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Mass participation events may be wave of future

Participation The 5 Peaks trail run on Saturday drew some 450 runners, the majority of whom were from the Lower Mainland. Events like this are becoming more important to Whistler’s tourism industry. Photo by Chris Levesque, www.coastphoto.com

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When you see 4,000 people in Lycra spandex milling about Lot 4 on Sept. 11 you'll be seeing the tail end of the inaugural GranFondo Whistler, the first large-scale road cycling ride of its kind in B.C., and the result of some serious pent-up demand from the cycling community in the Lower Mainland.

But more than that, it's just one in a run of participatory events that Whistler is hosting, a new trend in how Whistler markets itself as a destination resort. Events like the recently-announced Whistler Half Marathon, the X-Terra Triathlon and the B.C. Bicycle Race are inclusive events where anyone can participate.

Whistler's traditional methods of attracting visitors through spectator-driven competitions and concerts have meant spending money to bring in talent, set up infrastructure, in some cases even paying accommodation and transportation costs for athletes. The Olympics, as successful as they were, cost the Resort Municipality of Whistler $6 million, according to official reports.

With events like the GranFondo, participants pay everything themselves, so the cost for the resort municipality is comparatively low - and Whistler sees a bump in hotel room visits and in related spending.

"It is a trend. If you look at the events that are coming and the existing events, they are getting much bigger," said Arlene Schieven, vice-president of marketing at Tourism Whistler. She said certain events, like the 5 Peaks race that was in Whistler on Aug. 21, are becoming more accessible for people seeking an outdoors experience but who my live in urban areas that can't facilitate such events.

"I do think there is a trend towards more participation and it fits very well with the type of people who come to Whistler - they're active, they want to get involved in these types of activities," said Schieven.

Matt Freeman, spokesperson for the GranFondo, said the 4,000 cyclists registered for the GranFondo is evidence of the pent-up demand for a cycling event of this size, and of participatory events in general.

The event initially sold out before organizers could ramp up their marketing campaign. News of the race spread through word of mouth and eager participants jumped on the initial 2,000 spots within three months - much faster than expected. Organizers had to double the size of the inaugural event to accommodate more riders.

They expect the event to grow to 10,000 cyclists in a few years.

For the participants, amateurs in particular, these events can create a feeling of camaraderie and a building of community that can enrich their lives, even if it lasts for only a few hours.

"I was with 13,000 other cyclists in this small village in Italy. Everyone stood shivering in the cold morning together and there was just this magical energy," said Neil McKinnon, organizer of the GranFondo Whistler, in recalling his inspiration for the event.

"What I discovered there was the event wasn't necessarily about all the work you do or necessarily the route or the bike line, or having it a race or a ride. It's really about bringing people together with a common purpose," he said.

This year, nearly all will be together in Whistler on the night of Saturday, Sept. 11. Forecasts show hotel occupancy for that night to be far higher than any other night in September.

The run of participatory events jives with many people's ambition to hold an event in Whistler every weekend. All event organizers Pique spoke to reported unwavering support from the municipality and Tourism Whistler in terms of advertising the events, helping to book hotel rooms for participants and, in the case of the Whistler Half Marathon, working with organizers to navigate the permitting process.

Dave Clark, race director for the half marathon, said they are on the 10 th version of the race route and still working through it. He said they're taking suggestions from the public on how to improve the route, but also on finer details like what to name the newsletter or soundtracks to run to.

"We want it to be a people's run," Clark said. "We want them to have the opportunity to give input and provide feedback. We're very much open to all of that."

None of this, it seems, could have been done if not for the Olympics. Schieven said there's been considerably more interest in Whistler from event organizers over the last decade. For the GranFondo in particular, it couldn't have happened without the upgrades to Highway 99.

But it goes well beyond that.

"They have really expanded people's perceptions of what is possible in this province," Freeman said. "There's a real 'can-do' spirit, and I hate that term, but it's appropriate. I think that's because of the Games. It has really expanded people's imaginations."

With this run of participatory events and possibly a legacy of an annual half marathon and the GranFondo, the palate of experiences Whistler has to offer is ramping up. Schieven said this appeals to a different demographic than may be targeted in spectator-driven events, such as World Cup races or the World Ski Invitational.

 

 

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