A rebranded Whistler Pride and Ski Festival will take place at the end of January, with headliner comedian Margaret Cho and a number of tweaks intended to spike participation and revenue.
The annual gay ski event, now in its 23rd year, has morphed over time, with various names, producers and changes to programming. Since 2006, Dean Nelson has run the event, in collaboration with business partners. This year Nelson’s company, Alpenglow Productions, partners with Sunil Sinha, of Big Roger Events, to produce the renamed festival.
The festival generates $9 million in economic activity and $300,000 in tax revenue for the municipality of Whistler, according to an economic impact study undertaken by the local government. But in the past two years, Nelson says, the festival had been unable to access funds the province gives to resort municipalities like Whistler to promote tourism.
The problem, he says, is that ski week happens early in the year, before local governments learn what their annual program allocations from the province are.
“We had to create a case for us to be able to apply for those funds and have the municipality try and release some of those funds early so we could actually use the funds to augment some of our programming and drive more business,” Nelson says.
This year: success. Whistler has kicked in $25,000 for the festival, which has allowed organizers to book Cho as the headline entertainment. Crucially, Cho’s show takes place on the festival’s Wednesday night, Jan 28, which is meant to increase the length of stay for attendees who might otherwise have scooted up for only a couple of days over one of the two weekends. The festival runs Jan 24 to 31.
After two years of being rebuffed, Nelson is thankful for the funding.
“It definitely helps,” he says. “It helps reduce the financial risk to us in bringing huge headline artists like Margaret in, so we’re really quite thrilled with it. Of course, we would’ve loved to have had more funding, but for the first time out and third time lucky in applying for the funding, we’re pretty happy with it.”
Attendance is expected to at least match last year’s numbers of about 3,000, though Nelson is hopeful that new programming will draw more. In addition to Cho, who will be joined by actress, comedian and burlesque performer Selene Luna, a mini film festival on the Monday and Tuesday nights will offer two features and a short. A long roster of DJs will spin at a succession of parties; the UK DJ band Freemasons will also perform.
Nelson says the rebranding to the straightforward Whistler Pride and Ski Festival came in part because there are now at least a dozen events worldwide dubbed Winter Pride — and not all of them are gay. Some are just proud it’s winter.
“To avoid brand confusion, we thought it’s better for us just to be more in control of our brand and, with partnership change, with Sunil coming on board as a full partner, there was an opportunity to redo the website and everything,” Nelson says. “We decided this is a good time to really own the new name.”
Visitors to Nelson’s ski week roughly tally up as 40 percent Canadian, 40 percent American and 20 percent international.
“One of our largest markets is actually California,” Nelson says. “New York, Florida, the UK, Australia — they’re all really strong markets for us.”
The event also has a charitable component. Last year, Nelson says, Whistler Pride guests contributed $16,065.70 to organizations including the Rainbow Refugee Committee, Vancouver Frontrunners, Cutting Edges Hockey, Qmunity, the Vancouver Pride Society, Egale and others