Business owners in Whistler are generally optimistic about the province’s four-step restart plan, but that’s not to say local entrepreneurs are in the clear heading into the summer.
Issues like staffing, debt loads and summer foot traffic are still top of mind for many local businesses.
In the Upper Village, the prospect of a second straight year without the Farmers’ Market—which moved to the Whistler Racket Club for 2021 after a year at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre—is causing some consternation for business owners.
“It does help push traffic up there and keep the Upper Village front of mind in non-ski season, when there’s not really a lift there,” said Scott Mant, of RMU Whistler.
Having opened just a few months before COVID-19 hit, the ski shop/taproom has yet to enjoy a normal summer, Mant said, but the presence of the Farmers’ Market was one of the things that enticed the business to the Upper Village.
According to Whistler Blackcomb, there will be no Adventure Zone or WestCoaster Slide in the Upper Village in 2021, as was the case last year, though the mini-golf course and ascent trails will be open, and sightseeing guests can upload on the Blackcomb Gondola.
RMU has developed a good local following in its short time in business, and “with the Blackcomb bike trails starting to open there’s quite a few bikers coming in for beers afterwards,” Mant said. “But I mean, no doubt, the circuit breaker and the resort closing with basically 24-hours notice was a bit of a shock.”
That said, the B.C. restart plan gives RMU hope for the summer ahead.
“I don’t think Whistler has dropped off in terms of being a world-class destination, and fully expect both Canadians and international travellers alike to come back, so yeah, super optimistic,” Mant said.
“[But] I guess cautiously optimistic, because it’s been quite a challenging 15 months.”
Another major concern for all Whistler businesses heading into the summer is access to labour.
For Pepe Barajas, owner-operator of La Cantina, Mexican Corner and Clean Perfect in Whistler, COVID-19 restrictions have added further delays to the already lengthy Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process for hiring foreign workers.
Though Barajas has several workers lined up in other countries with approved LMIAs, they are unable to enter Canada without work permits (which require biometrics—a process previously done upon landing at YVR).
“The biometric centres in most of the countries are closed, so without the biometrics, then they cannot get the work permit,” Barajas said, adding that he’s even flown workers to other countries to complete biometrics, but is still waiting on the proper permits to arrive so they can come to Canada.
As Whistler ramps up and visitors return this summer, the lack of staff could have knock-on effects elsewhere, Barajas pointed out. While he may have cooks for his restaurants, without enough servers, he can’t open as many hours; without as many hours, he’s buying less product from suppliers, impacting their bottom line; and understaffed businesses may contribute to lineups and congestion if the resort gets busy, or lead some to cut corners.
“When it comes to public health, now we need more bodies to ensure that we all can comply with all those sanitation practices, ensuring that nobody is cutting corners because they are understaffed,” Barajas said.
Like Mant, Barajas expressed optimism about B.C.’s restart plan and the certainty it offers business owners, but the challenges now facing Whistler are complex, and demanding cooperation, he said.
“It’s not a time of being critical and pointing fingers,” he said.
“I think it is a time of sharing what challenges we have, and putting our heads together to work towards resolving all challenges that are out there.”
A Whistler Chamber Advocacy in Action session with MP Patrick Weiler and MLA Jordan Sturdy on May 27 was well attended, with business owners able to share their concerns directly with elected officials.
“What I heard from members is, sure, there seems to be light at the end of this long, dark tunnel, but they’re approaching it cautiously,” said Chamber CEO Melissa Pace, adding that labour, debt and housing continue to pose big challenges.
“What I would say is our business community really needs all of us who can work to get back to work, and this is the time we do everything we can to keep every door open and give our businesses a chance to get back on their feet,” Pace said.
“Because if we don’t, there is a real chance that some of these businesses that make Whistler the place that we want to live, won’t operate at full capacity this summer, which could result in permanent closures. We don’t want that.”
The chamber is working on a labour strategy, she added, and looking to host a virtual job fair in collaboration with WorkBC.
“I don’t think we’ll see what we’ve seen in the past in terms of international workers,” she said.
“We’re going to have to rely more on the regional, B.C. [market], and across Canada. We don’t know what the borders are doing at this point, so all of that is up in the air right now.”