Tag Archives: Whistler Resort Association

What is the WRA?

In late August 1979, the government of British Columbia introduced an amendment to the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act (the legislation that established Whistler as a municipality in 1975) that would allow for the creation of a resort association. According to section 14.1 of the Act, the purpose of such an association would be “to promote, facilitate and encourage the development, maintenance and operation of the resort land.” Due to this legislation, the Whistler Resort Association (WRA) began operations in 1980.

There were no other resort associations in British Columbia at the time, though several examples could be found in American resorts such as Sun Valley, Aspen, and Vail. In their October 19779 newsletter, the Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) wrote that “The concept of a destination resort and of a resort association are both new to Canada, and that is perhaps why some misunderstandings have arisen.” Though they did not detail what kind of misunderstandings had occurred, the WVLC did go on to provide and explanation of the purpose and structure of the WRA.

Land Company President Terry Minger delivers a presentation to Whistler Rotary about the purpose of the Whistler Resort Association. Whistler Question Collection.

The WVLC stated that the main purpose of the WRA was “to ensure the success of Whistler,” mainly through marketing. Marketing Whistler included promoting and advertising the resort, providing public relations, and making reservations. Their operations would include a computerized central reservation system able to book rooms for large groups such as conferences, a service to handle general inquiries about Whistler, and a central billing system. The WRA would also be able to sponsor events in Whistler, such as concerts and festivals.

The WRA membership was to include those who owned or operated in the (still under construction) Town Centre and the Blackcomb benchlands, as well as anyone owning or operating a tourism related business outside of the “resort land” who chose to join. According to Land Company President Terry Minger, the WRA would function not unlike a shopping centre merchants association or a tenants organization.

Once completed, the WRA was also in charge of operations at the Whistler Conference Centre. Whistler Question Collection.

For the first few years, the WRA was expected to be funded mainly by the WVLC and contributions from the operators of Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain, organizations who would also make up the majority of the board positions. The proposed budget for their first year of operations was set at $500,000.

Though some had expected the WRA to begin operating as early as late 1979, its bylaws first had to be approved by the provincial government. In March 1980, the Whistler Council voted to receive the new Resort Association Bylaws. By May 1980, all that the Whistler Question had to report was that no statement had been issued by the WVLC, the Council, or the province regarding the passage of the bylaws. Finally, by July 1980, the bylaws of the WRA had been approved and the association could move forward.

The WRA used federal government student employment programs in the early 1980s to provide entertainment in the village, offer tours, and work at the information booth. Whistler Question Collection.

The WRA quickly got to work hiring staff, such as their first executive director Karl Crosby, setting up systems, and marketing the resort of Whistler to the world. There were some challenges in their early years, such as a recession, continued construction, competing demands of members, and various changes in management (past general manager Peter Alder once said that for a period the WRA “went through managers like they went through coffees in the morning”) but the WRA remained a visible force promoting Whistler. They set up information booths at travel displays outside Whistler, coordinated visits for tour operators and conference organizers to show that Whistler was capable of, produced maps and directional signs in the valley, helped sponsor events such as the Fall Festival, Winterfest, and the first street entertainment program, and in 1981 introduced Whistler’s first mascot, a marmot named Willie Whistler. By 1986, membership of the WRA had grown to over 600 entities.

The WRA continues to operate in Whistler, promoting Whistler as a destination resort, operating a computerized central reservation system, and more, though today they are much better known as Tourism Whistler.

Livening Up the Street

On the mid-to-late 1980s, after working as the Vice-President of Marketing at Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, Mike Hurst began a new position as the acting general manager of the Whistler Resort Association (WRA), known today as Tourism Whistler. While Vancouver had drawn international attention during Expo 86, summers in the Whistler resort were still quite slow, with some businesses even shutting down for the season. According to Hurst, “People would come up to the Village, and they’d come in, and they’d go to a restaurant, and then they’d walk around wondering what to do, and there’d be very little to do.”

In an effort to change this, Hurst contacted Maureen Douglas and Laurel Darnell of Street Access and asked them to organize street entertainment in the Village for the summer of 1987. Though Douglas spent Expo 86 recovering from a broken leg, she was inspired by the “sleeper hit” street performers at the festival and wanted to ensure that talent wasn’t forgotten. She and Darnell formed Street Access Entertainment Society as a non-profit street entertainment booking and development society in September 1986. They were soon contracted to organize three days/week of entertainment in Whistler.

Some acts included combinations of acrobatics and knife juggling. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Each weekend the Village would host performances by jugglers, musicians, comedians, and character actors who roamed the Village Stroll. At the end of the summer, fifteen acts were brought together for the Whistler Street Festival Grand Finale over the Labour Day weekend to compete for a contract to perform at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia.

The street entertainers from the very first season in 1987. Photo courtesy of Maureen Douglas.

Street Access continued to organize summer street entertainment for the WRA, increasing to four days/week in 1988 and then seven days/week in 1989. The WRA then decided to bring festival and entertainment planning in house and asked Douglas to write a job description and apply. She began working at the WRA and ran the street entertainment program through the 1990s.

The Checkerboard Guy demonstrates how to eat fire on the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

According to Douglas, each year’s lineup was made of about 50% returning acts from the Lower Mainland and 50% new or touring acts. One regular act was Carolyn Sadowska, who appeared as Queen Elizabeth II and would instruct visitors on points of etiquette, provide tiaras and props, and pose for photos. Other acts included Fifi Lafluff (“the world’s worst hairdresser”), a cappella groups such as Party Fever, bands like the Mulberry Street Jazz Band, clowns, and comedic jugglers such as the Checkerboard Guy and Mike Battie (whose grand finale involved juggling pins and broccoli, which he proceeded to eat, accompanied by the William Tell Overture). Over the years Douglas also started to hire local musical acts, such as Stephen and Peter Vogler, singing group Colours on Key, and harpist Alison Hunter.

Colours on Key, a local singing group in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

By most accounts, the street entertainment program was a big success. Through the 1990s the September festival was renamed Whistler’s Really Big Street Fest and weekly showcases were added to the schedule. Acts were carefully placed throughout the Village, as some could attract audiences of 300 to 400 people. While this was alright in Village Square, in other areas those numbers created gridlock.

Performances could fill Village Square, sometimes even impeding foot traffic. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Whistler became part of the street entertainment circuit, joining other festivals across Canada in cities such as Halifax and Edmonton. While some of the other areas offered performers a chance to make a lot of money through busking, the WRA didn’t want the audience to have to pay and instead offered a “working holiday,” with a decent fee, accommodation, wine and cheese get-togethers on Fridays, and time to enjoy summer in Whistler. Douglas remembered that one of the producers of a busking festival once told her, “You know, our one beef with Whistler is that you guys are just too nice. They come here and then we don’t treat them quite as well and they’re miffed.”

Encouraging summer visitors was a large focus of the WRA and Mike Hurst in the mid-to-late 1980s and street entertainment was just one strategy to increase numbers. For many visitors and residents, however, the performers were one of the most memorable parts of their Village experience.

Welcoming Fall to Whistler

In may technically still be (and at times even feel) like summer, but for many people the beginning of September signals the beginning of fall.  While many people will have spent this weekend celebrating a certain beverage at the Whistler Beer Festival, in the 1980s this past weekend would have featured a celebration of the upcoming season with the Whistler Fall Festival.

The Fall Festival was first organized by the Whistler Resort Association (WRA, now known as Tourism Whistler) in 1981.  At the time, the Whistler Village was beginning to emerge from a craze of construction and Blackcomb Mountain was looking forward to its second season of operations.  There was a lot to celebrate in Whistler and the festival featured many of the growing community’s arts, crafts, sports, and activities.

The Fall Festival also included a Paint a Snowflake contest, leaving the fences around construction sites covered in snowflakes. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

One of the local characters showcased at the Fall Festival was Willie Whistler, the new mascot of the WRA.  Willie’s name came from a “Name the Whistler Marmot” contest for children in the area in which the winner, eight-year-old Tammi Wick, won a Blackcomb season pass.  The mascot was created to promote Whistler at local and other events and the Fall Festival, which included time each day to “Meet Willie Whistler,” was his first big event.

Willie Whistler takes a ride with Bo Bo the Clown during the Fall Festival in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The festival also featured local artists and artisans who demonstrated their crafts in the village, including pottery, fibre spinning, stained glass, and painting.  Performers over the weekend included acts such as Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders, the Alpini Band, and local favourite Doc Fingers, as well as dance performances and Bo Bo the Clown.

For visitors and residents alike, the Fall Festival offered different ways to see the Whistler valley.  Snowgoose Transportation offered free 50 minute bus tours, showing off everything from residential areas to the gondola base in Creekside to the Blackcomb daylodge.  To see the valley from above, participants could enjoy a flight from Okanagan Helicopters, take advantage of Blackcomb Mountain’s offer of free chairlift rides, or, subject to wind conditions, go up in Chuck Bump’s hot air balloon, billed at the festival as the “World’s Largest Hot Air Balloon.”

Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders perform in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sports and competitions also featured prominently at the Fall Festival.  Spectators could take in volleyball, Pro/Celebrity tennis matches that paired pro players with notables from politics, business, and media, a softball game between the Whistler Contractors Association and the Whistler A’s, or even a parachuting demonstration.  For those looking to compete, the Waiters Race challenged Whistler’s servers to run a timed obstacle course without spilling a drop, and the Labatt’s Great Whistler Water Race relay covered four lakes and the River of Golden Dreams through canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and windsurfing.

A softball game was fun for participants and spectators. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Though the Fall Festival was primarily about showcasing Whistler, it also raised money for several different causes.  On the Sunday, Whistler hosted a run as part of the first national Terry Fox Run, raising over $7,600.  The proceeds from a beer garden hosted by the Whistler Athletic Society that evening were also donated towards cancer research.

Local causes benefited as well.  The WRA donated enough funds from the Village Centre beer garden to replace the snowmobile of the Alta Lake Sports Club that had been destroyed in a fire.  Umberto Menghi, who was then opening his new restaurant Il Caminetto, contributed to the festival by both providing the firework display for the Saturday evening and hosting a gala dinner at Myrtle Philip School to benefit the Whistler Health Care Society.

If you look really closely, Chuck Bump’s balloon also featured some advertising for local restaurants. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation.

According to Glenda Bartosh of The Whistler Question, the first Fall Festival was about far more than raising money and generating revenue for the resort.  She reported that the festival “created laughter, high energy and a true appreciation of what Whistler is all about.”  The WRA must have agreed, as they continued to organize the Fall Festival for at least three more years.

Whistler’s First Adventure Film Festival

In 1986, Whistler held its first Whistler Adventure Film Festival (WAFF), an event not all that different from the Whistler Film Festival’s sixth annual Adventure Film Series that takes place on the Victoria Day weekend in May as part of GO Fest. (The museum also ran some Valley of Dreams Walking Tours and a Discover Nature station as part of the festival; if you missed us, our Valley of Dreams and nature tours all start up again daily June 1 and Discover Nature will be back at Lost Lake for July and August!).

Often when films arrive at the museum, they look a bit like this.

The WAFF was co-sponsored by the Whistler Resort Association (today known as Tourism Whistler) and organized by One Step Beyond Adventure Group of Canmore, Alta., which also organized the Banff Festival of Mountain Films (today known as the Banff Mountain Film Festival) at that time.  Set to take place over the third weekend of November, WAFF was timed to excite attendees for the coming winter season and the adventures that might await them.

The films selected featured various “adventure activities” including skiing, white-water sports and climbing expeditions.  In total, the festival screened 11 films over two days, with a reception on the Friday evening featuring David Breashears.

In 1985, Breashears became the first American to summit Mount Everest more than once, having already completed the climb in 1983.  By the time he appeared at the WAFF, he had already won an Emmy for an ABC Sports special Triumph on Mt. Everest, which featured the first videotape microwave transmission from the summit.  According to the Squamish Citizen, at the opening reception Breashears was going to show a selection of his film accomplishments as well as talking about his career and the search for Mallory and Irvine, who disappeared during their 1924 Everest expedition.  Following his talk was a screening of Everest – North Wall, Laszlo Pal’s account of the 1982 American China-Everest Expedition narrated by Robert Redford.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our “Filming Mountains” presenters from 2013, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

Over the next two days, the WAFF screened more films, including three on sailing, an Irish film Beyond the North Wind about the 1981 Irish Arctic Expedition to Northern Ellesmere Island, a CBC/BBC collaboration Hell and High Water documenting a kayak and raft adventure through the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, and To the End of the Earth, a film recording the exploits of the Trans-Globe Expedition.  Two of the New Zealand ski films shown at the WAFF, Incredible Mountains and Across the Main Divide, are available for viewing today online at NZ On Screen.

The WAFF does not appear to have been long lived as we can find no evidence of it in our research binders after 1986.  Today, however, there are plenty of opportunities to view adventure films in Whistler.  The Whistler Film Festival‘s Adventure Series each spring features many of the same sports and adventures that could be seen in 1986, though some have evolved over time.

You can even catch some of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour in Whistler each February, brought to town by Escape Route.  Since it began in 1976, the festival has grown to include a World Tour in which a selection of the best films from the festival go out on tour in approximately 305 cities in over 20 different countries.