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The business blues and what to do

The Paralympic arena debate overshadows a larger issue: business sucks

Sometime this month Whistlerites will get details, including perhaps some numbers, regarding the Paralympic arena and why all signs are pointing to it being built in Squamish. Although the final decision will not be made until after Labour Day, indications are Whistler will still receive a significant chunk of the $20 million VANOC is offering toward construction of the Paralympic facility, and that money will go toward building another ice sheet at Meadow Park and an enhanced athletes centre next to the athletes village on the Cheakamus River.

During the debate on the arena one of the arguments put forward, primarily by village business owners, is that the village needs to be revitalized and brought back to life. Too many people, including residents, are avoiding the village and shopping elsewhere. Consequently, businesses are hurting. The arena, some of these people argue, could be the catalyst, or a part of the catalyst, to bring people back to the village.

But it doesn’t look likely the Paralympic arena will be built in Whistler Village. When all the negotiations are concluded and the numbers can be released, perhaps it will become obvious that Whistler can’t afford the facility in the village.

And what then?

The issues of businesses struggling and revitalizing the village remain. While the arena debate has carried on for several weeks the business issue is only starting to be addressed. Last week a Tourism Whistler meeting called – with less than a week’s notice – to discuss business in the resort drew approximately 100 people. As Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher commented, "Crisis does bring people together."

As was discussed at last week’s meeting, there are all kinds of external factors that have affected tourism in recent years, and most people are pretty familiar with them: SARS, the Iraq war, 9/11, the economy, airlines failing. But what about the things Whistler can control; things like the village?

In the beginning

Long before there was a Whistler Village there was a plan to create a central focal point for the Whistler valley. In a 1974 report for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ planning services department author James Gilmour wrote: "Considerable planning discussion in the recent past has revolved around the question of a ‘single centred’ versus a ‘multi-centred’ community. This plan strongly recommends the ‘single centred’ concept over the ‘multi-centred’ one for a variety of reasons."

Development of Whistler Village was carefully orchestrated, with the Blackcomb Professional Building, The Grocery Store, liquor store, Tapley’s Pub, a drug store, hardware store and restaurants included in the first parcels to be developed around Village Square. The idea was that this mix of essential services and social gathering places would bring residents, weekenders and destination visitors together in the core of the village.

All of these businesses remain in the central core of the village but in the 25 years since the first buildings opened a lot of development has occurred in other parts of the valley. Some of that, like the bed base that the Blackcomb Benchlands have become, was delayed until the village had reached a critical mass, but it was always planned. The revitalization of Creekside was also anticipated.

Less planned or anticipated was that Function Junction would become an area for retail and office space.

But in some people’s minds the beginning of the erosion of the village as Whistler’s central focus began with the 1992 decision to build an ice arena at Meadow Park, rather than on Lot 1 in Village North. The argument at the time was that Whistler couldn’t afford to build an arena on Lot 1 that would meet village design standards and the community was demanding an arena sooner rather than later. In 1994 the aquatic centre, squash courts and fitness facility opened adjacent to the arena, making Meadow Park the centre of indoor recreation in Whistler.

Lot 1 and the adjacent Lot 9, which the municipality purchased for $1 million in 1996, remain undeveloped. Lot 1 was given to the municipality by the provincial government on the condition that it be used for a recreation or cultural facility.

For those who believe an arena – possibly built in conjunction with other facilities offering activities and entertainment – is what the village needs to attract people again, the Paralympic facility and the $20 million VANOC was offering to kick-start construction seemed to be the answer. Hence the disappointment with the likely decision that the facility will be built in Squamish.

"Most of us got there reluctantly," Councillor Gordon McKeever said of council’s apparently imminent decision to allow the Paralympic arena to go to Squamish. "But we still have Lots 1 and 9. There’s a whole shopping list of ideas for that piece of land. I feel it should be a durable economic stimulus for the village, something that keeps new bucks coming in."

But any public discussion of what that facility will be and how it will be paid for is likely still months away. Village merchants are looking for something to happen sooner.

A sense of renewal

That Whistler Village would need renewal and updating was recognized as long ago as 1997, when the Whistler Village Enhancement Project was initiated. According to the municipality’s website, "The original village was, by then, 17 years old and was needing updating and improvements to keep it fresh, inviting and to the quality expected in a world-class resort that Whistler has become."

A vision was developed with input from village merchants and architect Eldon Beck, which led to a program to "fix the eyesores and improve amenities and wayfinding, as well as update and establish clear standards." The Village Enhancement Strategy was adopted by council in November of 2001.

But some would argue the Village Enhancement Strategy is not bold enough for the problems village businesses face in 2005. The municipality did improve the seating and access points in Village Square last year, and this year is planning for the 2006 reconstruction of Mountain Square. But – with the exception of the library – the village is not a major recipient of municipal capital spending. Although village enhancement was deemed an important issue by the current council when they held their first strategic planning workshop in February of 2003, just $150,000 is budgeted for village enhancement this year, plus $12,000 for planning the Mountain Square redesign. The budget for village enhancement through to 2009 is $1.2 million.

The other, perhaps more important, aspect of the Village Enhancement Strategy is to encourage landlords and merchants to reinvest in their properties and to facilitate renovations. This is certainly necessary, but it has often been a frustrating process. Municipal approval of awnings, patio designs or landscaping doesn’t happen in a timely manner and is fraught with regulations, some business owners have complained.

It also takes some convincing to get a majority of owners in a strata-titled property to put up money for renovations. And when they finally do, the renovations can impact a large area of the village. They may also go on longer than expected.

In the last couple of years visitors to the village have seen renovations to the conference centre, the Blackcomb Lodge, the former Delta (now Hilton) Whistler Resort, the Crystal Lodge and the former Westbrook, now called the Sundial. The cumulative impact of these renovations, and construction of the Whistler Village Centre II Pan Pacific, hasn’t added to the ambiance of the village or to merchants’ bottom lines. In some cases storefronts have been hidden by scaffolding; in others, noise has kept customers away.

Bringing the village to life

Beyond the physical character of the village are the people and activities that provide animation. For nearly 20 years Whistler has employed street entertainers to roam the cobblestones during the summer months, adding a little colour and entertainment to the mix. But the lineup of festivals, particularly this summer, has disappointed many.

Crankworx will draw lots of people interested in mountain biking this weekend, and the Skins Game brought golf fans – and television cameras – earlier this summer. But there was a limited number of tickets for the Skins Game and mountain bike fans aren’t generally known as big spenders. Both are events that appeal to a specialized market, rather than a general market.

More music, concerts and performances that appeal to a general audience are needed, according to some people. Gone are the days when the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra would draw thousands for a weekend concert. Even though the concerts were on one of the mountains, drawing people out of the village, concertgoers passed through the village on their way to and from the performance, many of them spending some money on meals or souvenirs.

Tourism Whistler has signed a long-term contract with New York-based Shoreline Media Inc. to produce concerts with name acts that will draw big crowds, but those concerts won’t start until next summer. A venue for the concerts is still under consideration – which brings the discussion back to the arena. Whistler doesn’t have a facility for large-scale performances. The Telus Conference Centre can work, for up to about 5,000 people. Millennium Place holds 250. Temporary stages in Village Square and at the village base of Whistler Mountain have been part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival and several other festivals that have provided "free" music. Out of the village, concerts have been held on Blackcomb at Base II, on top of Whistler Mountain and at the Shoestring Lodge grounds.

A large performance venue isn’t necessarily the answer to bringing more people to the village, but it could be part of it. Arts and culture are said to be growth areas of tourism, and while a concert hall, theatre or even an arena would provide a focal point, the arts are getting a higher profile in Whistler. The Whistler Arts Council’s July Artwalk brings work by local artists to cafes, restaurants and stores, turning the whole village into a gallery to be explored. Artwalk hasn’t been around long enough to gain a reputation beyond Whistler, but if it continues to grow it will become a draw.

The value factor

The other factors affecting business that Whistler can control are awareness/marketing and one that’s been discussed many times before: value.

Tourism Whistler outlined some of its marketing plans at last week’s meeting. While awareness of the resort association’s marketing initiatives may not be as well known as it could be, it should be noted that Tourism Whistler recognized a couple of years ago that marketing efforts needed to be increased and better focused. The pre-season reservations and early season numbers last winter suggest the resort association was on the right track, until the January rains hit.

As for value, a follow-up members meeting scheduled for Aug. 17 is supposed to tackle this subject, once again.

Value is not just about pricing; it includes service, attitude, quality and anything else that contributes to customer satisfaction. Value is like politics: perception is reality. And part of the reality today is that there are more mountain resorts in B.C. than ever before, so people can compare Whistler’s value with the value offered by Fernie, Sun Peaks and Big White – not to mention Aspen, Vail, beach resorts, cruise ships and theme parks.

But in addition to competing with other resorts for customers, Whistler is also competing with them for employees. The boom in mountain resorts in B.C. has meant new opportunities for some of Whistler’s skilled labour, and more competition for Whistler employers trying to hold on to employees. The results can be seen in the classified ads, where employment opportunities abound.

And being under staffed, or relying on unqualified staff, can lessen the value customers feel they are getting from businesses in Whistler.







Measuring success

Years ago at a Whistler Resort Association meeting someone suggested that all the merchants in the room write down on a slip of paper how their business was doing – up or down by X per cent over the previous year – and put the papers in a hat. The papers could then be drawn, read aloud and people would have a realistic idea of how overall business in the resort was, without knowing how specific competing businesses were doing.

The members didn’t go for it.

Lack of hard data on business has long been an issue for Whistler. The anecdotal evidence is legion: year-round "sale" signs, dinner and drink deals well into July, paper on the windows of village storefronts, business owners working more shifts.

And even a cursory recollection of the weather the past eight months would seem to support the anecdotal evidence: after a promising start to the winter monsoon rains hit in mid-January and hung around into February. That was followed by a few weeks of sunny weather but little new snow until just before spring break. Once the ski season was over spring showers and drizzle seemed to hang around from late May until well into July. Now, with the August long weekend behind us, there’s only a month of summer business left and then three long months before the ski season starts.

The fickle weather of 2005 hasn’t helped Whistler businesses, but how do we quantify the impact on the resort as a whole?

There is still only one primary, public measure of how business in Whistler is doing: room nights. Intrawest doesn’t like its resorts releasing skier numbers for fear the stock market may misinterpret them. And unlike many U.S. mountain towns, Whistler can’t impose a local sales tax and thus create a public record of sales in various categories. The closest we have is the hotel tax revenue, which is a measure of room nights and a factor of room rates.

For the record, business is down four per cent this year, based on room nights. But that decrease comes after four years of steady decline. Hotel room nights peaked in the winter of 2000-01 at 616,200 before dropping to 604,758, 559,378 and 522,025 in the winter of 2003-04.

Summer room nights peaked in 2000 at 406,363 and have been down and up ever since; 390,460 in 2001; 401,168 in 2002; 331,267 in 2003; 372,174 in 2004.

Tourism Whistler also measures the number of visitors for each season by combining day-visitor numbers with homeowners and their friends/family and paid room nights. This data shows that summer visitors actually peaked in 1999 at 1,344,713. They declined fairly steadily to 1,027,520 in 2003 and then jumped up to 1,156,517 last summer.

Winter visitors peaked in 1999-2000 at 969,314, dropped to 849,537 by 2001-02 and then remained steady at about 871,000 in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

Another gauge for business, though not an actual measurement, is Tourism Whistler’s visitor surveys. The seasonal surveys provide data on visitor characteristics, including market origin, length of stay, daily spending, type of visitor, demographic characteristics and travel party characteristics.

And for anyone still wondering about skier visits, Whistler-Blackcomb topped 2 million each winter from 1998-99 to 2003-04, with the record winter being 2001-02 at 2.3 million.