The longtime producer of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) will be handing over the reins next year, marking the end of an era for one of Whistler's longest running and most celebrated events.
The 2017 festival, which kicks off Friday, April 7, will be the last with event planner Watermark Communications Inc. at the helm. The Whistler-based company has produced the festival for the past 11 years.
"It is the end of my contract so I just let (Whistler Blackcomb, majority owner of WSSF) know that I wasn't interested in pursuing another," explained Watermark president Sue Eckersley, who's been involved with the festival for nearly 20 years.
The festival's owners, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and Tourism Whistler, said in a joint statement this week that they are "committed to continuing and growing" WSSF, and new management options are being explored for 2018 and beyond.
"The World Ski & Snowboard Festival embodies Whistler's core mountain culture and is an integral part of the Whistler community," said Whistler Blackcomb COO Dave Brownlie in the release.
Added Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler, minority owner of WSSF: "The World Ski & Snowboard Festival and the community of Whistler owe a great deal to Sue.
"She has worked tirelessly over the years to build this festival, and to ensure its ongoing success. Despite some tough economic years, Sue and her team have always put the festival first, pouring their hearts and souls into delivering this prominent winter season-end celebration."
Eckersley couldn't say what direction WSSF will take in the future, but she mused that, "potentially the festival will develop a little bit differently, particularly if (the owners) take it in-house; they will invest in it and do some things that would help along the way to increase the overall health of the festival."
Created by former resort resident Doug Perry, WSSF emerged 22 years ago as a grassroots celebration of Whistler's mountain culture, including the then-emerging sport of snowboarding. The inaugural festival, held in 1996, featured 22 sporting competitions, including its signature event, the World Technical Skiing Championships.
Since then, the 10-day festival has grown into the largest annual winter sports and music festival in North America, and its lineup of signature cultural events such as the 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown, Multiplicity and the Pro Photographer Showdown have become can't-miss dates on Whistler's calendar.
Despite its growing international reputation over the years, Watermark has strived to keep WSSF true to its roots as a festival that would also appeal to locals.
Eckersley hoped whomever ends up filling her shoes maintains that community focus.
"The challenge for the community, and for whoever is managing the festival in the future, is to ensure that that is not lost," she said.
"WB is a big community player and they do lots of things that are great for the community, so it is my hope that they will continue to honour that."
Watermark will continue to produce holiday programming for the municipality as well as its signature food and wine festival, Cornucopia. Without WSSF in its portfolio, Eckersley said the company would now be able to consider other potential events.
"We have been approached over the years to do other events in this community and in Squamish, and we just haven't had the bandwidth, as the WSSF is all consuming," she noted.
"We are still very busy with what's on our plate now... but overall we will definitely be able to consider things now whereas before it was more difficult."
The World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs until April 16. For tickets and the full event schedule, visit www.wssf.com.