Earlier this month, the B.C. government laid out its roadmap for rebuilding and revitalizing tourism to 2019 levels by 2024—but what is it going to take to get the province, and by extension, Whistler, back to that point?
Well, it’s a complex answer, one that will require significant investment and commitment on a number of fronts, something Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher believes the NDP was fully cognizant of in its ambitious, overarching plan.
“I do feel quite optimistic that the provincial government in this plan is really hitting on all the right notes,” said Fisher, who also sits on B.C.’s Tourism Sector Recovery Roundtable. “The provincial government was listening to industry and they have put forward a really strong plan that addresses the key challenges our industry has been facing out of the pandemic.”
The renewed Strategic Framework for Tourism takes a multi-pronged approach to recovery. There’s funding for the obvious things, like the $6 million committed through 2024 for Destination BC to market the province in a competitive international market. There’s also $1 million for event-bid preparation and sponsorships to help attract large-scale events back to B.C., on top of the $8 million Victoria recently announced to help draw business events and conferences.
The NDP kept an eye towards the industry’s long-term future as well, with a further $2 million earmarked for post-secondary education and training to support B.C. students who enrol in tourism and hospitality certificate, diploma or degree programs, tourism-related apprenticeships, and trades training and development programs. Still in development, the program will prioritize Indigenous, immigrant and refugee applications, as well as those from rural or remote locations, and people with accessibility needs.
But for a tourism and hospitality sector that was already bleeding workers prior to the pandemic, it’s going to take more than just money to shift perceptions of an industry not known for its career prospects, said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC.
“We’ve really got to start at the high-school level, or even the elementary-school level, to expose the types of careers that are available and the types of businesses that make up the tourism and hospitality sectors,” he said. “We automatically think of hotels and restaurants and maybe some attractions, and that’s all fair. But there are several jobs that students don’t know about that they can pursue in the industry.”
Along with what one might consider non-traditional tourism careers—Judas highlighted the Sea to Sky-relevant positions of fishing guide and ski instructor as examples—there are also tourism-adjacent jobs that help the industry run.
“I’m talking about things like: tourism companies and businesses have lawyers and accountants. Some have medical personnel. There are landscape architects. There are engineers. These are all positions in the broader business sector that are also required within a tourism environment in places throughout the province,” Judas added. “It’s really looking at tourism rather than a first job or a part-time job or what have you, but as a career that can be built in tourism at the executive or highly specialized level.”
You of course can’t talk about B.C.’s labour shortage without mentioning its housing crisis either.
“We have to make sure there is sufficient housing for people who want to move here, and especially when you have new Canadians or immigrants coming in, even those coming through the temporary foreign worker program, and relaxing some of the regulations or policies or procedures to allow these people a place to live would be most helpful,” Judas said.
On that front, local leaders continue to push the federal government to streamline the temporary foreign worker stream—a crucial segment of Whistler’s workforce—to get much-needed staff back in the resort more quickly as tourism ramps back up.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic for Whistler has been a renewed demand from the wider B.C. and Canadian markets. Heading into March break, Whistler was pacing at about 70-per-cent occupancy, “not that much below” pre-pandemic rates, Fisher said, and almost entirely made up of domestic guests.
But make no mistake: if the resort wants to get back to 2019 visitation levels, it will have to stimulate its traditional international markets.
Although the U.K. has recovered steadily, “without a doubt we’ve seen a pretty depressed U.S. market, Australian market, German market, Asian markets,” Fisher said. “Some of those markets are going to take longer to recover than others, but we do believe there’s a lot of opportunity coming out of the U.S., the U.K., and then as other markets, such as Australia and Asia, are ready, those will come back.”
Part of that effort will be in the marketing, Judas said, but for international markets to regain their confidence in travel, the messaging also has to come from outside the industry.
“It’s really having people of influence be part of that messaging,” he said. “It can’t be only the tourism industry saying this, because people will then determine you’ve got a vested interest in this and you’re doing it for selfish reasons, which, to be fair, yes, that’s true. We want to build our businesses back but we need credibility from people that the public believes and knows and trusts and has been communicating with all throughout the pandemic.”
Revitalizing conference business is also a key strategy in Tourism Whistler’s recovery plan. Fisher said about half of the conferences slated for Whistler this year were rebooked from 2020 or 2021, while the other half is made up of new bookings. And while Fisher said smaller, mid-haul business trips may have gone by the wayside in the pandemic, there is ample demand for larger, in-person conferences following two years of virtual meetings.
“There’s pent-up demand to meet in person,” she said. “People want to be face to face when the time is right and it clearly is becoming that time. There is a real perk in going to a destination, clearing your head and being inspired by a different location and having outdoor experiences in a place like Whistler.”
In order to attract the kinds of large-scale conferences and events B.C. is hoping for, Judas said incentives should go a long way towards sweetening the pot.
“What are some things we can help with to offset the costs of travel here?” he asked.
“I think looking at what meeting planners are asking for, what they need, helping to market to delegates that may be considering a potential conference, or looking at offsetting costs for a major event, such as a sporting event, which could be things like security or the building of infrastructure or whatever that looks like. That’s something we’ll need to consider.”