triple Whammy, a brutal gauntlet featuring the Ascent Race, the 25-kilometre and the 50-kilometre on three consecutive days. 

It was one of only two Canadian events last year that served as a qualifier for the Hardrock 100, a renowned Colorado ultramarathon. 

Visitor statistics cited in the EIA report were derived from an online survey developed by Sport Tourism Canada and Tourism Whistler and disseminated via email to all registered participants and volunteers. A total of 601 valid responses were collected during the process. The survey featured questions for attendees regarding their demographic information (i.e. age, place of residence, etc). Out-of-town respondents were asked about their length of stay in the Sea to Sky, their expenses in various categories and the extent that WAM influenced them to travel to Whistler. 

Whistler Blackcomb open to finding 'reasonable compromises' to revive race 

In their cancellation notice, Robbins and Langford thanked WAM’s many supporters, from Tourism Whistler and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) to countless runners from around the globe, who helped make the event possible for six years. 

In an emailed statement on Monday, Feb. 13, Whistler Blackcomb senior communications manager Dane Gergovich said the resort is "disappointed" by race organizers' decision to permanently cancel the annual event "without alignment on protocol related to safety."

Gergovich said the resort "identified a number of safety issues" following the 2022 event that weren't addressed in a medical plan. The spokesperson said Whistler Blackcomb discussed the need for more specific details regarding "safety and medical response capabilities" and a re-worked course in a meeting with WAM organizers on Feb. 9.

WAM organizers reportedly requested that the race be green-lit in its full proposed scope with those details to be hammered out at a later date, "something we were not willing to do," noted Gergovich. "At that point, WAM organizers made the decision to cancel the event for 2023."

The spokesperson said Whistler Blackcomb remains "committed to improved communication with WAM and sincerely hope they will reconsider their decision and work with us to deliver another successful event."

- with files from Megan Lalonde