If Whistler Olympic Plaza seemed crammed with people during the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's weekend of free concerts recently, that's because it was.
Nearly 6,000 classical music-lovers attended the event on July 20 and around 5,000 came out on July 19. It was the highest attendance so far for the Whistler Presents free concert series, which kicked off June 29 with shows every weekend until July 27 before a hiatus for Wanderlust and Crankworx. Whistler Presents resumes Aug. 30.
"I have a connection to this place and the design, that's my world," said Whistler Councillor Roger McCarthy, who sits on the Festivals Events and Animation (FE&A) oversight committee, which funded the series. "It's how you take that natural stuff and add the human stuff to it and create magic. I think the VSO did that with the full moon coming up between the mountains and the orchestra. I give real credit to the FE&A committee because... the refinement keeps getting better and better in terms of targeting who's coming here. I'd say we're getting there."
Other hits so far in the series were rockers 50-40 and opener WiL with 5,000 spectators, locals Ruckus Deluxe, Norman Foote, Kalan Wi and headliner Jeremy Fisher on Canada Day with another 5,000, followed by The English Beat, Taj Weeeks and Adowa with 3,000 in attendance.
Smaller crowds came out for Alex Cuba and The Lost Fingers (foul weather might have contributed to the lacklustre numbers) at 500 concertgoers and Ache Brasil with another 500.
The FE&A team didn't keep track of attendance numbers last year, but they estimate that there were between 1,500 and 3,000 people at most of the shows. Michael Franti & Spearhead — always a crowd-pleaser in Whistler — drew around 6,000 with about the same coming out for last year's Saturday VSO performance, they estimate.
The series isn't meant to draw visitors to Whistler, but rather to enhance the experience for those who are already here. Room night booking numbers for July aren't yet available, but Tourism Whistler says they are about on pace with last year at this time.
"I think what we're seeing is the impact of all the things we're doing," McCarthy said. "It's not purely Ironman, not purely other events going on. When you look at the whole program as it's laid out for the summer, those are things that essentially drive room nights."
They also bring business to the shops around Olympic Plaza. While Purebread only opened its location in the village a few weeks ago, they've seen a huge impact from the concert series, said owner Mark Lamming, who runs the bakeries with his wife, Paula. "We definitely see a financial benefit from it," he said. "We're really testing the waters on whether we should be open until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. depending on the concert and the night. We're seeing benefits not after the concert, people aren't having coffee late at night, but they're looking around saying, 'I'll come back in the morning.'"
A longtime Whistler local, Lamming said that area of the village has come to life in recent years with the addition of a playground and all the activities happening on the plaza stage. "I've been here 20 years and there's never been a town centre," he said. "There was nowhere where people could gather and socialize. What's happened with the plaza and the playground and concerts and skating, it's become a town square... It's been great for us as a business. We've been really happy. We hope it stays that way."
Blenz, the coffee shop franchise with local owners, are more established in the location and have also experienced a boost in business with the series. "With us, it's definitely been busier than a normal night," said owner Wendy Kendall. "On a normal night we close at 9 p.m. and we're pretty slow from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. On concert nights we're busy until the concert is over."
Their busiest nights were earlier in the summer during 50-40 and The English Beat, she added.
Like Lamming, she said increased activity in the plaza has attracted more customers. "Olympic Plaza has made us a viable business," she said. "Before we were losing money. We didn't have high traffic. It's changed everything. Summer is our busiest time now. August was our busiest month last year."
The concert series returns on Aug. 30 with The Once, a Newfoundland folk trio, and famed fiddler Ashley MacIsaac.