Opinion » Editorial

Participatory events: The new Holy Grail?



For years Whistler, has been trying to attract visitors with manicured golf courses, perfect pistes and more pampering than most people imagined was available.

Turns out what people really wanted was to get muddy and hurt themselves.

That's the conclusion after yet another participatory event, last weekend's Tough Mudder, drew thousands of people to Whistler — more than 14,000. And the participants paid their own way.

Compare that to World Cup-type events, where Whistler pays thousands of dollars to provide a few with accommodation, transportation, meals and anything else they want.

In an increasingly competitive tourism market and a resiliently tough economy, growing evidence suggests participatory events like the Tough Mudder, the North Face Whistler Half Marathon and the RBC Granfondo Whistler are the new Holy Grail. It's no longer the large-scale sports-television productions with a few super-star athletes. In tough times, getting thousands of new people to visit a place is the first challenge. Why they visit is secondary. If they choose to visit Whistler, we've won.

The "payoff" with World Cup-type competitions is supposed to be the publicity that comes with hosting such prestigious events. Publicity, in turn, is supposed to lead to greater awareness of Whistler and, eventually, to more visitors.

But how much publicity did Whistler receive and how many more people chose to visit as a result of seeing Whistler host World Cup ski events, the 2005 snowboard world championships or any number of other high-profile sports events?

You could also ask: How much did hosting the biggest sporting event of them all, the Winter Olympics, improve Whistler's bottom line?

Tourism Whistler reported that awareness of Whistler in the U.K. increased from 32 per cent to 45 per cent after hosting the 2010 Olympics. In Germany, awareness increased from 19 per cent to 42 per cent and in Australia the numbers moved from 48 per cent to 62 per cent. Those figures, for key Whistler markets, are significant. Undoubtedly there is greater global awareness of Whistler after hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. Whether we've been able to turn that awareness into visits is open to debate.

Is there an iconic image that comes to mind from the 2010 Winter Olympics, a moment that seared the Games into memories forever? For Canadians, it would probably be Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal in overtime in the men's hockey final. But that took place in Vancouver. Is there a Whistler image? Jon Montgomery strolling through the village and picking up a jug of beer will be remembered by Canadians and perhaps the handful of people who follow luge. Otherwise, those non-Canadians who remember the Games may recall the warm weather, the lack of snow, the rain... even though that was at Cypress Bowl in West Vancouver.

It's important to remember that Whistler isn't trying to entice every person on the planet to visit. The Winter Olympics, ski and snowboard competitions are only really followed by a handful of northern European countries, Canada, the U.S. and perhaps Japan and South Korea. Those nations that follow winter sports and have mountains of their own have traditionally been considered Whistler's market so hosting World Cup ski and snowboard events — and more recently mountain bike events — made some sense.

But while many of us have concentrated on traditional markets others have found new markets and new reasons for people to visit the mountains.

More and more people spend their working days in front of a computer screen, constantly connected to a cyber world. A real-world, physical experience such as a Tough Mudder, a half marathon or a Granfondo is both a release and a challenge. And people are willing to pay for that experience.

Tough Mudder's chief marketing officer, Alex Patterson, described their demographic to Runner's World last year. "We get a lot of guys between 25 and 40 — a guy who hasn't seen his buddies in a while. He thinks he's still the same guy who used to be active in sports, and he's looking for a weekend away."

Granfondo riders are a little different. The average age of last year's rider was 47. Half the 7,000 participants had an annual household income of at least $100,000.

These participants are focused; they're here for a specific reason, which likely doesn't include shopping for fine art or perhaps even fine dining. But they likely bring family members with them, who may be interested in what Whistler has to offer. And many of them are likely to return.

That's more than you could say about World Cups.

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