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Losing Altitude: Out on the Slopes cancels gay ski week

Vancouver producer backs out of deal at last minute and leaves Altitude high and dry



Altitude, the annual Whistler ski week for gays and lesbians has been cancelled, sort of.

Out on the Slopes Productions, the company that produces the annual event, claims on its website the cancellation is due to unspecified "last minute difficulties".

However, GayWhistler, a company involved in a bid earlier this year to produce the event, has stepped in at the last minute to offer a similar, yet less expensive event. ( See story : GayWhister takes on ski week.)

The cancellation of the event became public Jan 23, after a week of rumours. On Monday morning the Out on the Slopes website was in "maintenance mode". Another window informed would-be Altitude XIV attendees that ticket sales had been suspended. Nobody was answering the phone at the office. Before noon The Out on the Slopes websites had posted this:

"It is with our greatest sympathy and regret that we cancel this year's Altitude celebration. Due to last minute difficulties of which we could not overcome, we have been forced to cancel this year's program. Please accept our sincerest of apologies for those of you that have already made travel arrangements. We have instructed our credit card processing company to refund your ticket purchases. These refunds should be forthcoming in the next day or two."

The event, which started in 1992, was the brainchild of promoter Brent Benashak. At the time, Benashak was operating a Whistler B&B with his partner and saw the potential of creating a week for gay tourists. Combining winter sports with events such as mountain top tea dances and Snowball, a dance party that filled the conference centre and featured international DJs and performers, the event grew to a venture that brought more than $2 million into the resort. Attracting more than 3,000 guests, Altitude was the second largest "week" of the year.

When Benashak committed suicide just weeks before the 2004 Altitude XII, longtime associate Lee Bergeron stepped in to carry out the event. The American party promoter subsequently purchased the Out on the Slopes company from the Benashak family in September of that year. He was instrumental in seeing the event through in 2005.

"It’s extremely unfortunate," Bergeron said of the event’s demise. "I hadn’t been involved this year. I had a buyer lined up and things fell through. It got dumped (on me) a week ago and I had to make difficult decisions as to what to do."

Bergeron, who resides in San Diego, decided that after two years of being within two per cent of breaking even, surviving the worst ski season in 35 years, and "less than enthusiastic" support from within the resort, to sell.

The buyer in question was David Curtis, a Vancouver-based producer who had assisted Bergeron with Altitude XII and XIII. The San Diego businessman would not comment on the particulars that led to the dissolution of the potential deal. Phone calls to Curtis and the Out on the Slopes office were not returned. However, Bergeron stated that he feels blame for the demise of Altitude is one that should be shared.

"I think everyone in the game made mistakes. I had hoped for more aggressive assistance from everyone in Whistler," he said.

"When I took Altitude on I was excited. It seemed full of hope and promise, but soon thereafter the enthusiastic bubble was burst."

As late as January 2005, Bergeron was still espousing great enthusiasm, projecting an attendance figure of 4,500 and talking about plans for expansion of an event that primarily attracted gay men between 25 and 45 years old.

"I want to add events to make this more of a festival. The parties are great, but I think to attract a wider demographic of the gay community, and others, we need to add more festival-oriented events," said Bergeron at the time, citing Cornucopia as a model.

Despite the financial problems, such as outstanding contractor bills that remained unresolved from the transition year of 2004, Bergeron seemed confident of Altitude’s potential. However, an insider estimated the event’s current debt load to be in the neighbourhood of $100,000. Some local Whistler businesses still have outstanding invoices with Out on the Slopes and at least one of those companies is launching a suit in small claims court.

In the meantime, Bergeron equates his being drawn back into the event like being visiting by an ex-husband or ex-wife you haven’t thought of in years. While he is saddened by Altitude’s cancellation, his deepest sympathy’s are with the founder’s family.

"I have lots of respect for the Benashak family and I am sorry they have to continue dealing with this tragedy.