Whistler's WinterPride Festival has grown significantly since its humble beginnings as a small gay ski week 21 years ago, but challenges remain if the eight-day event is to compete with other gay-themed celebrations hosted by top ski resorts around the world.
Set to kick off Sunday (Feb. 3) the festival is widely recognized as one of the most inclusive Pride events around, with a wide range of programming that reflects the diverse makeup of the LGBTQ community it celebrates.
“There's a little something for everyone, be it old, be it young,” said Barb Snelgrove, a reporter for Outlook TV, Vancouver's only LGBTQ community show and a longtime WinterPride attendee. “That speaks volumes to what the organizers have done to make this a truly inclusive Pride event.”
WinterPride's programming incorporates four key elements: sports, culinary, health and wellness and entertainment.
“Most Pride events around the world focus on either the political angle and some celebration or mostly celebration and a little bit of political,” said the event's executive director Dean Nelson.
Part of Nelson's goal after taking over the festival seven years ago was to expand the festival's focus from being organized around a large circuit party to include a wider range of programming.
“When I took it over in 2006 … we looked at why the numbers had started to decline and we realized that we needed to transform that week more into a festival and create these different offerings for both the skiers, non-skiers and the non-circuit party person,” said Nelson. “The majority of our guests have been coming for multiple years and are getting older, they've done the big circuit parties in the past, and they're beyond that.”
Whistler is unique among many Pride event host cities because it's not recognized as a LGBTQ destination like larger festivals in Paris or San Francisco. Factor that in with the event's expansive programming, and WinterPride can be considered a haven for those looking for a supportive atmosphere to celebrate in without having to look over their shoulders.
“In talking with people last year who had come specifically for the event … I heard about how it's just so marvelous that they don't have to be fearful in Whistler and they can have pride in who they are,” said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who will declare an official Pride Week and raise the rainbow flag at municipal hall to mark the event, as was done last year for the first time. “We tend to take our freedom and inclusivity for granted, but it really is something to celebrate.”
With the event's continued growth since Nelson took the reins, even being named the No. 1 gay ski week in the world by media company PlanetOut in 2008, he has felt pressure to compete with other gay ski weeks in North America.
“Different destinations are investing a lot into the LGBTQ community because they see the benefit not just from that one week. Once they're here for that week, they will fall in love with the destination and come throughout the entire year,” said Nelson. “Both Tourism Whistler and the municipality have just taken what we've done for granted, in my opinion, and haven't invested any hard dollars back into what we're doing and we just don't have the resources to keep continuing to do it.”
WinterPride organizers were in talks this year to bring an “A-list” celebrity to headline the festival, but couldn't afford to after the municipality declined their request for programming augmentation funding last month.
“The (Festival, Events and Animation Oversight) Committee has a policy framework for making decisions about augmentation monies,” said Wilhelm-Morden. “Part of the strategy is assisting those events that drive room nights and the weekend that WinterPride is held is in February, and that's one of our busiest months of the year, so it didn't really fit in with the criteria.” Municipal staff did approach organizers about moving next year's event to a different date, which Nelson said they're willing to consider.
The RMOW has committed to working with Tourism Whistler to conduct a thorough economic assessment study of WinterPride this year, however, something Nelson said he's been requesting for years.
“We're hoping that the different mechanisms we have in place this year will give us a little bit better recording of how many people actually come up for the festival,” he said.
Based on ticket sales so far, around 3,000 people will be attending the festival this year, but Nelson said that number doesn't reflect all the people who come to town to take in the event's atmosphere and participate in some of WinterPride's non-ticketed offerings.
While disappointed with the lack of municipal funding this year, Nelson said he's still looking forward to WinterPride and the effect it has on the community.
“It's one week that brings everybody out of the woodwork and everybody is celebrating and having a great time,” he said. “This festival brings everyone together, which is very exciting.”
Check out The Question's coverage of all of WinterPride's programming on page 41. The festival runs from Feb. 3 to 10.