Leveraging the Olympics more important than ever

While Whistlerites wait to hear about what is going to happen in Celebration Plaza during the Olympics - the plans are good enough that all six councillors can now live with losing the medals presentations and the media coverage that would have brought Whistler - the Olympic frustrations mount: the ice arena is still a sore spot for some. The absence of smaller jumps to support development of athletes and the two larger jumps in the Callaghan. The much-delayed transportation plan. The lack of national Olympic committees and the television networks and spectators that follow them, who have chosen to base their operations in Whistler.

It's not that Whistler isn't getting anything from the Olympics - more than $1 billion worth of infrastructure and facilities has been built or will be finished this year that will benefit Whistler for years to come. It's the feeling that due to budget constraints, miscalculations or perhaps just inflated expectations, the Olympics won't quite be for Whistler what they could have been.

Transportation and accommodation in Whistler seem to have been particularly difficult issues for VANOC, and frustrating issues for Whistler. No doubt Whistler's strata-titled hotels, and some owners' delusions that their properties would produce windfalls, complicated matters. But the nature of Whistler's accommodation, and Whistler's connection to Vancouver via the Sea to Sky Highway, are facts that haven't changed throughout the Olympic preparation period. Which suggests VANOC may not have paid as much attention to transportation and accommodation issues in the corridor as it should have.

Regardless, the importance of the Olympics for Whistler, increasingly, comes down to leveraging the Games to generate future business. That has always been the case, but it's more important now than ever.

The economic news keeps getting worse instead of better. There's a general feeling that 2009 will be a very tough year, with recovery beginning toward the end of the year and continuing through 2010, but whether economic forecasters are any more reliable than palm readers and Ouija boards remains to be seen.

Whistler, like other North American ski areas, resorts in Mexico and Hawaii, DisneyWorld and the cruise ship industry, has responded to the recession by offering discounts and value-added packages. An extra night's accommodation at no additional cost is standard at many hotels this winter. And it may be for some time to come. It was suggested at a recent Tourism Whistler meeting that offering an extra night's accommodation for free may be "the new normal."

That doesn't mean anyone's making any money, but it has helped bring visitors to Whistler. British Columbians visiting Whistler earlier this winter were up 29 per cent over last year, and Canadian visits were up 22 per cent. Of course, those increases were more than offset by a decline in international visitors.

Overall, the forecast for this winter is now a 20 per cent decline in hotel tax revenue compared to last winter. Because of the extra free night's accommodation hotels are offering that may not mean 20 per cent fewer visitors, but it is a substantial hit.

Hotel tax revenues are highest in the months of January, February and March, with December the next biggest month. Last year was the first full year Whistler received the 6 per cent hotel tax, and total revenue was more than $11 million. Projections are it will be down about $1.5 million this year, and it will be several years before we return to 2008 numbers.

The hotel tax must be used for tourism-related expenses. The point was made at Tuesday's council meeting that a decline in hotel tax revenue will only affect those tourism-related programs funded by the hotel tax. In other words, there shouldn't be a ripple effect on other municipal budgets or programs.

But one of the things the hotel tax is used for is marketing, which is arguably more important during a recession than in good times.

Property owners were already facing tax increases, before the recession. The scale of those tax increases was outlined Tuesday. But if the point about hotel tax paying for tourism-related programs is followed, those tax increases will just go to pay for municipal services. There won't be anything to help bring business to Whistler.

Which is where the importance of leveraging the Olympics comes in. Whistler is not as well known internationally as most of us like to think. The media exposure and first-hand experience of international visitors in Whistler during the Games should boost business for years following 2010. It's marketing in 2010 that Whistler may be losing right now because of decreased hotel tax revenue.

It is all the more important, ironically, because the Olympics will likely mean fewer visitors to Whistler over the whole of next winter


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