This week, Whistler Blackcomb announced the return of one of Whistler's signature events, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF). But with a shortened run and two new producers at the helm, the 2018 festival is sure to have a different feel than in years past.
After local production company Watermark Communications Inc., which produced the festival for 11 years, gave up the reins following the 2017 event, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) began the search for a replacement. The ski resort settled on two companies with deep roots in the community: WB's in-house event producer Crankworx Inc. and local bar and nightclub operator, Gibbons Whistler, which has been involved with the festival for several years as a sponsor. The two will share production duties, with WB and Gibbons splitting costs 50-50. (Tourism Whistler has relinquished its one-third ownership stake in the festival, citing its "diminished role" with WB managing the event internally.)
"Through conversations, we found we had mutual interests with Gibbons Whistler, and as we continued those conversations, it turned out we were aligned in a lot of ways and would make a great partnership," explained Pete Sonntag, COO of Whistler Blackcomb.
The festival will move from 10 days to six this year, set for April 10 to 15. WB communications manager Marc Riddell explained that keeping the event "viable" was the main impetus behind the decision.
"I can't say that six days is where we'll end up in the future," he noted. "This is really a growth opportunity; it's about getting back to what we do well as a company, focusing on those key components, and then looking at how we expand that."
Sporting events will be a renewed focus for organizers this year, aligning WSSF more closely to its mid-'90s roots. The centrepiece of that programming will be the pair of big air events scheduled for Friday, April 13 (ski), and Saturday, April 14 (snowboard), with an increased $50,000 prize purse.
The Monster Boarderstyle event will also make its return, except this year Whistler will serve as the final stop on its world championship tour.
"They will actually crown a champion of the tour for the first time," explained Rob McSkimming, WB's vice-president of business development.
In another throwback to the Whistler of old, the iconic Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme returns to the resort after a more than 20-year hiatus. With a vertical drop of 2,500 feet from its namesake Saudan Couloir run, the race is the world's steepest ski competition, and became so popular in the late '80s and early '90s that TSN aired it as a 30-minute special.
The move comes on the heels of WB mending fences this fall with legendary Swiss-born skier Sylvain Saudan, whose relationship with the company soured years ago after he learned WB had been using his name on trail maps without his authorization. The matter was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
"The Saudan Couloir race is, personally, probably one of the most exciting things that's coming back," said Cranworkx Inc. GM Darren Kinnaird. "That race and that run are so historic and famous. It's so cool to see the name (of the run) back in place, but to now have the race on top of it, that's super cool."
Not returning in 2018 is the WSSF's music mainstage, which has welcomed many big-name acts from across the globe over the years. McSkimming stressed there will still be "a high focus on live music and world-class DJs" this year, but that the live acts will perform at various festival venues as well as at the two weekend big-air events in Skier's Plaza.
"It will be a much more robust show than we've had at our previous big air competitions," he added.
Intersection, the 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown, the Pro Photographer Showdown, and WSSF's closing party, The End, have all been confirmed for this year's festival.
Less clear is the status of several more community-oriented events that were a mainstay of the festival during Watermark's tenure, such as State of the Art, the annual roller derby bout, and Multiplicity.
Kinnaird said no past events are off the table just yet, but that it's "hard to say" at this early stage whether those grassroots events will be on the bill in 2018.
"There is a certain element to the World Ski and Snowboard Festival that's grassroots, and there's an element that's global and international, and we want to celebrate all of that," he added.
Pique spoke with the organizers of State of the Art, the Whistler Comedy Showdown, and ARTdrenaline to see if any WSSF producers had reached out about bringing their events back. Each said they had either not heard from the festival at all, or it had been several months since their last communication. Watermark also confirmed it still owns the rights to State of the Art, the annual exhibit that invites emerging artists to showcase and sell their work at the conference centre.
Longtime local Angie Nolan, who co-produced the live theatre show, ARTdrenaline, at last year's WSSF, is hopeful organizers maintain the community flavour of the festival.
"Whistler is in a transitional phase, and lots of people are asking if (new WB owners) Vail Resorts really care about us. Do they understand that we're a community here?" she asked. "I think people are on edge about that, and this is a great opportunity for them to show that they are a part of this community and want to embrace that."
Tourism Whistler president Barrett Fisher believes 2018 will be "a transition year" for WSSF, and given its importance on the resort's event calendar, hopes to see the festival build on its 23-year legacy.
"It is important for the resort," she said, adding that TW will continue to contribute to the event with marketing and in-kind support. "It helps showcase Whistler and drive business... during a need period, and as a result it is an important driver for the resort and attracts thousands of festival attendees in April, and so from that perspective, we would like to see the festival grow into the future."
For more information, visit wssf.com.