How well do we know our summer customers?

Wandering through the village Saturday we came across Jim McConkey, star of numerous ski films in the '50s and '60s, father of the late Shane McConkey and as ski school director for most of Whistler Mountain's first two decades, one of the first real iconic figures of Whistler. He was talking to one young man who was obviously excited to see McConk back in Whistler.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other people streamed by, coffee cups in hand, oblivious to who was in their midst.

McConk does not hold the same celebrity status as Sidney Crosby or Lindsey Vonn. And regardless of their profile generally, most sports heroes enjoy the relative anonymity they are afforded in Whistler. For many it's a welcome respite. And for many of us it's a point of pride that we don't make a fuss about celebrities.

Still, what struck me about seeing Diamond Jim on Village Stroll Saturday was the gap between so many of today's summertime visitors and what many of us think of as "Whistler."

In a lot of - perhaps old - minds Whistler is a ski resort. And for about five months of the year it is primarily about skiing and snowboarding. Add in another couple of months when most of us are dreaming/waiting for snow to fall and skiing and boarding are top of mind for nearly seven months of the year.

The other five to six months it isn't, at least not among most of our visitors. Their understanding of skiing and snowboarding is such that many of them may assume P-tex is a colleague of P. Diddy's. And that's fine. But a lot of us seem to still be operating under the assumption that our summer visitors are skiers pursuing other pastimes in the off-season.

Perhaps that's understandable. Throughout most of Whistler's history our planning, building and thinking has been based around the concept of a ski resort. In the '70s the plan was to build a village and open a second mountain so that Whistler could become a destination ski resort. They were built and after the recession of the early '80s we went about building Whistler's reputation as a destination ski area.

At the end of the decade Whistler issued a proposal call for developments that would bring summer visitors. About 20 proposals were submitted; five were chosen, including the Fairmont and Nicklaus North golf courses and the (then) Bjorn Borg Tennis Resort.

By the mid-90s we had done well enough that expansion of the village brought a lot of international money and attention. And we continued to build.

For most of the current decade we were focused on getting ready to host the Olympics. We did so, very successfully, with the belief that co-hosting the Games would bring greater international awareness of Whistler - as a ski resort.

And well it might. But many of the people who come to Whistler in the summer are not skiers or snowboarders. They are visibly of different ethnic background than most of the people who come in the winter. Whistler doesn't need to change who or what we are to cater to this summer market, but at a time when businesses are feeling pinched we need to recognize a significant part of our summer market is different from the winter market, and perhaps different from what we think it is.

These visitors are probably not the golfers and tennis players envisioned as summer visitors two decades ago.

The evolution of the mountain bike over the last 20 years has changed the way people recreate in Whistler in the summer. Between the bike park, the off-road trails and the Valley Trail more than half the people who come to Whistler spend some time on a bike while they're here.

The introduction of the Peak 2 Peak gondola has done more for summer business than most of us realize. Whistler Blackcomb spent very little promoting summer on the mountains prior to the installation of the lift. Now the popularity of the Peak 2 Peak has led to a stronger summer marketing campaign.

The Peak 2 Peak is the reason some people now come to Whistler, winter and summer. Most people probably only ride it once, but for others it's an introduction to the mountains and may lead to other activities in the alpine. Perhaps even skiing.

It's going to be a long time before summer visitors are as lucrative as winter visitors. That's little comfort to most hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers right now - but there are visitors in the summer. Understanding who they are and what they're looking for may be the best business Whistler can do right now.




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