Opinion » Editorial


Lessons from the first Pemberton Festival



“Events are what we do.”

- Whistler council member after a trip to Park City in 2001 to view that community’s preparations for the Olympics and ascertain whether Whistler should bid for the 2010 Games


There is a long, uneven history of events at the north end of the Sea to Sky corridor, from World Cup ski races to the Stein Valley Festival; from the Summer of Love to the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. None have approached the scale of last weekend’s Pemberton Festival, an event Rolling Stone magazine suggested might be the “next Glastonbury,” the festival in southwest England that draws about 175,000 people.

The first Pemberton Festival drew a capacity 40,000 people, many travelling from other countries to be part of the three-day experience. There were hiccups but on the whole the festival was a huge success.

It was also an eye-opener for everyone trying to get their head around what big events mean for the corridor, including the 17 days of the 2010 Olympics. Patrons of the Pemberton Festival might cringe at any comparison to the stuffy Olympics, but for people living in the corridor the comparison is valid: they are both special events drawing large numbers of people to the region. And assuming the Olympics go reasonably well, there will be plenty of offers and opportunities to host new events after 2010, as promoters continue to discover the corridor.

The first, and perhaps most obvious lesson from the Pemberton Festival is that an event of this size impacts everyone in the corridor. It’s too big to ignore.

One of the most lasting sound bites from the first day of the Pemberton Festival was from a concertgoer stuck in traffic whose rhetorical question was: “These people are going to put on the Olympics?”

The short answer is, “no.” Live Nation does festivals, and they do them very well. VANOC does the Olympics.

But the bigger question is still hanging. Thousands of people spent hours in lineups trying to get to the Pemberton Valley, trying to get from the airport to the festival site, and waiting for services and facilities onsite. Some of that is to be expected; some of it can be avoided.

Pouring 40,000 people into the Pemberton Valley on a two-lane road is naturally going to lead to some lineups. Being creatures of convenience and with the God-given right to drive a car, most people wanted to get there at the same time. But if they had to do it again this weekend organizers and festival patrons would both modify their plans and avoid many of the lineups.

Anticipating human behaviour and knowing when and how people will get to Olympic events is being built into the plans for 2010, but those plans still rely on one road that everyone must share. Sharing and timing are keys to successful events.

Another lesson from Pemberton is that number of tickets sold doesn’t equate to number of customers, other than for the event. The 40,000 Pemberton Festival patrons weren’t here to dine in restaurants, play golf or buy souvenirs. They needed basics — food, beer, ice, coffee — and most of it was available onsite.

There is a similar message surrounding the Olympics and the spectators that the Games bring: People are buying the Olympic experience, not the resort experience. Moreover, Tourism Whistler says that Olympic visitors are slightly less affluent than traditional winter visitors.

Perhaps most importantly for businesses in Whistler Village, there is no guarantee that the spectators at the Olympic venues — potentially 36,000 at the Nordic centre, 7,500 at Creekside and 12,000 at the bobsleigh track — will make it to the village. Those spectators aren’t going up Whistler or Blackcomb, so they aren’t going to end up in the village by default.

The Pemberton Festival was also revealing for its impact on staffing. Anyone looking for service in a coffee shop, a store or a restaurant on Friday could have been excused if they thought it was the off season. Staff were scarce at a number of businesses throughout Whistler — they were in Pemberton. Some were volunteering at the festival; some were enjoying the music.

Building this sort of “opportunity” into the employee experience is part of the new reality of doing business in Whistler. A shortage of labour, competition for employees and the expectations of employees make it so. And the competition for labour is only going to increase as the Olympics draw nearer. Providing season passes and housing has been part of the cost of doing business for many Whistler companies. Allowing time off for special events — in addition to powder days — may be added to the list.