Two challenging years, and new opportunities

There's a certain irony in the fact that today's one year countdown to the 2010 Olympics is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin: we may see a fair bit of natural selection in Whistler over the next year.

In fact, given the nature of Whistler's yearly economic cycle and the state of the global economy, it could be December 2010 - almost two years from now - before we get back to "normal."

While the numbers for December are barely in, all indications are this winter - with the strange weather patterns and several unfortunate accidents on top of an economy that still appears to be in freefall - is not going to be one to savour. Preliminary forecasts are hotel tax revenue, a measure of visitor numbers and what visitors are prepared to pay, will be down 20 per cent this winter. There is still half of February and all of March and April, time for more snow to fall and for people to get enthused about late winter skiing and vacations at spring break. But there's no making up for the lost business in December and January.

This summer could be better than usual, with the Peak 2 Peak perhaps attracting new visitors and some people curious to see what's going on in Whistler prior to the Olympics. But summer business has a long, long way to go to rival winter revenues, even though more individuals visit Whistler in summer than winter.

Which takes us to next winter, the winter of the Olympics. Expectations have always been that numbers would be down 10-20 per cent during the Olympic winter. The general perception among potential visitors is that things will just be so busy, so chaotic that whole winter that they don't even consider visiting Whistler. That's reflected in anecdotal discussions with visitors, it's implied in the tone of some media reports, and it's even found in the blogs and online newsletters of some groups that have visited Whistler this winter, such as Seattle University students who were here for the Martin Luther King weekend but won't be back next January "because of the Olympics."

That perception, or misconception, that Whistler should be avoided all of next winter, can be and is being fought. Tourism Whistler has been working with tour operators, responsible for sending tens of thousands of people to Whistler, for a couple of years to dispel that theory. The message also needs to reach the general public - repeatedly - over the next nine months.

After the Olympics there are still the Paralympics, but they are smaller and don't seem to have the same sort of radioactive glow about them that keeps people away from the Olympics, so maybe there is an opportunity for some healthy spring business next year. There may even be an athletic performance or an event during the Olympics that could help draw visitors in the weeks following the Games.

Then we're back into shoulder season, the all-too brief summer and the fall shoulder season, before finally getting to December 2010. Assuming the economy is on the rebound by then, that should mean back to more normal winters - perhaps even better than "normal" if the expected boost in marketing from the Olympics kicks in that soon.

But as noted above, that's nearly two years away. Getting through the next 22 months is going to be the challenge for many.

However, while visitors from traditional markets will be down during this period, Whistler will not be stagnant. And, in fact, there may be opportunities to entice people from non-traditional markets.

For example, the lead-up to the Olympics has seen unprecedented amounts of money flow into the arts and culture sector in Whistler. That funding should be used - and indications are it is - to develop long-term cultural programs that will put Whistler on the map for travellers looking for culture with their vacation. The re-establishment of a summer theatre program, the growth in interest in aboriginal art, and the emergence of new mediums such as the combination of mountain bikes, GPS and computerized video at this summer's Crankworx are additions to Whistler's list of cultural attractions at a time when most places are cutting back.

Whistler is also getting, and will continue to receive over the next year, media exposure in countries and regions that are beyond the reach of traditional marketing efforts. Latvia may not be a huge well of untapped potential visitors, but the Latvian bobsled team's victory and record speed at the Whistler Sliding Centre last Saturday received mention in sports sections throughout Europe.

More promising are the images from the Whistler Nordic Centre transmitted to Europe (though not to Whistler Village) during last month's World Cup events. The Scandinavian countries were surely watching; was it enough to entice Scandinavians to visit?

In addition to media exposure in new regions, the lead-up to the Olympics is also generating coverage in media that traditionally wouldn't have much to do with Whistler. From home decorating magazines to cultural reports to scientific journals, facets of Whistler beyond skiing, golf and mountain biking are being recognized.

What Whistler makes of all this remains to be seen, but just because traditional markets are down doesn't mean there isn't opportunity.


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