Fight for gay skiers
heats up the slopes
by Matthew S. Bajko
The competition for LGBT tourists is no longer confined to urban cities or tropical destinations. The battle over gay travelers is increasingly being waged on the ski slopes.
Mountain resort areas, particularly in the Western United States and Canada, are welcoming LGBT visitors with open arms in the winter months during gay ski week events or LGBT-focused weekends that marry outdoor sports during the day with circuit party-type events at night.
From the newest â€“ the inaugural Rossland Gay Ski Festival in British Columbia kicks off March 5 â€“ to the oldest â€“ Aspen, Colorado's Gay Ski Week turned 31 this past January â€“ the competition to attract LGBT skiers and snowboarders is at a fever pitch.
"I think it is great more and more ski resorts are embracing and throwing these events. It is great people are recognizing that the gay consumer should be courted and we have a lot to offer back to many of those resorts," said Seattle resident Sean Kearns, one of the organizer's of WinterPride at Whistler in British Columbia, Canada.
To stay competitive, organizers of LGBT ski events are bringing in professional marketing help, expanding daytime programming for those more interested in fireside activities, and launching special events geared at women or bears.
And with more and more same-sex households including children, family programming is the next niche category of programs organizers are adding to their lineups.
"It is no different from what is going on with corporate America going after the gay community with targeted advertising and promotions. It is because of our influence and affluence across the market," said Kearns, who launched the Web site www.gaywhistler.com five years ago to promote the mountain resort 90 minutes north of Vancouver.
Four years ago, Kearns and his business partners stepped in to save Whistler's gay ski event, which turned 16 this year. Twelve days prior to the start of the annual ski week, the previous producer pulled out without any warning or notice.
Then in 2006 they launched a new company called Alpenglow Productions Corp. and relaunched the 2007 event under the name WinterPride. This year's event, which took place February 3-10, attracted a record turnout of nearly 3,200 people.
In order to draw such a large crowd, Kearns's company launched an international marketing campaign six months ago. He estimates the campaign generated 26.2 million "impressions" or views.
He said they also bank on the fact that gay couples can legally marry in Canada and that the area continues to welcome LGBT visitors even after the gay ski week ends.
"We do it as a year-round promotion. It really is gay-friendly year-round, unlike many other resorts," said Kearns. "It sets us apart. Aspen may have a week but it is not friendly year round."
Hercules resident Marty Hogan, 51, didn't know about Whistler's event until he joined SAGA North, a local gay ski group, this season and saw they had planned a trip to the ski event this year. It was his first time taking part in a gay ski week.
"I met people from all over the world: Australia, Europe, Britain, the states," said Hogan. "I think the best thing about it, it was just a good gay community experience. You could go up to ski, to a party, go to a bar, to eat and there was just gay people everywhere. It was just incredibly friendly."
Whistler's gay ski event was born out of Colorado voters' passage of an anti-gay ballot measure in 1992. Many LGBT people supported a boycott of the state, and Canadians who had enjoyed Aspen's gay event opted to stay home and start their own.
As North America's most gay-friendly country, Canada's embrace of LGBT rights is now used by its ski resorts as a marketing advantage over American competitors.
"As a gay man I don't want to go spend my money where I am only wanted one week or day out of the year. I want to go where I am welcome every day," said Kearns.
Aspen's ski week, run by a volunteer-led, nonprofit group, last August hired the promoters of Gay Days at the Disney World Resort in Florida to better compete amid the growing number of gay ski events.
Chris Alexander-Manley, the vice president of marketing for Gay Days Inc, told the Aspen Times earlier this year that he plans to promote the country's oldest gay ski event at 15 different major LGBT celebrations around the country in order to build up attendance at next year's event.
Jack Johnson, an organizer of Aspen Gay Ski Week, told the paper that, "If we were the only gay ski week that would be fine, but we have a lot of competition, and we have to compete against large corporations who are for-profit."
Aspen has faced increased competition in its own backyard. Telluride Gay Ski Week, which kicks off Saturday, February 23, and goes to March 1, is turning five this year.
It is hosted by the Telluride Mountain Village Owners Association and markets itself as "an alternative to other gay ski events." In announcing this year's event, Michael Wisniewski, president of the association, enthused that "in addition to bringing vitality to Mountain Village, funds raised from the event provide tremendous support to the Telluride AIDS Benefit."
Not to be outdone â€“ or miss out on the nearby LGBT communities in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Central Valley â€“ the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority two years ago stepped in to promote its own gay and lesbian ski week called Blue Gay-La after the previous event, called Ascent, went bust. This year's event took place the fourth week of January and featured drag queen ski races and an all-night dance party at one of the nearby casinos.
The ski weeks are decidedly different from the warmer weather circuit party events, where the focus is primarily on dancing a weekend away. While dance parties and aprï¿½s ski events at a local mountain bar are certainly selling points, to many attendees the real draw is hitting the slopes.
"Certainly, it is an opportunity to meet people who share your passion for that activity and ski and snowboard with them and get to know them after skiing," said San Francisco resident Dean Daniels, 48, who attended Whistler's event for the sixth time this year. "I am not a real fan of parties, per se. The chance to talk to people on the chair lifts or at lunch or sit back with a beer with them after skiing, that is the real quality."
Oakland resident Daniel Seberger, 62, led the trip this year to Whistler for SAGA North, the local LGBT ski club. It was his eighth trip to the host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, where the skiing events will take place.
"I like the mountains. They have good skiing," said Seberger. "I definitely would not call it a circuit party. Theirs is just a ski week with social events. The whole atmosphere of ski week is really more than a circuit party."