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Bergeron says Altitude will be back

Value and price still a big issue for Whistler’s gay ski week

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Some organizations are still owed money and there are several people in the gay community that felt Altitude was overpriced, but event organizer Lee Bergeron, has already pledged to bring Altitude back to Whistler next year.

There had been some speculation that Altitude might be spiralling into bankruptcy or was being packaged to be sold to another town.

But despite all the negative speculation this year’s event, which wound up Feb. 6, still attracted approximately 2,500 people at a time when Whistler was feeling the lack of snow.

When asked to summate what happened at this year’s event and the attendance Bergeron remained candid.

"Attendance was down from last year," he said, "but that was because of the weather. We got multiple e-mails about the snow and there was a number of regional guests that chose not to come.

"But across the board we exceeded what we thought we were going to do a couple of weeks out from the event."

Bergeron insisted that the biggest point to emerge from Altitude this year was that the gay and lesbian community "showed up" when everyone else was trying to book vacations elsewhere.

"What do I think?" said Bergeron. "I think the gays and lesbians showed up when no one else would.

"I think what that says for the gay market is that we’re a resilient, loyal market and we need to be recognized and catered to and the merchants have got to see that because this is the worst weather in Whistler for 30 years."

Tourism Whistler’s Director of Events, Paula Mohammed, agreed that this was an important point.

Previously Bergeron said that he could attract up to 15,000 gay people to Whistler if he could arrange the right kinds of financial partnerships. He still believes that number is attainable.

"The events that we have appeal to the people but by adding different events, at multiple venues, we can attract more.

"It does not mean we’re going to have 15,000 at the Snowball.

"There’s this huge segment of the gay population that’s not being catered to and as far as Whistler’s concerned they need to be catered to."

Mohammed has been facilitating many of the negotiations between merchants, other stakeholders and Altitude and supports much of what Bergeron said.

"I understand the hesitation in the community based on the history of the event but I feel confident that the event will move forward and I think this year was the first step in that process," said Mohammed.

She said the situation with some of the businesses that are owed money was an "interesting one" because had Bergeron not bought Altitude then no one would be getting anything.

"I found that it was an interesting note that that market did not cancel despite the weather but I think the most successful thing from our perspective was that the event was kept alive.

"Based on the fact that the founder, Mr. Benaschak, passed way and then the event was floundering, but this year it was able to maintain its momentum… so it was good to see it happen."

While it is clear that Bergeron might be heading in the right direction, several people who attended the event this year talked about some of the fundamental elements that need to be revisited.

Sean Kearns from GayWhistler.com, a website aimed at bringing gay people to Whistler year round, highlighted that price and value was still a problem. Feedback on Altitude’s own website also suggested this continues to be an issue.

"I am a big proponent of Tourism Whistler’s value proposition and this year the value was just not there," said Kearns. "They simply priced themselves out of the market.

"Altitude used to be about the skiing, camaraderie, fun, dancing and affordable entertainment," he said. "These are the elements that have made the week so successful in the past.

"I hope Altitude can come back to its roots and rebuild itself not as a circuit party but as a gay ski week. I wish the producers best of luck and best wishes."

Xtra West, a bi-weekly gay and lesbian magazine in Vancouver, tackled some of the issues regarding Bergeron’s business reputation in a Jan. 6 article by Robin Perelle. Perelle wrote that "questions are surfacing about the event’s viability and the integrity of its new owner."

The story went on to point out that Bergeron knew exactly what he was getting himself into. "When he heard about (Brent) Benaschak’s death, he called his parents to offer condolences. Then he offered to buy the company.

"That was last January (2004). Though the family quickly appointed Bergeron director, they only finalized the purchasing agreement 11 months later, in late November – just two months before Altitude 2005’s scheduled kick-off."

Xtra West’s publisher and editor-in-chief Ken Hickling said the article had generated a lot of discussion.

"We take a slightly different angle on this as you would in Whistler because for us it’s about (the gay) community," said Hickling.

"That story garnered a lot of commentary from our readers and it was probably right down the middle with people who agreed and disagreed with what they (the organizers) were saying.

"But the fact of the matter is that there was a lot of comments about it."