By Andrew Mitchell
Organizers have always known that events are big business for Whistler, but until recently nobody knew exactly how big.
Last week Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb released an economic impact study for the annual Telus Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival, less than two weeks after the Mountain Bike Tourism Association released an economic impact study that also looked at the Crankworx Freeride Mountain Bike Festival.
According to the latest report, the TWSSF generated a total of $37.7 million in economic activity for B.C. this past April, including $21.3 million in economic activity in Whistler — $15.7 million of which is direct spending in the resort.
“We’ve always known the festival was important to Whistler, but as this report demonstrates, the benefits stretch well beyond Whistler’s peaks to the rest of the province as well,” said Arlene Schieven, VP of marketing for Tourism Whistler.
The Telus Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival Economic Impact Assessment was put together by Paradigm Consulting Group using the same tourism economic assessment model created by the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance — also used to gauge the economic impact of mountain bike tourism in the Sea to Sky corridor and the Crankworx Festival.
According to the assessment, 28,118 hotel room nights were sold during the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival, 86 per cent of which were booked by people attending the festival. The festival itself included more than 50 free concerts, 164 live musical performances, 240 athletes, 350 athletes, and contributions of over 700 artists and performers.
The 2007 TWSSF, which takes place April 13-22, is already in development under the management of Sue Eckersley, who took over the festival last year after the departure of founder Doug Perry.
According to the Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association (MBTA) economic study, Crankworx attracted roughly 55,000 non-residents to the resort over nine days, generating expenditures of roughly $11.5 million.
Together with the TWSSF, that represents almost $33 million in revenues last year from those two events alone.
And while they are Whistler’s largest events, they only represent the tip of the iceberg for the resort. Other resort-specific events, such as Cornucopia, the Whistler Film Festival, and WinterPride (gay ski week), bring tens of thousands of visitors to the resort each year, generating additional millions in revenues.
Shauna Hardy Mishaw, the director of the Whistler Film Festival, says they have not had the opportunity or resources to do a comprehensive study like the TWSSF or MTBA, but according to their own assessments their event is getting bigger and better every year.
This past November they posted a 17.5 per cent increase in attendance, as well as a 43 per cent increase for workshops like the Whistler Filmmaker Forum. Average room nights booked by people outside of Whistler attending the festival were 2.6 for people booking through Whistler.com, and 3.3 nights through other booking channels.
Based on those numbers Hardy Mishaw says the festival will put together three and four night packages for next year.
While they can’t put a dollar value on the festival to the resort, Hardy Mishaw is confident that it’s a money earner.
“We’re bringing new people in, and the festival is generating a lot of awareness of the resort,” she said. “That doesn’t even account for the preseason exposure the resort gets because of the festival, coming at the beginning of the ski season. This year it was a very good time because that’s when all of our snow fell.”
The RMOW is a major funder of the film festival through 2007, while Tourism Whistler assists by marketing and supporting the event. Whistler.com, the online booking service run by the RMOW and TW, also helps to host the festival.
In total 6,200 tickets were sold to film festival events, including 1,100 tickets for the opening gala. Many of the movies and events sold out. As well, approximately 60 per cent of festival attendees are visitors to Whistler.
While Hardy-Mishaw says the event will always attract a niche market, and will never grow to the point of a Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival, it is making a direct contribution to the resort.
“The important thing to look at is not just the numbers, or heads in beds,” she said. “Unlike the TWSSF or Crankworx, where a lot of events are free, all film festival events are ticketed so our numbers represent actual bums in seats.
“The film festival isn’t an event that’s going to have 250,000 people, it’s more of a boutique event and has a specific purpose in terms of the type of people that it will attract. But it does bring people to Whistler, and also brings a lot of attention to the resort at the start of the ski season.
“Absolutely the event will continue to be enhanced, and will continue to increase in attendance.”
Mayor Ken Melamed says that the municipality and council are more aware than ever of the importance of hosting events. Recent changes, such as creating and funding Events Whistler with Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb, were specifically made to improve the way the resort hosts and supports events.
“The most powerful thing we did internally was to hire John Rae (as manager of strategic alliances and marketing), and create a whole new mini department in municipal hall to represent that interest in a more comprehensive, professional way,” said Melamed. “I think what we’re seeing is an evolution in the resort for event promotion and event support. We’ve always understood the potential, but now we’re really adding the expertise and manpower and resources to the effort.”
Having that capacity also makes it easier for the RMOW to recognize where things could have been done better. For example, every year the organizers of Whistler’s gay ski week would have problems when applying for an extension to their liquor licence for their all-night party, to the point that organizers even threatened to move the festival to another resort.
Melamed says the municipality and its partners have taken steps to be more accommodating.
“It’s a combination of lessons learned, of improving upon our successes and rectifying the failure of past events,” he said. “There’s the whole principle of continuous improvement; we know events are important, and we’re committed to helping them to continue to grow and mature, and to growing our own capacity until we get it right.”
Although Whistler is already quite busy, Melamed sees the potential to add new events and grow existing events.
“The sky is the limit, which means the only limit is the creativity of the community,” he said. “The challenge is always to coordinate new events, fit them into the appropriate seasons and time slots so they complement what is already happening and don’t compete with other offerings.”
Two areas where Melamed sees the most potential for growth are in arts and culture, and health and wellness. Both have huge potential in Whistler, especially during the resort’s traditional low periods in the spring and fall.
The Olympics also present the resort with more opportunities to host events, from test events in sporting venues, to events that celebrate two other pillars of the Olympics — arts and culture, and the environment.
“There’s really a fairly busy schedule already with events and programming, but there’s lots more on the way,” said Melamed. “It’s exciting, given the momentum we have, and the kinds of events we’re bringing to the resort.”