Doug Perry has mostly distanced himself from the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) since relinquishing the reins, in 2006, to the event he founded more than 20 years ago.
But that changed last year, when Whistler Blackcomb (WB) approached him for ideas to rejuvenate the festival after local production company Watermark Communications stepped away from the event it had programmed for 11 years. Perry gave WB two suggestions: "Either you kill it, or you engineer a bold rebrand, redesign and restructure," he recalled. "They did what they did, which was choose door No. 3: Cut it in half."
Last January, WB announced that WSSF would be scaled back from 10 days to six, with two new producers, each with deep roots in the community, at the helm: WB's in-house producer Crankworx Inc. and local bar and nightclub operator Gibbons Whistler. (Gibbons Whistler CEO Joey Gibbons confirmed the company's involvement in the festival this year, but it's unclear at this point if it will split production duties again. Tourism Whistler also relinquished its one-third ownership stake in the event last year, citing its "diminished role" with WB managing the event internally.)
In 2019, one of Whistler's signature events will be trimmed down once again: it's scheduled to run five days, from April 10 to 14.
Perry believes a shortened festival is denying the community millions of dollars in economic spinoff. At its height in 2006, a Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance study found the festival generated $37.7 million in economic activity for the province, of which $21.3 million was spent in Whistler, and 28,000 hotel room nights. Perry, who has two decades of financial data from the festival, said WSSF could be producing up to $50 million in activity for the province. He estimates that it's currently operating at less than 30 per cent of its financial potential.
The long-term goal, according to WB's communications director Marc Riddell, has always been to return WSSF to its former 10-day schedule, but he stressed that that can only happen with "a measured approach."
"Our intention is for it to grow," he explained, adding that WB agrees with Perry on the event's long-term potential. "Now, will it necessarily be the way it was in its heyday? I don't know, those were pretty heady days and there wasn't a lot of competition at that time of year. So for us, it's to take a measured approach and hand it over to a team that has a track record of event planning and promotion. If you want anyone managing that event, it's the Crankworx team."
Crankworx Events GM Darren Kinnaird, who has helped usher mountain-bike festival Crankworx into Whistler's largest event, said the decision to trim WSSF wasn't a financial one.
"The goal was to create a big splash as opposed to 10 days of a slow drizzle," he said. "We had some really great core sporting events that we wanted to anchor the festival, and it made more sense to have them together from a production standpoint, from a programming standpoint, as opposed to having them on book-end weekends. It's just a more efficient way to spend money."
Notably, Riddell said the cost to produce last year's shortened event was "comparable" to 2017, Watermark's final year at the helm, when the festival was 10 days and still included a music mainstage.
"To spend as much money, in fact more, than what we spent, and produce half the amount of days and even less in terms of the amount of events, is shocking," said Watermark president Sue Eckersley.
Festival needs 'bold reinvestment'
Perry says that, without a "bold reinvestment" that returns the festival to its global status, WSSF's brand will be too damaged to attract the kind of big-name sponsors that the event needs to thrive.
"The Canadian sponsorship marketplace is very small; everyone knows everyone, everyone knows all the properties, and when you reduce the number of days, and reduce the marketing down to near ineffectiveness, you can't even get a meeting in a boardroom," he said. "There's no story to sell."
There's no denying WSSF faced major challenges after losing Telus as a title sponsor in 2012—festival revenues dropped by more than half between 2011 and 2015—which Perry attributed, in part, to what he saw as Watermark's move to an event-production model over an event-marketing model.
Eckersley, who worked on the WSSF sponsorship file for years under Perry's direction, acknowledged that the emphasis on production ramped up under Watermark, but added that the sponsorship climate in Whistler had changed in later years. Part of the issue, she believed, is that for years after WSSF started in 1994, it was one of the only events of its size in the resort—and certainly the only one taking place in the relatively slow spring season. As WSSF grew, along with Whistler's "proliferation of events," Eckersley said, there were fewer sponsorship dollars to fight over, coupled with little desire from snowsport and other brands to connect with consumers in April.
"We actually had a tough sell because April is not a launch time, which is where a lot of the big budgets come from. Nobody launches a new car in April," she said.
Eckersley also feels that WB didn't do the festival any favours last year.
"I think last year, making it a (six)-day event was a major mistake," she said.
"I would say (WB) has two more years to get it together."
To Riddell, however, the loss of major investors had less to do with the festival's supposedly dwindling appeal than sponsors having "different priorities" for their corporate partnership dollars.
"I think in terms of the decline, we certainly saw (WSSF) change over those years. But for us, we look at it as a chance to turn it around. We're looking at the structure a bit, we're looking to rebrand, and we're certainly looking to modernize it, as Mr. Perry suggested," he said.
The move away from music
Both Perry and Eckersley questioned the move away from big-name musical acts at last year's event. Over the years, WSSF has hosted talent such as Nickelback, The Black Eyed Peas, and Nas. For the 2018 festival, organizers eliminated the music mainstage altogether, instead hosting smaller acts such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and A Tribe Called Red at various festival venues and at two weekend big-air events held in Skier's Plaza.
"In the past, there's been event partners that had music as their focus," Kinnaird said. "They saw music as a core priority, and we're working with different partners and different priorities now, and those priorities have changed over time. I don't think it's about dollars and cents, I think it's about stakeholder priorities."
But Eckersley wondered why organizers would step away from what was "by far the biggest property that brings in sponsorship dollars" for the festival.
"(Sponsors) know that the No. 1 thing that connects with this demographic is music," she added. "It doesn't make any sense to me. If you do a bit of research, you'll find that music is a driving factor in young people's lives, and that therefore is something that makes them passionate and therefore something that brands want to connect with."
The importance of media exposure
At its peak, WSSF generated an estimated $7.5 million worth of media impressions, and was broadcast in 122 countries globally. With Crankworx Events' relationship with its streaming partners—Kinnaird said last year's slate of Crankworx-produced events, including in Whistler, were viewed more than 40 million times—WSSF has the potential to regain some of that media exposure.
"We've been able to generate a massive economic impact with Crankworx, so I have great confidence that (WB) is looking to us to help ... bring back that marketing impact," Kinnaird added.
Perry believes a robust marketing model is essential to the festival's survival.
"You have to start to invest in it as a marketing expense, with the objective being to mobilize people to come to the resort—that's exactly what a marketing investment should be," he said. "If companies like Apple, Disney, Telus, Sony, Coca-Cola and Labatt, if they all at one point felt (WSSF) was a worthwhile investment of their marketing dollars, why does it not earn Vail Resorts' marketing dollars?"
Riddell, however, pointed out that those marketing dollars might not stretch as far as they used to given the dramatic changes in the media landscape since WSSF was at its height.
"I honestly think it was clearly a different time," he said, highlighting the decline in both print and televised media. "I would say that that's more symptomatic of the times, and less of today's outlook on how the festival could perform."
If he can pinpoint his frustration at the state of the festival, Perry said it's because he believes the current direction of WSSF was "100-per-cent avoidable."
"It could have been stopped. There were warning signs along the way that, if people had their eye on the ball, they could have stopped it and fixed it," he said. "It is possible in three years time for this thing to be doing what I think it could be doing, and that's beyond the $50 million in economic impact—that could actually happen. But the only way it will happen is with investment."