The Whistler Resort Association maps out a marketing strategy
By Bob Barnett
While the 1996-97 season has been a challenge for many Whistler businesses, the next couple of years may be formidable.
Many village retailers and restaurateurs subscribe to the pie principle when describing the current challenge: the tourist pie is about the same size as before but the number of people bellying up for a slice of the pie has increased substantially, which means everyone has to make do with a smaller piece.
The body charged with baking a bigger pie is the Whistler Resort Association, which markets the resort. The job at hand for the WRA can be explained in numbers: Whistler has been averaging 6 per cent annual growth in room-nights sold in recent years. To fill all the new rooms being built — including 1,200 which will be added by next winter — would require a 35 per cent increase in room-nights. That’s not going to happen, but the WRA hopes to boost room-nights by 10-15 per cent annually.
That math may lead to a bigger pie, but it won’t be big enough soon enough to satisfy everyone.
"It’s clearly going to be a challenge in the next couple of years," says Barrett Fisher, marketing director for the WRA.
"Despite what the movie says, just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. We have to get very, very aggressive in the market place."
And the market place is getting very competitive, with Vail Resorts alone pledging to spend $20 million annually marketing its four Colorado ski areas. The WRA, by comparison, had a marketing budget of about $4.1 million last year. A recent 8 per cent increase in members’ fees and more new members will boost that budget by a few hundred-thousand dollars this year. Partnerships with the Canadian Tourism Council, the Canada West Tourism Association and Tourism Vancouver/Tourism Victoria will extend those marketing dollars, but the challenge is obvious.
Fisher recently outlined the strategy for the next year to meet that challenge.
The bulk of summer visitors to Whistler come from B.C., California and Washington. That will continue to be the case, but this year the resort association is attempting to draw summer visitors from the rest of the United States by selling two distinct summer "products."
The first product is known as soft adventure — hiking, biking, activities on the lakes and experiences in the high alpine on Whistler and Blackcomb. Fisher says Whistler has become known as the soft adventure capital of Canada.
The Canadian Tourism Council is producing a program, to be inserted in a number of newspapers and publications across the United States, which features Whistler and other soft adventure vacations across Canada. Chicago and New York, two cities that have become more accessible through the Open Skies airline agreement, are considered good potential markets for the soft adventure program.
Overseas, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany are being targeted through tour operators. As well, a number of department store promotions will be done in Germany and the U.K. For the summer of 1998 a larger co-op program is planned for Germany.
The other summer product marketed to destination visitors is golf. This summer the hot-weather golf regions — Texas, Arizona and Southern California — are being targeted. The four designer golf courses in Whistler and Pemberton, the cooler summer temperatures and the value of a Whistler vacation are the marketing hooks.
For the first time some of the major airlines — America West out of Phoenix, American Airlines out of Dallas and Air Canada in Southern California — have put together golf package tours to Whistler.
"It’s a real breakthrough for us to have tour operators packaging summer," Fisher says. "When tour operators make a commitment like that, that’s an investment in us."
While the WRA is spending more to attract destination visitors, the vast majority of summer vacationers still tour. To that end the resort association is again partnering with Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Victoria in direct mail, TV and newspaper campaigns in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle markets.
In the past the WRA has taken a general, overall approach to marketing Whistler in the winter, including advertising campaigns in the major ski magazines and appearances at ski shows. For next winter the campaign will be more focused on key cities. A multi-layered marketing program will include working with tour operators, training their reservation staff, contests and promotions done with retail outlets in the targeted cities. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be the top four targets.
"In the past it’s been a resource issue," Fisher says. "We haven’t had the dollars to make a big impact.
"The U.S. is a challenge because it’s so huge. Awareness of American ski areas is much greater (than Canadian ski areas), and the flights are shorter and cheaper."
The Open Skies agreement is key to the new target marketing strategy, as it has led to direct flights between Vancouver and cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Denver and Dallas. Canadian Airlines is going to begin direct flights between Vancouver and Boston and Vancouver and Washington, D.C. in May.
"Both (Boston and Washington) will be fabulous markets for us," Fisher says. Boston and San Francisco are the two American cities with the highest end demographics, while Washington should be good for casual visitors and for conference business.
The down side of Open skies is that Canadian Airlines’ partner, American Airlines, announced last week it was dropping direct flights from Miami and New York to Vancouver due to lower than expected demand.
New York is especially important because it is the largest single skier market in North America. Losing Miami is disappointing because Whistler has hosted the Florida Ski Council in the past and Miami is one of the connections for flights from South America.
However, Cathay Pacific still offers daily non-stops between New York and Vancouver and Canadian is considering adding New York, but using Boeing 737 aircraft rather than the wide-bodied Boeing 757s American was using on the route.
Overseas, the WRA is maintaining its long-standing association with Canadian Airlines on flights out of Tokyo, but is also working with Air Canada — which now flies to Osaka — on a program for next winter.
In the U.K. market, the WRA is continuing to work with the top British tour operators. Some new charter flights direct to Vancouver are also being introduced by British tour operators.
For the German market, the WRA and Air Canada are working together on a promotional hook that features the World Cup downhill race early in the season.
The WRA is also partnering with the Canada West Tourism Association in overseas co-op marketing programs.
Two new marketing tools the WRA is using are the Internet and data base marketing.
"Advertising is a good broad introduction, but relationship marketing is key to closing the deal," Fisher says.
The WRA’s first direct mail program will be done in April, aimed at potential returning visitors in Washington state. Five direct mail campaigns are scheduled for the next year, in early and late summer, early and late winter and January.
Fisher noted that Intrawest has a huge data base program and the WRA may be able to tie into that, as well as data various hotels have, to target returning visitors.
As for the Internet, the WRA is developing its own web site, which should be up next month. The site will allow hot links for WRA members. Whistler still has a presence on the Tourism B.C. web site, but that site didn’t offer hot links for members.
"A big part of our success in the future is going to be working as a team," Fisher says.
The Team Whistler program will see more WRA members going on marketing tours, allowing individual properties the opportunity to make their own deals at ski shows and with tour operators.
The program is not new, but will be re-emphasized, creating a larger Whistler presence on marketing tours.
Another new direction will be to broaden the advertising, which in the past has been most visible in the major American ski magazines. Fisher says in the future the resort will be advertising in some of the snowboarding magazines and general interest publications, such as Conde Naste.
The WRA is also looking at specific niches within markets, such as the gay market and the mature market.
As well, some preliminary efforts have been made to address one of the ski industry’s major problems, a static base of skiers. Introductory learn to ski programs, aimed at the Lower Mainland and Washington state early in the ski season, have been promoted on a small scale.
Finally, Fisher says the resort association has begun to work with the retail sector on the whole pie issue.
"I think there’s an opportunity to develop a themed retail product," Fisher says. "As the retail sector grows they need to strategize and come up with innovative ideas."
Local specials, targeting conventioneers and individual programs for specific sectors of the retail business are some of the ideas being considered.
The WRA is assisting retailers in getting organized and Fisher expects the group should be up and running in the next six weeks.