OPINION: Illuminating idea for replacing Q’town WinterFest

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Another year’s set to pass without the town’s biggest party — or at least not as we remember it.

As Queenstown Winter Festival goes on life support, replaced by last weekend’s Welcome to Winter, it’s easy to be distracted from the wider issues and blame Covid-19 and its associated travel and economic disruptions for its precarious position.

Yes, our pandemic problems have added significant additional headwinds, however, the festival’s anaemic state hasn’t been a sudden occurrence.

In 2014, I penned an ode to 40 years of what had been a truly iconic event, the action and quirky antics of which not only embodied our spirit of adventure and community here locally but made the event famous on a far wider stage.

Unfortunately those halcyon days couldn’t last forever and by 2017 the festival was battling ever harder to attract sponsorship and facing a reduced funding appetite from Destination Queenstown and local government, who had waited for years to see a self-funding model eventuate.

The result was a cut-back four-day event, and a difficult admission from this ardent festival
fan that the event had done its dash, and I called it as such in my column at the time.

Given the circumstances, I supported the shorter revamped event but it was too late and
hasn’t been effective.

The festival had moved away from its roots heralding the start of winter by showcasing the
adventurous, yet laid-back atmosphere and great activities the region has to offer, while also giving locals to a great excuse to emerge from their burrows and embrace what it means to live in the greatest place on Earth.

The often-risky, high-octane day-time action was reined in, and the party atmosphere phased down over the years to be replaced with a softer, more artistic and family-orientated tone.

The brash adolescent excitement and eyebrow-raising madness of early years replaced with a mature, controlled and appropriate feel.

Disappointingly, as with most events and society in general, everything has become too politically correct, safety-fenced and risk-adverse.

Like the Wellington 7s did before it, WinterFest moved away from one market without really remaking itself well enough to appeal to a completely new audience in a financially viable way.

Welcome to Winter was a gap-bridging exercise to keep the ailing patient alive while hoping for better times on the horizon.

It’s admirable and brave-faced by DQ and the WinterFest team, who have constantly hustled and fought to keep festival alive over the last few years as the world has changed around them.

The event market is competitive and excessively over-regulated from a compliance standpoint — it was hard in the good times to keep relevant and on top of the heap, post-Covid this has become ever harder.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for our local winter events market.

As WinterFest has been slowly decaying, its newer cousin, the Luma Light Festival, has emerged and gone from strength to strength, offering a fantastic family environment that’s also engaging for adults looking for some good entertainment.

If I was the council and DQ I’d memorialise WinterFest and allow Luma to cannibalise some
of the best bits and take the funding.

Imagine a Winter Lights Ball set amongst Luma, a night-time drag race set amongst the glowing light show in the Gardens, or night dodge ball with glow-in-the-dark balls?

Luma, with additional funding, could run for a couple of weeks, maybe right through to the opening of the skifields, with a massive light show on the mountains to herald the start of the ski season.

A merging of an icon of the past with what’s shaping up to be an iconic event for the future.

Mark Wilson’s a Queenstown-based consultant who, before he had ‘‘natural blonde hairs’’, was the ‘unofficial face’ of the Queenstown Winter Festival