This April, like every April for nearly a decade, a multicultural horde of 250,000 will descend upon Whistler, British Columbia, population 10,000. It's an odd pilgrimage, with Australian filmmakers, Japanese artists, French photographers, Swedish rock bands, thousands of snowsport industry professionals, and skiers from around the globe, all of whom know that Whistler's World Ski and Snowboard Festival is the end-of-season party they just can't miss. It's so it, evidently, that WSSF has no competition from any resort in the Lower 48—despite the fact that Whistler is notoriously rainy in April, and it's no easier to reach than any major resort in the States. So why can't late-season parties in the U.S. touch the big event up North? Well, mainly because at WSSF, you don't have to ski to have fun.
Promoters call WSSF a "fusion festival—an art-film-photo-ski-snowboard hodgepodge that celebrates the end of the season. Founded in 1996 by former pro skier Doug Perry, WSSF began as a simple ski competition. In 1998, though, Perry figured, "Why not roll a concert stage into the village and rattle some windows? And, for good measure, why not invite a veritable U.N. of athletes and creative types? Perry partnered up with Whistler suits and the tourist office and created skiing's own version of Burning Man.
A cash-cow Burning Man, anyway. WSSF pumps $15 million into the local economy—in 10 days. Sponsors include such heavies as telecom giant Telus, Salomon, and DKNY. (Skiing co-sponsors WSSF's Pro Photo Showdown.) It's been such a hit that on one day, at the 2000 event, Whistler skier visits outnumbered those at every resort in Colorado, combined. Meantime, in the U.S., most spring festivals are decidedly unworldly and involve naked skiing, keggers, and pond-skimming contests—essentially everything Whistler is not. "You can't just take something that works in Whistler and do it somewhere else, admits Aspen-Snowmass senior vice president David Perry, who helped his brother Doug start WSSF. Aspen, he points out, doesn't have the action-oriented youth culture that flocks to Whistler.
But resorts like Mammoth and Squaw do. So why aren't they throwing a world-renowned bash? They're afraid we won't show up. "People are distracted in spring. They're enjoying the change of the season, says Joani Lynch of Mammoth, whose weeklong April West Coast Invitational draws a relatively meager 4,000 skier days. Others agree, but also add that without a Whistler-style base village, hosting a film fest, art exhibits, and live music is financially risky. "You'd have on- and off-campus events, says Steve Wright of Killington. "It wouldn't be as neat a package as Whistler's. To that end, Killington has plans for a base village. When it's complete, Wright will rethink his approach to throwing parties.
So, for now, if you want a dose of culture with your April ski experience, it's Whistler or bust. As Jack Turner, former marketing VP of Durango and Big Bear, puts it: "Every resort would love to have an event like that. But, alas, he says, "There's only one Super Bowl.