40 years on – Queenstown’s Winter Festival

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It all started in the pub.

Two locals, Peter Doyle, a musician, and Laurie Wilde, the then-Eichardt’s pub manager, decided over a few cold ones in 1975 that the 5000-strong town should have bit of a party for locals and skiers in late July or early August.

It was intended as a way to have a bit of fun if the snow was a bit thin and give people something to do.

Back then, if possible, it included plenty of ski racing, serious and novel – like the Suitcase Race, which remains today – and folksy stuff like a cowpat throwing contest, which went west in the 1990s.

Nowadays, the 10-day festival is renowned as the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest winter celebration and boasts an estimated promotional value for the Wakatipu of $3 million.

The mix of concerts, fireworks, comedy, family fun plus on-mountain and lakefront madness, according to economic impact reports, attracts 45,000 new and returning festival-goers and injects $57 million back into the local economy annually.

Not a bad result for a couple of blokes chewing the fat over a beer.

A history of the festival, commissioned by Destination Queenstown to mark its 40th kicking off tomorrow, reveals a rich catalogue of highlights and intrigue.

Some events have stood the test of time, like the hilarious Birdman contest and Dog Derby race down Coronet Peak slopes.

While not a starter these days, tourism entrepreneur Bill Tapley’s legendary cow pat throwing competition had a pretty good run after starting in the late 1970s.

Veteran local journalist Jenny McLeod was named the inaugural champion.

After its first two years at the Arthurs Point Cattledrome, it was moved into town amid some controversy. Some locals were opposed to having cow dung thrown around downtown, but they lost. The event thrived but was canned in the late 1990s.

Another original event no longer in the line-up was Queenstown’s take on stuffing-your-face-in-a-race – The Cow restaurant’s Spaghetti Eating Contest.

The only sponsorship in the early years consisted of donated prizes from local businesses – now corporates such as American Express, Qantas, The Radio Network, DB, SkyCity and Auckland Airport help make it happen.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

By the mid-1980s, festival was getting more commercial and had become too big for crew of local volunteers to run. Destination Queenstown’s then-guise at the Queenstown Promotion Board took over the reins in 1987.

DQ’s involvement saw it become a great marketing tool for the town to declare it was open for winter and it was brought forward to mid-July to offer more economic benefit by encouraging visitors to come to town early.

In 1993, the board signed a groundbreaking $100,000 sponsorship agreement with American Express, which had already been involved – and now celebrates its 25th year of support. An extra $50,000 from American Express was used to promote festival but also gave American Express naming rights.

But it was still an event that was rough around the edges at times. Queenstown Promotion Board’s Fraser Skinner, who did a stint managing the festival, recalls Tux Dog Biscuits being handed around patrons at The Mountaineer Pub during the Dog Barking Conest: “People actually ate them.

“I guess they were just getting into the spirit of it. They may have had some liquid encouragement,” he recalls.

And let’s not mention the sausage-filled condom that hit TV news man Simon Dallow, ending his beer festival participation.

By 1994, with endurance races making their mark, Queenstowner Geoff Hunt’s Peak to Peak was launched as part of the festival.

Hunt removed it in 2005, saying it was getting lost in the festival’s final weekend, but the adventure race continues to be held separately.

The festival has played host to big names – in the 1980s, Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon addressed a festival luncheon. Sale of the Century presenters Steve Parr and Judith Kirk were regulars, as was the late Philip Leishman and fellow television personality Lana Cockroft.

It’s also proved a drawcard for Prime Ministers – Helen Clark made a point of attending just about every year to open it, while more recently John Key has done the honours.

Six-time former world boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard is probably the most famous attendee – he was a guest of honour at the inaugural Thriller in the Chiller charity boxing event sponsored by festival media partner Mountain Scene.

On arrival, veteran local David Kennedy hosted Leonard and took him past the Birdman contest in Queenstown Bay. Leonard declared it one of the craziest things he’d ever seen.

At times though, festival has just had to make do before it became the more commercial beast it is today – in the early 1990s Kennedy recalls Bramwell Scaffolding erecting stages for a couple of slabs of beer.

“DB Export Dry was the currency back then,” Kennedy muses.

These days, 10 to 12 people are employed by June each year to help pull it off with an army of 100 or so volunteers to manage events.

Destination Queenstown boss Graham Budd says the aim, heading into the next 20 years, is to ensure it maintains its unique appeal for locals plus visitors as a celebration of winter and tool to promote the resort.