The Bear awakens
Stung by Whistler’s success, Colorado ski resorts are preparing to strike back
By Loreth Beswetherick
The great Colorado bear has been roused from slumber after several complacent winters in his high altitude hills. And, the bear is hungry.
It was the winter of few skiers and little snow that roused the beast and he is sniffing the wind from the north — north where the Coast Mountains cradle a town called Whistler that has wooed his skiers.
But the people of Whistler are not sitting smug in their vast terrain with their record-breaking blankets of snow, number one ratings and attractive currency. They have been expecting the bear and they say they are ready.
They say they are ready for a marketing battle from a state that has realized it has to mobilize to keep its customers. And, the Whistler folk are confident they can hang onto their large chunk of what could be a shrinking global skier pie.
Last winter 11.3 million skiers and boarders took to the hills of Colorado Ski Country USA's 25 member resorts. This represents a decrease of 633,455 skier-visits over the previous year, which had already seen a decline from the season before that. (A skier visit is defined as one person skiing or boarding for all or part of one day.)
"We ended up with a 5.29 per cent drop," said CSCUSA director of communications Lisa Bremner. It was the largest annual decline in skier visits since the 1980/81 season. "We also had a very concerning seven per cent drop in our domestic destination visitors which accounts for 60 per cent of our business."
One resort's gain is generally another's loss. "The ski areas in North America have all been fighting for that same skier," said Bremner. "When one resort picks up it is usually because they have stolen skiers from another resort... and I know Whistler was up quite a lot this year."
For the first time, Whistler-Blackcomb broke the 2 million skier visit mark for an end-of-season total of 2.14 million, ranking it among the top three resorts in the world, after La Plagne in the French Alps — which does between 2.2 and 2.5 million — and Naeba in the Japanese Alps which handles over two million skiers. Colorado’s Breckenridge resort had the second highest total in North America this past season, with 1.4 million skier visits.
Hugh Smythe, president of Intrawest’s Resort Operations group is on record saying there is "nothing even on the radar screen relating to the growth (Whistler) has had." And, he was talking everything from the French Alps to Japan and Korea.
The Whistler Resort Association reports resort business overall was up 21 per cent last winter, and this is on top of double digit growth over the last three years.
"As we are growing, Colorado has been shrinking," said David Perry, vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler-Blackcomb. "And they have clearly stated now that they acknowledge one of the things that has happened is that their business has gone north."
"We want those skiers back," said Bremner.
In an effort to win them back, CSCUSA has just announced a US$2.2 million co-operative marketing campaign to be launched in the fall. The campaign is to be funded with cash from member resorts plus money from the state. The Colorado state legislature also recently approved $5.5 million in tourism funding to promote the state throughout the US. The funding will be appropriated through the Colorado tourism board, and the board is looking for private partnerships. This is the first time in seven years Colorado will have a proper state-funded marketing program. In 1992 the state voted to discontinue a tax used to fund the tourism board.
"Colorado was beginning to feel the effects of this missing funding," said John Frew, CSCUSA president and chief executive officer. "This new funding puts Colorado back in the game of attracting destination visitors to the state."
Frew said, unlike past years, where Denver day skiers to "front range resorts" offset other losses for the destination resorts further away from the metropolis, "all major visitor segments suffered a decline this season." Domestic destination visits were down seven per cent, front range visits decreased one per cent and all the other Colorado resorts outside the front range were down five per cent, while international visits fell by seven per cent.
"As the core market segment for Colorado skier visits, the declining destination visits are concerning. We believe the continued loss in domestic destination visits is a trend that must be addressed on a state-wide basis."
Bremner said there is still no tourism tax. "But I think the legislature saw the need to continue with some kind of funding. They decided to budget for this."
She said the individual resorts are also mounting renewed and aggressive marketing efforts. Expect to see special Millennium promotions, discounts and more incentives like the Grade 5 passport program that provides free skiing to more than 10,000 fifth graders across the state in a ploy to grow the skier pie of the future.
On top of these efforts, some individual resorts were engaged in season pass price wars this past spring, offering next winter’s season passes for as low as $250-$300.
Bremner said research is in progress to identify specific target markets for the fall.
One of the factors that played a part in last winter's slump was an 11 per cent decline in snowfall or 189 average inches compared to 212 inches in 1997/98 and 272 inches in 1996/97. November saw a 65 per cent decrease in snowfall over the previous season while December suffered a 27 per cent drop. Although the snowfall improved after the first of the year, Colorado struggled with the perception of poor snow all season.
But there were some plusses for the beleaguered state. The 1999 World Alpine Championships increased international exposure and the September 1998 inauguration of British Airways direct flights to Denver International provided easier access for UK skiers. As well, closures on the I-70 lifeline to the hills were at a five-year low.
"If we have snow, it's a level playing field and I think we will be able to bring our skiers back," said Bremner. "We are putting together some creative plans that will promote Colorado's assets." Those assets include what Whistler lacks — sunshine and champagne powder. She said the feeling in Colorado is that the faithful were just testing the Whistler ground. "We think people are venturing to other areas just as a trial to see if they have it. But, I think Colorado is the leader in that area and we are going to work to regain those skiers. There is a sense that if it snows, they will come back. We don't want to bank everything on that so we are also going to get out there and do some aggressive marketing to ensure they do."
The WRA and Whistler-Blackcomb are aware they cannot take success for granted. The WRA has more than $4 million budgeted to promote Whistler in key areas while the mountains have made a whopping $6 million investment — 50 per cent more than the resort association — to sell the merits of the Coast Mountains. Whistler-Blackcomb's marketing budget has been boosted dramatically over the last two years, said Perry, and a staff of 36 are now employed on-site to handle marketing and sales. The more than $6 million is in addition to the cheque the mountains annually fork over in WRA fees.
"Whistler had a fabulous season," said Barrett Fisher, WRA vice president of sales and marketing. "We saw strong growth for a number of reasons. We have a fabulous product, excellent pricing with the exchange rate and good snow conditions. As a result, we have had feedback that some of our competitors will be much more aggressive, not only in their marketing efforts but also in their pricing, to try and attract some of that business back."
Fisher said the WRA has analyzed Whistler’s pricing and where the resort stands in the marketplace. "We believe that with the exchange rate and our existing pricing we are very competitive and measure up product for product." She said the goal is to continue to monitor the competition. "It’s important we are aggressive. We plan to be creative in our marketing strategies and protect some of the market share growth we have seen." What Fisher would not say, is how.
"I don't feel comfortable laying out every strategy and tactic in the press — only because our competition does read the press," she said. "Without giving a specific outline of every initiative we have planned I can say the US market is a very important market. We will undoubtedly continue to increase focus on the US... there is no doubt Colorado is a strong competitor."
Perry said Whistler saw 53 per cent growth out of the US market last winter and is primed for even more. "The US is definitely our number one target," he said. "Colorado's biggest disadvantage has been our currency. The quality of our resort and the value that you get has given us a very powerful and competitive advantage." Add to this the excellent non-stop flight service from various US markets to Vancouver — there are 93 weekly flights from Los Angles, 87 from San Francisco, 35 weekly flights from Chicago and 21 from Boston and New York. "We have good air access. We will look at those access points and target those markets."
He added the mountains will not specifically sell against Colorado but instead promote Whistler's strengths.
Looking into her winter crystal ball, Fisher said Whistler will likely maintain last season’s numbers but actual growth will be flat. "You must keep in mind the overall growth last season was double digit growth upon double digits, upon double digits," said Fisher. "We have enjoyed substantial gains, not just last season, but over the last three years. When we look to a forecast we believe the percentage growth will be very conservative but our goal is to maintain the overall numbers."
Perry too believes the numbers are sustainable. "I am hesitant to predict we would exceed 2.1 million skiers but I do believe we should see two million. All the factors that contributed to our success are still in place — the exchange rate, the airline flights and the good snow." He pointed out Whistler always gets snow, albeit sloppy on occasion. "I'll take a little bit of wetness with guaranteed big snow. In Colorado, if you have problems with the weather you are on dirt. In Whistler, it may be a little too damp, but we still get snow. We can be very confident," said Perry. "In times of uncertainly people turn to a place where they know they can get a guaranteed base under their skis."
Perry said the resort has reached a point in its lifecycle where it no longer needs the number one ratings from publications like the now defunct Mountain Sports and Living magazine (previously Snow Country).
"When you are ranked number one all over the place for seven years in a row, you start to realize, we actually are number one. We are number one based on facts, not magazine ratings. We are the most popular resort in North America, we have the most terrain, the most lifts, the most beds, the most people... what else defines number one? I think we can stake out our claim without anyone else doing it for us."
Fisher agreed. "Whistler has superior product — the ski in-ski out, the vast terrain, the excellent value, the consistently reliable snow conditions, all of these things combine to position Whistler, in the consumers' minds, as the number one destination of choice." And, that is the message they will both be hammering home in the US.
Perry said Colorado will do okay, given a good snow year, but he does not believe the resorts will see growth. "The fundamentals are not in place. Whistler is a very cool product — more youthful, more energetic. We have serious mountains here. We have a product, in my opinion, they cannot compete with... Colorado is boring compared to Whistler."
It was Perry, however, who said the Colorado "bear has been woken."