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Then there were two: the dual Gay Ski Weeks

Fri 28 Aug 2015 In: Events View at Wayback View at NDHA

This weekend not one, but two, Gay Ski Weeks will begin in Queenstown. Why are there two? takes a look. The background Early days: The Mike Sanford-organised Gay Ski Week NZ undie run The original Gay Ski Week NZ in Queenstown was organised by Mike Sanford - a Kiwi then living and working in Australia - along with his then-partner Craig Lawson. From 2003 till 2010 it grew into a successful and well-loved event which attracted plenty of well-heeled fun seekers, including large contingents from Australia. The parties were wild, the slopes were busy and there was always a special buzz in the air during Gay Ski Week NZ. Unfortunately, a mixture of factors caused it to fall apart in 2011 The date was changed to July so it didn’t clash with the massive event on the New Zealand calendar that year - the Rugby World Cup. It also came amidst a tough sponsorship market, slow ticket sales, ongoing Christchurch earthquakes with resultant tourist uncertainty, and aviation industry disruption from the May Icelandic volcano ash cloud which killed international June bookings completely. And to top it all off there was later than expected snowfall. The week the event was due to begin, Sanford announced his company was going into voluntary liquidation. He held out hope a white knight investor might step in and save it, but that didn’t happen. Rather than see nothing happening at all for those who had already booked tickets to Queenstown, local couple Mandy and Sally Whitewoods, who run a backpackers in Queenstown, stepped in to rescue the situation by organising a few low-key events in something of an interim and unofficial Gay Ski Week.It was fun for the Whitewoods and for the visitors and Queenstown community, and  Sally Whitewoods recalls that after they pulled together the 2011 events a lot of people approached them and asked them to continue. They decided to pick up the mantle and run the event as a community-boosting project from 2012 on. “Also being a Queenstowner now I felt that it would be a great loss of a diverse market. And Queenstown being as inclusive as it is, I felt it would be a bit of a loss. I felt the need was there to continue it, so I stepped in and carried it on just as a bit of a passion.” Sally Whitewoods says she had some correspondence with Sanford about buying the intellectual property of Gay Ski Week NZ, including its domain name, but they decided not to go ahead with the offer. “That was down to the cost and what we were getting back. And it was asked by the liquidators that Mike Sanford’s name go onto everything we did – art work and so on and so forth - which I decided to decline,” she tells Sally Whitewoods says she has always recognised Sanford for what he did in the early days though. “He started something here, and he’s always had credit for that, but I felt after going into liquidation having his name specifically on everything would not necessarily have been a viable option at the time.” She says Sanford didn’t raise any objection to them moving ahead with a new brand, and even offered to act as a consultant if they wished. Gay Ski Week QT picks up the pieces   Sally and Mandy Whitewoods The new Gay Ski Week QT was announced in November 2011 and the Whitewoods ran their first full event the following year. After four years of carefully rebuilding events and relationships, Whitewoods says she adores running the festival. “I love people coming to town. I love people enjoying Queenstown because it’s now my home and I feel very passionately about it. So bringing everybody to Queenstown, for me, is my number one aim. And I love running events and I love seeing people be happy. I am sure those who are in event management as a whole would know that you wouldn’t do it for the desire of earning a lot of money,” she laughs. “It certainly won’t do that.” In fact she says she hasn’t earned anything from Gay Ski Week QT, but has in fact lost money on it so far. She doesn’t pay herself anything for running it either. “But that’s my choice. I don’t mind. I don’t want people to be worried about that. I’m doing it for the love of it.” Basically, it’s her contribution to Queenstown and gay people. “And one day it might make a little bit of money. And if it does, that’s fantastic. But if it doesn’t, I’m in a lucky position where that’s not the be all and end all.” The basics have remained the same – a week of parties, social and associated events and plenty of snowboarding and skiing for gay people. “It’s gone from strength to strength,” Whitewoods says. “We do try to make it inclusive for all, so it’s very gender diverse, and that’s our biggest aim. I don’t mind who you are, what your sexuality is, whether you give yourself a label or don’t give yourself a label, I just want you to come along and have fun. And that’s all I’m worried about. “It’s just fun, Queenstown comes alive during that week, and they embrace it.” The new Gay Ski Week NZ However, this year, there will be two Gay Ski Weeks in Queenstown, at the same time. The second, using the long-dormant Gay Ski Week NZ title and web address, is being run by an Australian travel and accommodation marketing company, LeisureCom. Whitewoods says she had been in discussions some time back with LeisureCom, as it wanted to sell Gay Ski Week QT packages including flights and accommodation. She says they spoke for several months about this possibility. Gay Ski Week QT already has two ticket wholesalers for people coming to Gay Ski Week QT from other countries, Kirra Holidays and ANZCRO. Not wanting to disturb her existing wholesaler arrangements, Whitewoods says she suggested to LeisureCom that they purchase through those firms instead of directly from her. Then, in February this year, Whitewoods found out Australian LeisureCom had purchased the old Gay Ski Week NZ website. Who they purchased it from is still unclear. “That’s where I approached a few people connected with LeisureCom and we had a conference call and I said ‘look have you purchased this, I don’t see this as a portal for Gay Ski Week as a whole, I see it as a very specific name - and a negative name from previous situations’.” She says she was assured the website would be a portal to promote Queenstown and Queenstown events, but was told that as her Gay Ski Week QT had its other ticketing contracts, LeisureCom didn’t want to go down that route, as sourcing their tickets through ANZCRO would mean they made less of a profit. Whitewoods says she was told in an email “we don’t do events or event management,” then, confusingly, “however some people might prefer our events.” “I was somewhat upset,” Whitewoods says with a wry laugh, of her initial reaction to the move. “I think it was two days before my 40th birthday celebrations so I didn’t have the most memorable weekend… I was upset. I couldn’t understand necessarily why. Obviously until that point I wasn’t aware that they would not purchase their tickets through ANZCRO.” Gay Ski Week NZ then began aggressively marketing its own Gay Ski Week NZ and its own events, several of which it created and timed to go directly up against similar, established Gay Ski Week QT functions. It's positioning was almost exclusively gay male oriented. With the passing of time, Sally Whitewoods feels she is now able to take the second event in her stride. But she still thinks what the Aussie outfit has done is inappropriate. “It’s like having another Sydney Mardi Gras at the same time. Or another Winter Festival Queenstown. I would never have run another Gay Ski Week while Gay Ski Week NZ was running. “If you’re not invited to someone else’s birthday party, or it’s not when you wanted it or how you wanted it, you don’t just go and have your own! Or maybe you do. I don’t know!” she laughs. “Maybe I’m a bit too laid back. Maybe I trust people by how they are, what they say and how they operate. It’s obviously given me a bit of a learning curve. But I still believe that most people are genuine. And maybe they are just coming at it from a different angle. But it just seems inappropriate to me.” Whitewoods has spoken to lawyers, who believe LeisureCom could be ‘piggy-backing’, however that hasn’t achieved much just yet, apart from a very large legal bill. “We’re just still going back and forth and at some point we may get somewhere,” she explains. All that is certain is that it will be a long and expensive process. “At the beginning it was eating me up somewhat, but now it’s something that goes alongside your everyday life – the lawyers do their bit while you continue doing what you do. That’s my life at the moment.” What does LeisureCom say? The company has made it clear to it’s unhappy with our journalists' reporting of the situation. It did indicate earlier this week it would consider responding to our questions and tell its side of the story, but there has been no further response. However, its co-founder and chief operations officer Jon Tarrant told the Otago Daily Times some time ago the Whitewoods do not ''own the rights'' to the festival or the term ''Gay Ski Week''. He said LeisureCom was working with Queenstown accommodation providers, event promoters, DJs and celebrities with the goal of ''making Gay Ski Week New Zealand a world-class event and festival''. He added: ''By increasing the marketing and profile of the Gay Ski Week, there will be significant financial and promotional benefits to the entire tourism industry in Queenstown.” We’re more than happy to add any response from LeisureCom to this story should they get back to us. Local backing The Gay Ski Week QT flags are up around Queenstown Queenstown Mayor Vanessa van Uden will open Gay Ski Week QT at its first party tomorrow night. The festival is part of Queenstown Lakes District Council’s major events portfolio and as such has been given $10,000 support. Speaking generally, Mayor van Uden says the events supported reflect the priorities in the Council’s events strategy, which is designed to support community and commercial events that meet criteria ranging from economic benefit and increasing the district’s profile to bringing the community together. Local tourism promotion body Destination Queenstown only has Gay Ski Week QT events listed on its website. “We continue to support Gay Ski Week QT through our normal channels and offer similar support to many Queenstown events throughout the year. Nothing has changed in this regard from previous years,” it says in a statement to “Our responsibility is to manage the content of the channels we own or control and ensure that our consumer audiences are accurately informed about reasons to visit Queenstown. Any content that may cause consumer confusion or we feel is inappropriate for a general audience will be declined or not hosted by Destination Queenstown.” Destination Queenstown didn’t wish to comment directly on aspects of Gay Ski Week NZ running a second event. So what will it ultimately mean in Queenstown from this weekend? Well that remains to be seen. Whitewoods says she obviously won’t know the full impact until the event is over. “All I can do is operate the business how I operate, and go forward and make it what it is.” What impact will the Australian company's Gay Ski Week NZ have on the community-based Gay Ski Week QT? Will a second event be good for Queenstown as LeisureCom believes? Will there just be more gay people in town spending more cash? Will it just be utterly confusing? Daily News be in Queenstown from tomorrow to report on the fun and to let you know how this all pans out.  Jacqui Stanford and Jay Bennie - 28th August 2015    

Credit: Jacqui Stanford and Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 28th August 2015 - 7:59am

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