6 min

Moguls ahead

Bumps in the road to Altitude 2005

Credit: Robin Perelle

As the producers of Whistler’s world-famous gay ski week gear up for Altitude 2005, questions are surfacing about the event’s viability and the integrity of its new owner.

Lee Bergeron first offered to buy Out On the Slopes, the company that produces Altitude, last year after its founder and sole owner, Brent Benaschak, committed suicide on Dec 30, 2003.

Bergeron was an Altitude regular. He’d been attending the weeklong event since 2000. When he heard about Benaschak’s death, he called his parents to offer condolences. Then he offered to buy the company.

That was last January. Though the family quickly appointed Bergeron director, they only finalized the purchasing agreement 11 months later, in late November-just two months before Altitude 2005’s scheduled kick-off.

By all accounts, the negotiation was long and difficult.

Rodney Plante blames Bergeron.

Plante began volunteering with Altitude in 1997 and quickly rose through the ranks to coordinate various aspects of the event. He was one of Benaschak’s closest friends. Last year, he helped produce Altitude. This year, he wants nothing to do with it.

Bergeron deliberately stalled, tried to block other bidders, and refused to disclose the financial statements for Altitude 2004 to the Benaschaks (who inherited the company from their son), Plante alleges. He even changed the locks at one point, he says.

Bergeron, now owner and executive producer of Altitude, denies it all.

It was a difficult negotiation, he says, but he neither stalled, nor changed any locks, nor withheld any financial information.

It took some time to reach an agreement, he explains, because it was a complicated transaction (partly due to Benaschak’s death), and the family was understandably emotional.

“But we found our way through all the intricacies and got the deal worked out,” he says, adding that there was nothing hostile about it.

“It just took some time to get it done,” Bergeron repeats. “But it’s done. And everyone’s happy. The Benaschaks will be there this year and very happily so. Everything happened just fine.

“It was an amicable transaction,” he continues. “We’ll dine together. We’re close friends. Whatever you’ve heard is lies. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Brent’s mother, June Benaschak, is reluctant to talk about the negotiation or its outcome. There were some misunderstandings, she says, but won’t go into detail.

“We’ve negotiated and hopefully it will all work out.”

Whatever problems may have arisen are “our problems,” she stresses, adding that she doesn’t want to talk about it. “Negativity reaps negativity.”

Neither party will say how much Bergeron bought the company for.

June Benaschak says the family received some money up front and will get the rest later. She’s just glad they finally sold the business. “We just wanted to get rid of it. Money wasn’t a big issue. We just wanted it out of our hands and someone to take care of it.”

Asked if the deal was amicable, she says it was. She’s not sure if she’ll dine with Bergeron at Altitude this year because she’s still not sure if she and her husband are going. But if they go, they’ll get together with him, she says.

“We were never on the outs. Well, maybe we were a little bit at one time. But we’re not mad at him,” she says.

The same can’t be said for Plante.

Bergeron blocked other bidders who may have been more qualified to run an event of this magnitude, Plante maintains.

Two friends of his from LA wanted to bid, he says, but they couldn’t because Bergeron wouldn’t disclose the company’s financial status.

Bergeron says he’s not aware of any LA-based business partners who wanted to bid on Altitude.

Tom Whitman questions that assertion. Whitman, an event producer in LA, is one-half of the business team in question. “Lee knows very well who we are and what we requested,” he says, referring to the financial statements for 2004.

Bergeron took months to release any financial information for 2004, Whitman alleges, and when he did it was “minimal and incomplete.”

“He basically made it impossible for anyone else to negotiate for the company.”

When asked if it’s standard business practice to withhold financial information from other prospective buyers, Bergeron says it is not. But “you’re talking about a complete farce,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Whitman says he couldn’t make an offer in the end.

Plante says Bergeron is not qualified to put on a world-class event like Altitude. He lacks the relevant business experience, he says.

That’s not true, Bergeron counters. Altitude is just one of three companies he’s running right now, he says-and it’s the smallest of the three. The other two are a restaurant and bar consulting company and a vitamin company.

“This event is a project for me,” he says. “I want to see it grow and become an even greater world-class event.”

Already this year, Bergeron has plans for Altitude’s expansion. He’s adding several new events to the roster, including a daily breakfast where skiers will be able to meet before they go up the mountain, and daily yoga classes. He says he’s not undermining Altitude’s core, he’s just adding to it to attract a wider segment of the gay and lesbian community.

“Our parties are still going to be magnificent,” he says. He just wants to give gay ski week participants more opportunities to get together in different settings.

“I’m excited,” he continues. Altitude 2005 is shaping up “very well” and things are really coming together.

“Everything is just incredible,” he enthuses, adding that he just signed Roger Sanchez, an award-winning DJ, to spin for Altitude’s famous Snowball party.

“This will, by far, be the best Altitude ever,” he says.

Plante remains doubtful.

Under Bergeron’s direction, Altitude has failed to pay some bills, he alleges; it has also double-billed some customers without reimbursing them.

Bergeron says he’s not aware of any double-billed customers.

He should be aware, counters Mark Tyler from New York. Tyler says he spoke to Bergeron directly at Altitude last year about being double-billed for his hotel and some of the events. Bergeron allegedly told him to call him at the office when the week was over. Tyler says he called at least three times and never got any response.

The whole thing “just left a bad taste in my mouth,” Tyler says. It was only $500, he notes. “For a New York City boy that’s not a hell of a lot of money, but it’s still money.”

It was “rude and unprofessional,” he continues. He won’t be coming back to Altitude this year.

As for the question of unpaid bills, Bergeron seems reluctant to address it at first. “I’m not really here to discuss any of the financial happenings with the company,” he says.

Then he says that if there were any debts, they would have been handled by now. “All of our vendors are happy. There are no problems with that.”

Danielle Kristmanson doesn’t sound very happy. She owns Origin Design in Whistler. She still hasn’t been paid for her design services for last year’s Altitude. Out On the Slopes owes her almost $30,000, claims Kristmanson.

She’s still negotiating with Bergeron, she says, so she’s reluctant to discuss it further. But it’s not common for her to have such outstanding bills, she notes.

Plante’s concerns don’t end there. He is also upset about what he considers to be Bergeron’s broken promises to memorialize his friend, Brent.

Last year, Bergeron told Xtra West that he planned to establish a foundation in Benaschak’s name and collect donations at every Altitude 2004 event. That never happened.

It was the family’s responsibility, Bergeron says now.

June Benaschak says they never talked about any foundation.

Bergeron points out that he has re-named Altitude’s comedy night in Brent’s honour.

Plante laughs when he hears that. “I did that” last year, he says, because “Brent loved to laugh.”

Bergeron also says he donated “a sizeable amount” of his own personal money to the Coal Harbour bench Benaschak’s friends bought in his memory. “I thought it was a fitting thing to do,” he says.

Plante disputes that claim, too. First of all, he says, Bergeron was very difficult to reach. And when he did send a cheque, it was cut from the company account, not his own.

Maybe it would just be better if there were no Altitude this year, Plante suggests. Maybe it needs a year to pull itself together.

It’s a “pivotal winter event,” he notes-“Vancouver’s flagship to the larger gay world.

“We were a known destination for a lot of travellers,” he continues. “If Altitude fails, people will equate that with Vancouver,” he warns. And that could undermine the reputation Vancouver is trying to build for itself as a global player in the gay tourism market.

Altitude 2005 won’t crash, Bergeron says. On the contrary, it’s going to be “truly dynamic. An action-packed week with some amazing talent and more and more to do.”

Plante is not working with Altitude anymore and no longer has any direct knowledge of the event, Bergeron points out.

“I don’t speak to Rodney,” he says. “If he has an axe to grind, it’s his to grind. My focus is on making this event grow and work for everyone.

“Unfortunately, there were people who maybe had a problem with me buying the company,” Bergeron continues. “But I’ll say once again: this was an amicable transaction between myself and the Benaschaks.”

Everything is on track now for Altitude 2005, he repeats. “We have everything we need and we’re going to have an amazing event.

“We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. For those who question, come see what we can do!”


Jan 29-Feb 7.

Whistler, BC.