Heating up the slopes

Men who love men and women who love women love Winterfest, a gay ski event at Lake Tahoe

Visit www.laketahoewinterfest.com for information and reservations.

Angel is 29, Puerto Rican and gay. He wears slacks, not pants, and he has, according to his friends, the perfect bubble butt.

“I ain’t never been skiing. They don’t have no snow in Puerto Rico, honey.” He gesticulates broadly with his hands. “But, I hear there are some fine-ass men up here in the snow—and where fine-ass men go, Angel follows.”

Angel is one of an estimated 1,000 gay men and lesbian women who will attend the ninth annual Lake Tahoe WinterFest, a party and ski week, March 7-14, on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. The event was created in 1996 by the Incline Village/Crystal Bay Convention & Visitors Authority. Today, it expects to attract as many as 500 skiers from as far away as Europe and Canada and is produced by the Nevada Gay and Lesbian Visitor & Convention Bureau with funding support from the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

But Angel doesn’t care about tourism or the fact that the Nevada State Gaming Commission’s report on 2003 revenues was sobering: For the third consecutive year, Northern Nevada gaming revenues declined. In fact, they are the worst since 1994. Destination events like WinterFest are part of a new strategy to reverse this trend.

Angel, like his friend Jonny (with all n’s and no h’s, thank you), wants to meet “hot” out-of-towners for a week of, well, hitting the slopes.

“Oh yeah, baby,” says Angel. “You can hit my slopes, slide over my bunny hill—do whatever you want.”

Jonny has his own agenda. Jonny looks like grooming guru Kyan Douglas on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but sounds more like fashion savant Carson Kressley from the hit Bravo show.

“Guurrrlll,” Jonny begins, making the word “girl” sound like it has a u in it or, in fact, a lot of u’s. “I do not ski. I do not get cold. I do not go outdoors. That is for the Donner Party, guurrrlll. And, ya’ll know what happened to them.” Jonny smiles, every bleached white tooth a testament to his pursuit of good dental grooming.

Jonny and Angel look forward to WinterFest’s social offerings more than hitting the slopes.

Then why does he go to Winterfest?

“It is not about skiing. It is about the dance parties afterward. Dancing and meeting men with sore thighs,” Jonny says, laughing and rolling his eyes.

He’s right. Winterfest is not just about skiing. Attendees will be offered a variety of entertainment options, including private dance parties featuring DJs from Los Angeles and San Francisco. For gays who like to laugh, the promoters have created a Comedy Night featuring gay comic Ronn Vigh (which always sells out). There are also morning breakfast meetings and evening dinner events planned throughout the week. To help involve locals, shuttle buses will run from the hotel to Lake Tahoe’s lone gay bar, Faces Nightclub, on Kingsbury Grade.

The lesbian traveling to WinterFest with Angel and Jonny finally joins the conversation. Her name is Jeri.

“Like Jeri Curl,” says Angel and laughs. “And, I know, ‘cause I am from Puerto Rico, and we know all about Jeri Curl, baby. Did I ever tell you I was Puerto Rican?”

Jeri is a fair-skinned local girl, a “homegrown lesbian from Yerington,” says Jonny. “We found her in a field of cantaloupes. She was in a whole row of organically grown lesbians.”

Jeri is of medium height with strawberry blond hair, tattoos and a nose piercing. She is lithe and pretty and looks like any girl you might see at the mall.

“I like WinterFest,” says Jeri. “They just need more women.” And she’s right—while men and women attend the event, men make up almost 80 percent of attendees.

WinterFest is one of just three gay-themed ski events in North America; one of the other two is held at Whistler Ski Resort in Vancouver, British Columbia (started 12 years ago), and the other is in Aspen, Colo. (and is considered the grand-daddy of gay ski events, having started 27 years ago). However, Out and About, a West Coast-based gay travel publication, named Lake Tahoe’s WinterFest the “Number One Place to Check Out.”

Local gay activist Kevin Ray and a group of family, friends and fellow activists (they also produce the Reno Gay Pride Festival, which attracted nearly 4,000 people in August 2003) produce the week-long event, which is held at a half-dozen venues including Heavenly Valley Ski Resort, the Horizon Casino (host hotel), the Tahoe Queen, Riva Grill and the Heavenly California Lodge.

All this fun and skiing costs money, and gay skiers and party-goers know how to spend it. According to research conducted by MGM-Mirage Corporation, gay tourists will spend a staggering $876 billion (that’s right, billion) this year alone.

Punam Mather, vice president of Diversity for MGM/Mirage, recently stated: “When people ask about the gay market, we tell them gay dollars are like every other tourist’s, and that is green … and gays have more than just about anybody else and are willing to spend those dollars, so of course they are a key part of our marketing strategy.”

“Gay tourists are not interested in finding the closest place to gamble,” Ray says. “They are interested in a destination, and Reno is certainly a destination for them. In addition to this area having world-class skiing, great entertainment and restaurants, the Northern Nevada Tourism Industry is beginning to understand that all gays want to know is that they are welcome.”

For WinterFest, it is estimated that each attendee will spend a minimum of $700 in food, lodging and ski lift tickets. When combined with locals who purchase event passes (but can forgo lodging, etc.), it is estimated this week of gay frivolity will generate nearly a half-million dollars for the Lake Tahoe economy.

“We are consistently told by venues where we schedule WinterFest that this is their favorite event of the year because our guests never cause trouble and are the best tippers they have all year,” Ray says.

So, as the 2004 WinterFest kicks off during the first week of March, gays and lesbians like Angel, Jonny and Jeri will don parkas and their Ugg boots and head to the slopes, to the clubs and to local restaurants. They will show Lake Tahoe what it is like for men to dance with men and women to hold each others’ hands as they kick back at the ski lodge.

“You know,” says Angel smiling, “All we want to do is have a good time. We just want to be among ourselves and not have to worry about being laughed at or ridiculed.”

“Yeah, and to make new friends and re-visit with some old friends,” Jonny adds.

“Of course,” Jeri says, “there ain’t nothing wrong with finding a hottie up there on the slopes.”

“That’s right," said Angel. "No sense in looking this good unless you can share it with someone who just came in from the cold."