By Andrew Mitchell
Whistler’s annual gay ski week may be turning 15 this year, but for organizer Sean Kearns of GayWhistler it’s a whole new start.
This year the event, which runs Feb. 4 to 11, has been relaunched as WinterPride. While it will feature the usual signature parties and events, this year organizers are also offering a wide range of optional activities and workshops ranging from culinary and mixology classes to medical education programs geared to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community.
As Kearns explains, the goal is to offer the community something a little different this year.
“There’s a totally new element to this event, which is where the name WinterPride comes in,” he said. “Last year was more of a traditional gay ski week, while this year we’ve put together more of a celebration of diversity and winter pride festival.
“We have all the traditional gay ski week events, but also some new elements like the culinary track, the health and wellness track, and the medical education track, which we’re testing out this year. We have options for avid skiers and for the person that doesn’t ski at all but wants to celebrate diversity in the most beautiful outdoor setting in the world.”
Kearns initially set 2,500 participants as his expected maximum, but based on early registration and the amount of media coverage that WinterPride has received around the world recently, he says that number is quickly becoming the minimum. Organizers at GayWhistler have already had to add additional dogsled tours, and bookings are strong for the health and wellness workshops, culinary workshops and mixology.
While the mountains are the main attractions (and Whistler is having a better year for snow than most resorts in the northern hemisphere), Kearns says Whistler’s reputation as a first-class tourism destination is also helping draw visitors.
“The mountains are amazing, certainly, but more important and beyond the mountains is the natural beauty of the people there,” he said. “People come from all over the world to work here, from South America to Ireland to Australia… and they realize that it doesn’t matter who you sleep with, as long as you’re in the mindset of enjoying the great outdoors and respecting people for who they are.”
This is only the second year that GayWhistler has produced this event, jumping in last year to rescue the event after the former organizers backed away because of financial issues and the death of Brent Benashak, the event’s founder, in December of 2003. Out On The Slopes Productions took it over for 2004 and 2005, but struggled to cover the organization’s debts. While there was no question Benashak was a gifted event promoter, he was less astute when it came to managing the financial side of the festival.
With a built-in base of clients to draw from and Whistler’s reputation, Kearns says it was relatively easy to resurrect the event. Still, he and his partners at GayWhistler and Alpenglow Productions have been working on WinterPride for the past six months.
Although other resorts have taken Whistler’s lead and are hosting gay ski weeks — including Telluride, Mammoth and Lake Louise — Kearns sees the potential to make Whistler a year-round GLBT destination, using WinterPride as the anchor event. The GLBT tourism market is worth $65 billion in the U.S. alone, and according to Kearns Canada was chosen as the number one destination in a recent travel survey. Within Canada, Whistler ranked highest.
“Even if you manage to capture just one little percentage point of that market, you’re going to be bringing a lot of people to the resort,” said Kearns.
GayWhistler, which provides travel and tour services to Whistler on a daily basis, is also poised to announce plans to host a summer pride festival in Whistler as well.
With a new focus on events, Whistler is in a better position to host large events than ever before. Last year Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the Resort Municipality of Whistler created an organization called Events Whistler to assist event organizers and streamline the process of hosting events.
For example, organizers of past ski weeks used to struggle each year to get a liquor license extension for the all-night party at the conference centre. This year Kearns says the resort partners have been accommodating at every step. Tourism Whistler has helped to promote WinterPride through their channels and the RMOW has helped out with permits and other support, and Whistler-Blackcomb is helping out by hosting events throughout the week, discounting lift tickets with package deals, and providing 40 per cent discounts on special WinterPride ski lessons.
Kearns says most hotels, spas, restaurants and other businesses have been supportive of the event, improving the quality of the packages they are able to offer visitors.
“It’s been great,” said Kearns. “We have phenomenal relationships with the RMOW, Whistler-Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler, and things have never been better. They really have been working as one well-oiled machine to present a united guest experience, which is what it’s all about.”
As well as catering to his clients, Kearns is encouraging locals to participate in the events that are open to the public, such as the inaugural WinterPride Banquet on Feb. 8, which features performers from Cirque de Soleil, a buffet dinner, comedy, and dancing with a top San Francisco DJ.
“We’ve tried to be as inclusive of the local community as possible, and to provide value,” said Kearns, adding that tickets to the banquet were deliberately kept low at just $65.
For more information on Winter Pride and full schedule of events, visit www.gaywhistler.com .
See page 54 for complete event listings.