Barely two weeks before it was set to begin, Whistler’s annual gay ski week, Altitude, was abruptly cancelled by its owner, Jan 21.
But a group of investors from Vancouver, Whistler and Seattle are determined to keep the event alive under a different name this year and into the future.
“We’re working to pull it all together,” Dean Nelson, one of the investors, told Xtra West Jan 25. “We’re starting from ground zero. Our goal this year is to keep it really simple. To deliver a quality experience and to make sure everyone has a great time.”
Altitude volunteers received a terse e-mail Jan 21 that read simply: “This e-mail is to inform you that Altitude 2006 in Whistler, BC, Canada has been cancelled.”
Xtra West has learned the event began to unravel as a result of a conflict between the event’s executive producer, David Curtis, and Lee Bergeron, the owner of Out on the Slopes, the company that runs Altitude.
Curtis says he became increasingly concerned that it was his name attached to the event, even though he didn’t have any control over, or knowledge of, its finances.
He says he had been in negotiations to buy Out on the Slopes and Altitude from Bergeron, who lives in San Diego, but that he found it increasingly difficult to get in touch with him. Curtis says because he didn’t feel he could personally guarantee payments to vendors involved in the event, he had no choice but to walk away. He resigned Jan 14.
“Without having that [purchase] deal in place, I couldn’t guarantee those payments,” Curtis told Xtra West Jan 24. “The program is solid,” he continues. “It’s just that I was going forward under the understanding that my purchase agreement would have been completed long before the event, and I was not getting anywhere. It was not going to happen before ski week.”
Curtis says Bergeron could have pressed on with Altitude 2006, that arrangements were well under way, and that the decision to cancel was Bergeron’s.
Although Bergeron won’t confirm Curtis was the buyer, he says he did have a buyer in place that he “cares about.” He also says he didn’t have time to pull Altitude off himself.
“I had a buyer engaged in the project for the last few months,” Bergeron told Xtra West by phone from San Diego Jan 23. “The buyer backed out at the last minute and I have so many other obligations, I just was not able to jump in.
“Our credit card processing company has been instructed by myself to refund all the tickets purchased,” he continues.
Bergeron says he tried everything he could think of to get someone else to run the event, but he wasn’t able to find anyone in the entire queer community in Vancouver or Whistler willing to step up to the plate to finish the job. “Believe me, I’ve tried. We’ve exhausted every avenue to try and keep this event going,” he says.
Nelson, whose group issued a press release promising gay ski week events at Whistler the same day news of Altitude’s cancellation began to spread through the community, says Bergeron recently attempted to sell Out on the Slopes to them.
“Lee Bergeron did approach us in the early fall to ask if we wanted to purchase it,” says Nelson. “We did explore the idea and we came to the realization that it just wasn’t fiscally responsible for our investors to proceed with the purchase.”
Xtra West asked Bergeron about Nelson’s group. “I know nothing of it,” he says.
Bergeron says as well as losing Curtis and not being able to replace him, the cost of doing business at Whistler and a lack of support from the community were also factors in his decision to cancel.
“I haven’t found any positive, constructive assistance by any of the parties that we do business with,” says Bergeron. “I’m not talking about our vendors. I’m talking about the people we try and engage in trying to get this event pulled off. When you feel like you do a lot for a community like Whistler, maybe my expectations are too high. I don’t know.”
Xtra West asked Bergeron what kind of assistance he was hoping for.
“I don’t know, just more,” he says. “Each time the Brotherhood of Skiers comes to Whistler, the merchants association issues them a cheque for $10,000 just for coming to their town. Maybe I was looking for that kind of acceptance and assistance. Something symbolic.”
Bergeron says the Altitude events in 2004 and 2005 broke even, but that somehow he’s also lost money. “This has cost me money each year,” he says. “We’ve broken even, but I’ve always had my personal expenses attached to it.”
Bergeron bought Altitude from the estate of Brent Benaschak after Benaschak committed suicide in December 2003. Altitude 2004 came off in spite of Benaschak’s death with the help of one of Benaschak’s friends, Rodney Plante. But by the time Altitude 2005 was looming, Plante wanted nothing to do with Bergeron.
Plante alleged in the Jan 6, 2005 issue of Xtra West that Bergeron spent 2004 deliberately stalling and trying to block other bidders from buying Altitude. He said Bergeron refused to disclose financial details of Altitude 2004 to the Benaschak family and even changed the locks at one point, allegations Bergeron denied.
“Lee Bergeron obviously brought this on himself,” Plante told Xtra West in a phone interview from San Francisco Jan 25. “He came into Vancouver at a very unfortunate time and sang a good song, had people listen, and hasn’t followed through with anything he claimed he was going to do. In fact I think the situation is far worse now. Altitude is cancelled. We managed to pull it off in 2004 with two weeks to go after Brent killed himself. It’s not a rocket science event but [Bergeron] screwed Whistler, and he screwed people in Vancouver.”
Nelson says there are five principal investors in the company that is now trying to pick up the pieces of gay ski week, all of whom live full-time in Whistler, Vancouver or Seattle. As well as running several smaller events in the past, the group runs a website called GayWhistler.com.
“It’s a relatively new company,” says Nelson. “We want to make the destination of Whistler really easy and attainable for the gay consumer.”
The exact calendar of events for the upcoming gay ski week is now finalized and details and tickets are available on GayWhistler.com. Nelson says Altitude has promised full refunds for Altitude 2006 tickets, and unfortunately revellers will have to buy new ones for his group’s events.
“We want there to be value for everyone in the Whistler community and to make this a profitable event year after year,” says Nelson. “We’re in the business to make money, but we aren’t in the business to gouge. We want our customers to get good value and have a positive experience. We want to do it fiscally responsibly as well.”
Nelson urges those who have already made arrangements to go to Whistler for gay ski week not to be dissuaded by Altitude’s cancellation. “The skiing is phenomenal out here and we’re going to have some great après and some great functions that will be fun,” he promises.