"It's what we do."
- Kristi Wells
Former councillor Wells isn't the only person to use those words to describe festivals and events in Whistler. But the timing of her remark, shortly after a tour of Park City and its Olympic facilities and a year before Whistler had been awarded the 2010 Games, was pertinent.
At the time, in 2002, it was meant as an endorsement of the Olympic bid. In the post-Olympic era it has new meaning.
Late last year consultant Steve Thorne completed a cultural tourism assessment and strategy for Whistler. The whole strategy hasn't been released to the public, apparently to maintain a competitive advantage over our tourism competitors. However, the packaged version of the strategy that was released to the media and various groups in November merits some further attention. We are going to be hearing a lot about it.
"Festivals, events and animation" is the phrase that is being used to describe the business end of the cultural tourism strategy. Whistler has seen and heard about festivals and events for years. Animation was the buzz word of the Olympics.
But the approach to FE&A is different this time around. It's based on a thorough analysis of festivals and events in 2010 and their relation to occupancy levels in the resort. The analysis found, naturally enough, that higher occupancy coincided with events. The size and scale of events was also correlated with markets and several categories of events were established. The Olympics, for example, were a once-only major event. Crankworx and the World Ski and Snowboard Festival are major annual events. The GranFondo is a major annual one-day event, while the children's art festival is more of a local festival.
Once the types of festivals and events were determined and their impact on room nights established municipal staff looked at where they believe festivals and events could be tweaked to boost occupancy levels and/or extend visitors' stays. If occupancy levels are looked at like a stock market chart, the goal is to extend the high points, broaden them and minimize the low points.
It's not perfect, but it is a well-reasoned plan. In fact, it appears to be the plan to address Whistler's number one issue - occupancy levels - in the post-Olympic, post-recession era.
That's not to underestimate the marketing efforts of Tourism Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb and various individual businesses. TW and WB, in particular, put together comprehensive marketing plans annually and assess and adjust them throughout the year. But those are beyond the view of most people in Whistler. The FE&A plan should be more tangible and measurable for most of us.
That's important because there isn't going to be an overnight turnaround in destination visitors - for Whistler or anyone else in the tourism business. It's going to be a long, slow recovery.
The Olympics did create greater awareness of Whistler, but turning that awareness into visits is more complicated than was portrayed prior to the Olympics. All the more so now that the Canadian Tourism Commission is becoming a "leaner, more scalable operation." Likewise, Tourism B.C.'s plans for the post-Olympic period seem to be more modest than those rolled out in the pre-Olympic period.
So FE&A is Whistler's plan. It is almost entirely dependent on the province turning over the Resort Municipality Initiative money. That's the equivalent of the former hotel room tax. With the implementation of the HST last year there is no longer a specific hotel room tax, so the provincial government has to figure out a new formula to reimburse those resort municipalities that were receiving it. They say they will, but until the money's in the bank...
Assuming the funding for the FE&A plan does come through, how the plan is implemented will be key. Most of the festivals and events are in the spring, summer and fall, so work on some of them should be well underway by now. Many of the existing festivals and events are produced by private companies that only need someone in Whistler to help coordinate their efforts. Others may be produced by "Whistler." But is that a municipal responsibility? Does Tourism Whistler, which has a Partnerships, Promotions and Events team, lead the effort? Does 2010 Sport Legacies have a role?
If festivals, events and animation are what we do, sorting out responsibilities and ensuring there is no duplication of departments should be one of the first things we do.