A&E » Arts

Is Whistler good for event producers?

Basically, it depends on whom you ask

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With the summer's Festivals, Events & Animation (FE&A) ready to launch this weekend—not to mention the loss of the X Games bid and the cancellation of Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler — events and event planning is top of mind in the community. Pique is running a two part series exploring Whistler's past, present and future with events.

In four months, Whistler will play host to one of the most progressive, eco-conscious festivals currently active in North America. Blending indie rock and electronica with yoga and other avenues for well being, the Wanderlust Festival seems an ideal match for the neo-hippie ideologies that underlie Whistler's every move.

At least, that's been the experience so far for the festival's organizers. Since last fall, Whistler's various stakeholders, including the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and Tourism Whistler (TW), have met with Wanderlust organizers to ensure the festival's success.

"It's as streamlined as working with five or six other stakeholders can be, and certainly the effort has been made to make it streamlined," says Sean Hoess, co-founder of Wanderlust.

The success of the festival seems likely, capturing an aspect of Whistler culture not currently targeted in the town's more successful festivals like the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, Crankworx, Cornucopia and, increasingly, the Whistler Film Festival.

Though for every successful event organizers here have hosted or hope to host, others have flopped or failed to materialize for a myriad of reasons, many of which cannot be addressed easily. Over the last two weeks Pique has spoken to over a dozen people involved in trying to make Whistler's event planning successful — most of them would not go on the record with their comments given the delicate nature of growing Whistler's cultural offerings in the years to come. But as the resort moves ahead with its plans to grow cultural tourism and events many are looking critically at what has worked, and what hasn't, with a look to finding success in the future.

The challenges are low community support for niche and ticketed events, the structural hierarchy that event producers are forced to go through, and the inefficiencies of the RMOW's events department and other event stakeholders past and present.

Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler cancelled its second year last month as a result. In 2007, the Whistler Music and Arts Festival was cancelled and TW hired third-party event producers to organize big-tent music acts. KISS was slated to play that year but the show was cancelled for logistical issues. A year earlier, 2006, Xavier Rudd cancelled a high-profile gig at the Conference Centre after refusing to pay a $25,000 damage deposit to use the venue — and these are only the high profile cases. On the cultural side the Whistler Theatre Project stalled for lack of funding, and The Pick of the Vancouver Fringe Festival bombed due to low attendance.

The 2010 Winter Games was a huge success, but much of that had to do with the mechanics of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and partnerships with Vancouver.

Doug Perry, a 20-year resident of Whistler and founder of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, has been observing Whistler's cultural landscape from afar since moving to Vancouver in 2006 and says Whistler has missed out on a prime opportunity with Jazz On The Mountain at Whistler (JOMAW).

"It's is a huge loss for the resort," says Perry, who now runs W1, an event production company, out of Vancouver after relocating from Whistler. "It had the potential to be not only a permanent annual event, but one with tremendous economic potential. Have you seen the demographic profile of (founder) Arne (Schwisberg)'s audience? There was the potential to fill every restaurant in town and a hell of a lot of hotel rooms with affluent customers each September. It will now go to another resort."

This is hardly the first time the relationship with third party event producers has dissolved over disputes with the RMOW. Following the failure of the KISS concert, the RMOW withdrew a five-year contract with the concert's producers Big Mountain Concert Company. The logistical issues that forced the KISS concert cancellation are still a mystery (this company no longer exists and a spokesperson could not be found by press time for this issue), but the dissolution of that contract mirrored the dissolution of an identical contract between Playground Performances (an earlier incarnation of Big Mountain) and Events Whistler, an events organization embedded within TW to assist third party event producers.

According to Paul Runnals, senior vice president brand.LIVE, producers of LIVE at Squamish who are currently working with the RMOW and Whistler Blackcomb to produce the music component of Kokanee Crankworx 2012, his company has never tried producing an event in Whistler partly because of "the success, or more likely the lack thereof, of the people who have tried."

"There's a culture of 'free' that exists in Whistler, as a result of the World Ski & Snowboard (Festival) and Crankworx and things like that, so the prevailing sense up there is stuff is free. People don't like to pay for it, mostly because they don't have to very much. It's a real obstacle for any promoter, be it the RMOW or otherwise, to try to change that thinking... It's a really tough market to sell tickets in."

The only option, he says, would be the cessation of free events all together, then waiting for the community to work up its appetite to the point where they're willing to pay for concerts.

But that's not likely to happen. The RMOW is launching its $2.68 million dollar FE&A program this week, the bulk of which will fund free programming throughout Whistler in 2012.

The RMOW says that it's pursuing options for ticketed events but Runnals says the transition from free to ticketed will probably be challenging, given the prevailing attitude in Whistler.

Schwisberg has been making this point, albeit more aggressively, since JOMAW's flop last fall. He says the RMOW's FE&A program makes it difficult for third party event producers to hold events.

"The mayor campaigned on the principle of municipal hall not competing with private operators. What happened to that? It's out the window. Nobody said a word," Schwisberg says.

During Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden's election bid, she wrote on her website that the FE&A program "is paid for by Whistler Taxpayers but is arguably unsuccessful at fulfilling its mandate. If the Municipality decides that Whistler needs concerts and events, there are plenty of local and regional professionals who can produce these events much better than the RMOW can, and at lower cost."

The mayor now defends the FE&A program, admitting that she's a reformed skeptic now that policy framework and oversight committees have been established.

She says that she does not believe that FE&A or the RMOW is competing with third party event producers wanting to do business in Whistler.

"The municipality is not actually producing any of these events," she says. "They're simply facilitating them and retaining private businesses to assist to produce the actual event."

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