Whistler-in spite of the cancellation of Altitude only 12 days before it was set to start, everyone Xtra West spoke with at Gay Ski Week had high praise for the destination and especially for GayWhistler, the group of investors who stepped up to make the event happen.
“It’s the same as it’s always been,” says Mark McEwan, who travelled from Atlanta. “It’s the people that are the best part. You can call it Altitude or whatever, but I don’t think it’s really skipped a beat.”
“It seems more friendly,” adds McEwan’s pal Mark Workman. “It’s Canada, so it’s always friendly, but it seems I’m getting to know the organizers a lot better and I’m feeling their pain and all the work they’re doing, so it’s been good.”
“This will work because it’s not one person sitting in San Diego not caring about it,” says Sean Kearns who leads GayWhistler. “This is going to work because this is five people that all have homes here, live here, and are invested here. They care about the community and the gay market.”
Kearns says GayWhistler plans to continue producing Gay Ski Week into the future with a more balanced emphasis on skiing and ski culture. He says people who want to party hard will still have the chance, but that Gay Ski Week will be a more rounded event with something for everyone.
Kearns says his group has continued to build on relationships with Tourism Whistler and the civic authorities in Whistler, and that dates for Gay Ski Week have already been locked-in for 2007. He says his company also plans to run gay events at Whistler year round.
Over the long term, Kearns wants GayWhistler to grow into a company with enough expertise and credibility to market and organize gay-themed events at mountain destinations around the world.
With only 12 days to prepare, the events this year weren’t as fancy as they were in the past, Kearns acknowledges, adding that he planned this year’s event to break even and as an investment in the future. Still, he’s encouraged by this year’s turnout, which he estimates at at least 1,000.
“A few people were definitely gun-shy,” says another GayWhistler investor, Dean Nelson. “They asked, ‘Okay, who is this company? We haven’t really heard of them. Is the payment process secure?’ People were a little bit nervous about jumping in straight away.”
But Kearns and Nelson say ticket sales “have been great” with most people waiting to buy their tickets until after they arrived at Whistler. “We’re processing them by the hour right now for the weekend events,” Kearns told Xtra West Feb 9. “Our prices this year are about half of last year because we, as owners, have been very sensitive to people’s value.”
Value is a big issue here. While everyone Xtra West interviewed had nothing but praise for Whistler’s ammenities and GayWhistler’s work, virtually everyone commented on the overall cost of vacationing there.
Randy Clarke, who is visiting from Palm Springs, is decked out in all the latest ski equipment and sports a ski suit that makes him look like a big, fabulous gay superhero. He and his friends are just about to hop on the ski lift up Blackcomb Mountain for a day on the slopes when Xtra West stops them for a photo.
Clarke says he thinks Gay Ski Week at Whistler risks becoming too expensive for anyone to really enjoy.
When asked if he’d stop coming if the costs kept rising, Clarke says, “Most assuredly. I stopped going to Aspen. I started going there almost the first year they started doing Gay Ski Week and I watched the costs go up. It finally got to the point where it was no longer fun.
“There’s a diminishing return and Whistler’s getting to that point,” he continues. “Even people who are of more comfortable means are re-evaluating the costs.
“There’s really no way to find out what happens to those dollars,” he adds. “It’s very frustrating because the perception is that it’s going into somebody’s pocket.”
Clarke says younger and less wealthy people are less and less able to afford to participate. In his experience, he says, a more exclusive crowd means you wind up bumping into all the same people every year.
Nelson says there is an inevitable cost to putting on an event at one of the hottest ski destinations in the world, especially as Whistler prepares for the Olympics. He points out, for example, that it costs at least $60,000 for event producers to rent the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain for a single event.
But he winces at the suggestion that Whistler might be too pricey.
“I sort of disagree,” he says. “When you look at the world, Whistler is no more expensive than London; it’s actually cheaper. It’s no more expensive than Paris. It’s no more expensive than Aspen. Even in Miami you can have just as many hard expenses, so you can’t really use that 100 percent. Doing business in Whistler is definitely an expense, but it’s all how it’s done. You can manage the expense.”
So, how expensive is it for a garden-variety homo to go to Gay Ski Week?
A FRESH Prime Access pass to all of the GayWhistler events this year cost $259 per person. Tourism Whistler offers packages with seven nights’ accommodation in the village and a six-day lift ticket starting at $915 per person if you book well in advance.
Xtra West priced equipment rentals, including skis, boots, poles, jacket and pants, at about $400 for six days. Unless you get creative, plan on spending at least $70 a day for meals; drinks start at around $6 each. Don’t forget airfare and ground transportation.
The total cost varies depending on when, how and from whom you book as well as how clever a shopper you are. Realistically though, it’s at least a $500-a-day proposition.