First Night plots course for 2000 Control is key to success By Chris Woodall First Night New Year's Eve planners have been looking back at the success of 1997-98's event even as they wrap up plans for Dec. 31, 1999. The anticipated popularity of the — for most of us — century-cracking New Year's Eve two years from now forces organizers to book ahead. "We decided at our debriefing meeting (last week) we'll have to book performers now for 1999 and Dec. 31, 2000," says Maureen Douglas, director of festivals and events for the Whistler Resort Association. "It's looming upon us. We'll get the core needs set up now, but we'll look at add-ons closer to the date," Douglas says. It is estimated that 7,500 partiers were in the alcohol-free zone in the village at the busiest point of the evening, toward midnight, during this year’s celebrations. This was the first First Night since 1995-'96, when about 9,000 people attended the event. A dump of snow cancelled last year's festival. There were no incidents to report inside the gated area, says Sandra Smith of Municipal Bylaw. "With the amount of policing and security we had, if someone got in (under the influence or carrying alcoholic beverages) they were sorted out before they could cause any trouble." Outside the gates, there were a few cases for the RCMP to handle. "There's always going to be somebody who gets picked up outside the gates," Smith says. Freezing rain on New Year's Eve is blamed for a turnout that was lower than expected. A venue featuring live entertainment set up in the parking lot beside the conference centre was ill-attended enough that organizers have decided to eliminate it for next year. "It didn't fill up too much," Douglas admits. "It's a little off the beaten path. There's a mental border that causes people to bypass it for the main village squares." That stage will be moved to Village Square, providing entertainment at the opposite end of village to the Mountain Square stage, outside the Carleton Lodge. Music for those stages will be family-oriented between 6 and 9 p.m., gearing up to a more lively format later on. "We want to reach a huge bunch of ages, but we don't want anything too heavy that'll create a mosh pit," Douglas says. The family zone was a success and will be expanded. Children and parents were entertained with crafts, children's performers and a juggling workshop, among other activities. The idea of encouraging thousands of revellers into the heart of Whistler worries some hoteliers and retailers every year. If only they were here in the years before First Night, say event organizers. In the late 1980s and first couple years of the ’90s New Year's Eve crowds in Whistler were enormous and unregulated, annually resulting in broken storefront windows and piles of shattered beer and liquor bottles. "Some hoteliers and retailers need a visit from the Ghost of New Year's Past," Smith says of those "newbies" concerned with the whole First Night concept. As it is, Smith does a walk-about in early December to answer any concerns. "In 1989 we needed a front-end loader to clear the glass from Village Square," she says. "First Night brings so much safety and order to the whole area." "It used to be that Vancouver kids would dead-end here by arriving on a bus and having no place to sleep later on, or they'd sleep in their car," Douglas recalls. "That's pretty much stopped," she says of Vancouverites looking at Whistler as a destination for rowdy behaviour on New Year's Eve. "If we get 9,000 people showing up, they are 9,000 controlled people, instead of 9,000 drunken rioting people," Douglas says. For those bent on getting a drink, most of Whistler's bars are outside the fenced area. "A lot of the clubs sell tickets for the event, so if someone needs to get access inside they have proof of where they are going, or we'll escort them," Smith says. "It's a security issue for the municipality and a marketing issue for the WRA that people have a really positive experience on New Year's Eve," Douglas says. Mistakes were made in the first two First Nights in overdoing the control factor, Douglas admits. "The idea was to bring in real subdued entertainment to bore them into submission, but it wasn't working because people simply stayed away." The current philosophy is to create a happy, lively atmosphere. "If people are having fun, that's probably more effective with peers," Douglas says.