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After the gold rush: 10 years of peaks and valleys

Can Whistler regain its status through providing better value and service?

"We have to provide service and hustle to ensure that when people leave Whistler they are happy. And this is a commitment that the whole community has to make – whether in the grocery store, the restaurant or the shop."

— Mario Enero, owner of LaRúa Resturante

"It doesn’t matter what you spend and how much money you have, you still want good value for your money. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending a $1,000 for wine or $30 for wine – you want good value."

— Jack Evrensel, proprietor of Araxi’s Restaurant




In 1994, when Pique Newsmagazine debuted, Whistler was in a definite upswing, experiencing rapid growth and what appeared to be limitless prosperity. The resort’s top restaurants and attractions were receiving reservations for dates months ahead, from literally around the world. Business was booming.

A few years after Snow Country Magazine first named Whistler North America’s Number One Ski Resort – it became an annual accolade from 1991 through 1997 – the resort’s reputation began to extend beyond continental borders and Whistler truly become a world-class resort destination. The result was the tourism equivalent of the gold rush. Whistler was the place to be and everyone wanted to be here.

Pique Newsmagazine’s first feature, titled "Great Expectations", examined the resort’s developing business community, tourist demographics and future potential as a vacation destination. On this the newsmagazine’s 10 th anniversary we decided it would be interesting to revisit the initial story penned by Steven Threndyle.

Citing new accommodation developments, both hotels and condos, as well as a diverse visitor base that hailed from Europe, Mexico, Great Britain, South America and Japan Threndyle’s premiere feature was the quintessential good news story. Hotel marketing and sales directors, restaurateurs and small business owners all said that the early-season indicators showed promise of another record-breaking year in the resort. And a lot of this success was attributed to how snow sports publications had positioned the resort.

Walt Daman, a San Francisco tour operator, has been sending California skiers to Whistler since 1969. "Whistler has been a hot destination, especially since skiers started voting it number one in the magazines," stated Daman. And if the often-damp weather tourists encountered could dampen the enthusiasm for skiing, the burgeoning village seemed to make up for it.

"(T)he people really like that village and the good restaurants, and that covers a multitude of sins."

In 1994 even bad snow days weren’t enough to damage the resort’s reputation. So how, and more importantly why, have things changed over the past decade?

This year marks the second consecutive year that overall numbers are down in the resort. And while Whistler is still busy, the 5.7 per cent reduction in the number of tourists has been noticeable. The challenge now is to turn the numbers around in an economic and social climate far different than in the community’s halcyon days.

A decade ago the Canadian economy was far softer. The national unemployment rate hovered around 9.5 per cent, the dollar was worth 73 cents US and NAFTA had just come into effect. The average single family dwelling in Whistler could be had for $380,000, while townhouses and condos averaged just a shade under $200,000.

While the American economy seemed stable under the first term leadership of President Bill Clinton, Japan’s was starting to face the long-term effects of the aftermath of a huge stock market bubble that would result in a deflationary spiral where slow economic growth could not prevent rising unemployment. But given the fact that Japan’s three major stock exchanges had all tripled before peaking, cutting back on such non-essentials as travel had not yet begun.

In the years before Osama bin Laden was a name every North American could pronounce, a mysterious respiratory illness had ravaged Toronto and the U.S. was at war with Iraq, the world was a very different place. And in a community built on tourism, it is impossible to ignore the economic impact of 9/11, SARS and the war on Iraq – especially when 35 per cent of summer and 40 per cent of winter visitors are the increasingly cautious Americans.

But are economic and social factors the sole reason that the resort is experiencing a tourism fall off? And will Tourism Whistler’s new branding approach be enough to turn the declining visitor numbers around?

A veteran’s view

Mario Enero, owner of La Rúa Restaurante, has a simple, though potentially unpopular theory as to why business isn’t booming. Establishing himself in the community in 1982, the veteran Whistler restaurateur has witnessed the ebbs and flows of the market. The year Pique first hit the streets was a banner year for La Rúa. In Pique’s first feature Enero was quoted as saying:

"People are booking much farther ahead. We're not talking about weekends either; we’re talking about weekdays, that's a big plus. I’ve never seen advance bookings like that in the 12 years that I've been here."

Reservations from the U.S. and Europe contributed to a 40 per cent increase in advance reservations the week La Rúa opened for the winter season in November 1994.

This year, speaking while on vacation in his native Spain, Enero is relaxed and candid. Taking a break before his newly renovated restaurant re-opens later this month, the proprietor of one of Whistler’s favourite dining establishments has every reason to be relaxed. The renovations are complete and the new menu is in place. Enero sounds excited and ready to take on the challenge of La Rúa’s proximity to the Four Seasons and its Fifty-two 80 Bistro. The new menu builds on the restaurant’s reputation for seafood, but features surprises such as elk, as well as an expanded appetizer menu to complement the new bar.

When asked if the 11:30 p.m. phone call is too late, he laughs, saying they are just about to sit down to dinner. Despite his jovial holiday attitude, his assessment of the changes of the past 10 years in Whistler is direct and honest.

"Ten years ago there was a good, golden growth. The last three or four years, just a little before 2000, the resort began not to deliver on the reputation that it has," says Enero.

"The resort has always capitalized on being number one for various reasons. But right now it seems confused in the resort. Nobody seems to know what direction to take, we don’t provide the service we used to, we’re content to just say we’re number one."

He blames the decline in the quality of service on an attitude fostered by Whistler’s success. "There seems to be an attitude among some people that’s ‘People come here and they pay, so who cares?’"

Enero sees the result being discontented tourists that are more than happy to share their negative experience with other prospective Whistler visitors.

"I think people get fed up because they pay top price and they don’t get the goods. Take for example, my restaurant. I can be the best restaurant in Whistler, but if you’re not happy then I have a problem."

In terms of his own clientele, Enero has seen his American customer base diminish, but he doesn’t think the state of the dollar has had, or will have much of an impact.

"If you decide to go to Paris or London, you go even though it’s very expensive. I don’t think the money matters. I look back to the beginning of last year the dollar was 55¢ and we still didn’t have the crowds of Americans that are supposed to line up in the resort."

Enero feels that aside from service, the primary issue that makes travellers decide where to spend their vacation dollar is one of value. And while value is a cornerstone concept in Tourism Whistler’s new branding strategy, he believes that making up the lost ground of the last couple of years will be difficult.

"It’s like in my business. When you have an unhappy customer you don’t lose a customer, you lose a hundred," he states. "And you build happy customers only one at a time."

Enero’s solution to the problem of the past two years of negative growth is a simple one grounded in hard work.

"We have to provide service and hustle to ensure that when people leave Whistler they are happy. And this is a commitment that the whole community has to make – whether in the grocery store, the restaurant or the shop."

Perspective from Village Square

There’s a good chance if you’re local and asked to pick your favourite "special occasions" restaurant, if it’s not La Rúa it will be Araxi’s. The restaurant, which occupies strata lot one in the original village, is entering its 24 th year of business and Jack Evrensel, proprietor of Araxi’s, feels that value, as well as a willingness to change with the times, has been the key to his flagship restaurant’s enduring success.

"(Our success), it’s not a secret, it’s hard work. We’ve never stood still, we’ve evolved and we’ve evolved with the village," he says. When Evrensel opened the doors to Araxi’s you could literally count the number of food and beverage facilities in the village on both hands. Today there are more than a hundred places to quench your thirst and fill your belly.

Last year the restaurant saw a 10 per cent reduction in sales, the first ever in its nearly quarter century in business. A committed group of regulars, both local and international, has helped Araxi’s weather past economic downturns in the resort.

"We had one couple from Germany who flew over four times over one season and we have a family from London, England who booked for New Year’s with us for seven years," Evrensel recounts.

The restaurateur is clear that it takes more than great food and service to garner that type of loyalty.

"Good value has been one of the cornerstone’s of the restaurant," he states simply.

Over the past two decades, Evrensel has parlayed that ideal into the Top Table Group, a corporation that also owns three of Vancouver’s best restaurants: Robson Street’s Cin Cin, South Granville’s West and Yaletown’s Blue Water Café and Raw Bar. The four restaurants are distinguished by excellence in food, service and ambience. They are the type of establishments that provide an experience that makes you happy to part with your hard earned dollars.

Evrensel is very supportive of Tourism Whistler’s new banding initiatives. "As far as Tourism Whistler going in the direction of promoting the idea of value, I think it’s a good direction."

Evrensel believes that some businesses have abused the fact that they are in a premiere ski resort, essentially price gouging to capitalize on their location.

"We (Top Table Group) have three other restaurants in Vancouver and our pricing is the same in Whistler as it is Vancouver," Evrensel says. "Some people take advantage of the fact that they are in Whistler. Over the years we have gotten a bad reputation and that hurts everybody. It doesn’t matter what you spend and how much money you have, you still want good value for your money," Evrensel states. " It doesn’t matter if you’re spending a $1,000 for wine or $30 for wine – you want good value."

Hunkering down

For many people, vacations provide the opportunity to step outside their comfort zones and try something new. In a mountain resort like Whistler there are no end to new experiences for the outdoor enthusiast. One of the enduring favourites among virgin powder enthusiasts is heli-skiing.

Ten years ago Jacquie Reck, then operations manager of Whistler Heli-Skiing, saw another bumper year coming down the pipe for the company. Rave word of mouth and magazine reviews about the excellent powder conditions at Whistler were more valuable than any advertising the company could buy.

"The excellent season last winter will show that what comes around goes around and the big world will be bigger and better in the ski industry. The powder skis are tuned, the guides are pumped and our rotors are turning," Reck confidently stated.

Ten years later the feeling isn’t quite as optimistic. For the past few years the company has not raised its prices, despite a rise in core costs such as helicopters, insurance and fuel. The company sees this as a necessary measure in the current climate.

John Hetherington, one of the four owners of Whistler Heli-Skiing, cites the American "hunkering down in the bunker" mindset as one of the components negatively impacting his business.

"I think generally ski areas in the States did well last year, particularly Colorado, and they were also more price competitive."

Americans are having a harder time travelling, from the long line-up at borders to fewer flights. Some are simply deciding that it’s not worth the hassle. And as the American dollar continues to slide in value, it may not be worth travelling north, from a financial point of view.

"The economy in the United States isn’t doing as well as it was a few years ago," says Hetherington, adding "(Americans)are not travelling like they used to. I think there’s a certain feeling that the rest of the world hates them."

Like La Rúa and Araxi’s, Whistler Heli-Skiing has a devoted base of regulars from around the world. And with heli-skiing coming out of the extreme sports category and being redefined as a unique experience for skiers with at least an intermediate skill level business should be thriving. But the reduced number of tourists coming to Whistler has had an impact on a business that, during peak season, operates five helicopters and takes more than 100 skiers up to untouched terrain every day.

"A few years ago when things were really booming here – say ’98 or ’99 – you would have to book in advance if you wanted to go up in February," says Hetherington. The likelihood of that happening this year seems slim.

Perception is reality

Owning businesses that have been active in Whistler for more than 20 years all three men share one critical insight: perception is reality and as long as the resort is perceived to be over-priced there will be fewer bodies on the Village Stroll. Tourism Whistler is committed to changing that image.

"We want to raise the bar in our branding efforts. We want to create a travel product that is more than a commodity," said Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher this past September.

TW’s extensive research suggested that the "unique personality" of the resort should be at the forefront of the new brand. Making sure that Whistler provides good bang for the tourist buck supports that primary message. This approach is very different from previous marketing efforts that focused on tangibles such as the dual mountain geography, the number of runs and the speed of the lifts.

So far the concept of Whistler as an affordable destination has been conveyed in the fall issues of leading winter sport magazines such as Ski and Skiing. And that should have a positive impact on the emerging Whistler traveller.

According to stats provided by Arlene Shieven, vice-president of marketing for TW, the profile of the typical Whistler tourist has changed dramatically during the past 10 years. Today the typical tourist is between 35 and 55, married, has kids and enjoys a household income of $100,000 and most likely hails from somewhere in the U.S., other than Washington or California.

While the last two years’ room night numbers may be disheartening, the last 10 years’ history is not. The resort’s room night numbers (provided by TW as percentages so as to not divulge confidential competitive information) show overall increases of 45 per cent in the summer and 55 per cent in the winter over the past decade.

Although the 948 per cent and 589 per cent respective summer and winter increase in Australian tourists is an astronomical anomaly, all markets represented in TW’s statistical information, with the exception of Japan, showed significant growth. While up 34 per cent in terms of summer travel, Japan’s winter tourist trade is down 73 per cent.

There are a number of factors behind the number of empty beds in the resort the last two years. Some are speculative, others are based in fact. But whatever the reasons for the lack of growth, TW is intent on correcting it with its new three-prong marketing approach.

Along with advertising promoting a "Whistler is good value" message, an initiative to foster repeat and regional visitors is being developed. And summer and winter signature events with their roots in music, art and food are on the agenda as well.

But will this repositioning of the resort be enough to get people back on the slopes? John Nadeau, interim president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, is confident that the current slump can be corrected. Although new to the chamber of commerce, Nadeau is no stranger to the local business community. A former manager with the North Shore Credit Union, he is also a small business owner operating Resort Cabs.

"I think the long-term prospects are good. I think at this time we’re having a bit of a challenge ensuring we can fill the beds and increase the room night inventory. I think that this will get turned around. I think back to ’96 and ’97 we were going through the same thing. Then there was the one season (1998/99) where things changed and we were very successful from then until 2002."

While the chamber’s 684 members, representing slightly more than half of Whistler’s overall business community, do not report on their economic status to the organization, there are signs things are going well.

"At this point we’re not seeing a lot of turnover in businesses and that’s a good thing," says Nadeau.

But Nadeau is far from a cock-eyed optimist.

"There are a lot of world events that have had an impact on Whistler. We don’t know what effect the American dollar will have on the resort. What concerns me is that we’ve had two years that we’ve been down."

While he believes that Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb efforts on turning those numbers around will ultimately succeed, he can’t ignore the membership’s concerns.

"Our membership has concerns around commercial leases, some concerns around triple net costs that businesses experience. They are concerned that those costs are cutting into their capacity to do business," says Nadeau. "I would think if we have another couple of years like this people may look at their businesses and (ask), ‘Is it really worth it to stay in business?’"

(Triple net is a lease in which the lessee pays rent to the lessor , as well as all taxes, insurance, and maintenance expenses that arise from the use of the property. For many businesses in Whistler, that lessor is Whistler-Blackcomb.)

But if people can hang in there, Nadeau feels the future looks good. "If we can get the trend turned around, which I think is possible, then we’ll see ourselves begin to increase our business from now right through until 2010."

In the meantime what needs to happen is to improve the overall level of service and value, get the message out that the resort is no longer resting on its laurels and make concrete changes to the current lease structure that some small businesses are finding crippling.

When it comes to turning around the economic climate in Whistler the answer seems clear: there are definitely ways, now all that is needed is the collective will.