Opinion » Editorial

Diversity key to Whistler's summer success



The metamorphosis of the public space between the Brewhouse and the Whistler Health Care Centre, now known as Whistler Olympic Plaza, reached a new milestone last weekend. What was once a patch of scrub forest and tangled underbrush has become a patch of green grass — Friday it was covered by a tangle of yoga mats, each a personal space for chakra exploration. Saturday evening at the plaza Michael Franti and Spearhead drew more people to the village's only grassy space than any event since the 2010 Olympic medals ceremonies.

As last week's wildly popular Wanderlust festival demonstrated, Whistler Olympic Plaza has become a new focal point in Whistler Village for all kinds of summer activities. And like the plaza space, business has evolved surprisingly well this summer, powered by a collection of festivals, concerts and participatory events. From Crankworx to Wanderlust to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Chantal Kreviazuk and Spirit of the West, the flow of concerts and events has been non-stop. The early-summer Tough Mudder event kicked off the season. Festivals in Squamish — Bass Coast and Squamish Live — have also supported what Whistler has done this summer, when they could have worked against one another.

The list of mass participatory events in the corridor this season, which included a series of mountain bike races in Squamish and the North Face Whistler Half Marathon, wraps up in the next few weekends with the new Meet Your Maker 50 mile run and the third annual RBC GranFondo Whistler, and at least one more small festival.

Good weather for most of these events, particularly the festivals and concerts has, of course, been key.

It's a diverse, eclectic series of events that have drawn a lot of different people to Whistler and the corridor this summer. Unlike winter, when the vast majority of people who come to Whistler are here to ski or snowboard, summer offers many options, and this summer's lineup of festivals, events and concerts reflects that diversity.

That — diversity — is an important point for businesses to remember in the post-recession/recovery economy and for Whistler to embrace as it continues to define or redefine itself. Whistler's origins in the 1960s were as a ski area for Lower Mainland residents. With the development of the village and the opening of Blackcomb in 1980 there was a conscious decision to become a destination ski resort. Various other ski resorts were studied and lessons and qualities from many were incorporated into Whistler.

But the emphasis was always on winter. Summer is a completely different animal. It is a testament to Whistler's foresight and ingenuity that summer has become as busy as it has.

Golf courses and tennis resorts were originally seen as keys to driving summer business in Whistler. And they are important to the mix. But things like the Valley Trail and the network of public parks and beaches have also been critical.

The evolution of the mountain bike and the development of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park have obviously led to festivals and events, but mountain biking has also become a significant niche within the tourism industry. Whistler Blackcomb has been at the very forefront of ski area operators to recognize this and build facilities on the mountains that keep revenue flowing beyond the ski season. The bike park is obviously huge, but hiking trails and the Peak 2 Peak gondola have also required significant investments and have contributed greatly to the mix of summer business.

There are, in fact, few other "ski resorts" in the world that are as busy as Whistler in the summer. Many ski areas in the Alps and across North America are locked up tight once the snow has melted. Those that attempt to open for summer are mostly trying to attract hikers and mountain bikers — a good start but not nearly the mix of people Whistler draws.

Proximity to Vancouver and Seattle is important to Whistler's summer success, but there's more to it than geography. The village, originally conceived around skiing, has grown and evolved to reflect the diversity of people and activities in summer. Anchored at one end by the mountain bike park and at the other end by Whistler Olympic Plaza and the children's playground, there has been a near-constant flow of people on Village Stroll this summer.

Festivals and free concerts have been an important part of the village's attraction but diversity means there is constant animation: downhill mountain bikers in their armour, hikers with ski poles and packs, yoga enthusiasts with their mats, busy patios, street entertainers, even roving stagettes provide a little amusement.

This summer's combination of festivals, participatory events and animation has worked well with the long-term summer strategies of the municipality and Whistler Blackcomb. You only have to visit other ski resorts to see how well.