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What business are we in?

By G.D. Maxwell So, if any of you bothered reading about the World Economic Forum last week, you might be asking yourself a couple of questions.

By G.D. Maxwell

So, if any of you bothered reading about the World Economic Forum last week, you might be asking yourself a couple of questions. Maybe you’re asking yourself, "What’s the big deal? So what if council ran all these secret meetings with the WEF?"

Well, the easy answer is they simply shouldn’t have been operating behind closed doors. The deal being discussed didn’t fall under the exceptions recognized by the Local Government Act – land, labour, legal – for closed sessions. More fundamentally though, council collectively broke its promise, a promise every single one of them made during the course of the last election, to run a more open, participative government.

Ted Milner summed it up as well as any of them when he said, "Unless we’re into one of our three L’s – land, labour or legal – anybody who wants to come to one of our meetings or workshops should be welcomed."

The excuse given for keeping things under wraps – because the WEF didn’t want to embarrass the Swiss and asked us to – plumbs the depths of banality. It reminds me of my rationale for what was a patently stupid act, my one and only botched attempt at shoplifting when I was 11 years old. "Butch stole a comic book and said I should too." It was a pathetic excuse then, it’s still a pathetic excuse. Just because somebody asks you to do something you know you shouldn’t do doesn’t make it okay. Duh.

But that’s a failing of the individuals involved and we will have an opportunity to let them know what we think about it in a couple of months when elections roll around.

The more fundamental question remains the one I asked last week: What business are we in?

Is Whistler a hardcore ski town pursuing conferences to buttress the resort infrastructure necessary to be a destination ski resort? Or are we outgrowing the ski resort model and embarking on a strategy to chase after conferences as a principal business?

Do we want to cater to passionate skiers and boarders who come to Whistler for the ride of their lives? Or do we want to cultivate the fabulously wealthy, powerful, and influential movers and shakers of the world, be they dilettantes, poseurs and generally ignorant of what happens to the human psyche when you head down the fall-line on a perfect powder day?

The questions are not academic because of this reality: The World Economic Forum will take a breathtaking bite out of the ski business for two weeks every time it meets here. Meeting late in January, early in February, WEF members and guests will soak up maybe 5,000 to 6,000 commercial hotel beds. That represents a significant percentage of the total inventory. Those beds will not be available to destination skiers who want to come to Whistler.

The effect of disappearing hotel beds is worse because the conference takes place late in one week, over a weekend and spills over into the next week, ending on Monday. Since most of the destination ski market tends to be Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday, WEF’s schedule will bite into two weeks of tourist traffic.

And then there’s that pesky security issue. I’m not prepared to argue the merits of whether the WEF is a force for positive world change or simply a PR hack’s dream schmoozefest. What they do isn’t really the point. Security is the point.

This isn’t a conference, as one councillor naively put it, that could simply call Tourism Whistler and book whatever rooms and facilities it needed whether the muni supported it or not. Since the World Trade Organization dustup in Seattle in 1999, things like the WEF draw world class protests, some peaceful, some violent. It’s probably unfortunate, but it’s the new world order, baby. You get the WEF; you get the protesters. It’s a package deal.

Last month in New York, the WEF met at the Waldorf-Astoria. Security consisted, for openers, of concrete barricades sealing off nine square blocks around the Waldorf. Nine square blocks in Manhattan is somewhat larger than what we generally think of as ALL OF WHISTLER.

That was for openers. There were also police: 3,800 of them! Armed with machine guns. There were bomb-sniffing dogs. There were US Secret Service agents. There were US Air Force fighter jets protecting the airspace.

Let’s suppose you were one of the lucky powderhounds who managed to get a condo in Whistler while the WEF was in town. Imagine, say, trying to walk from the Delta Whistler Suites to the base of Whistler Mountain to get up the gondola. You’d probably have two choices: walk back to Lorimer Road and follow it to the base of Blackcomb, take the Magic Chair up and ski down to the base of Whistler; or walk back to Lorimer Road, go west to the Valley Trail and walk down to Creekside. That’s because there’s no way in hell you’re going to stroll through the village wearing a ski mask and goggles and live to tell the story, if several thousand heavily-armed cops have anything to say about it.

Last summer when the Pacific North West Economic Region conference met in Whistler for a couple of days, the security tab was Cdn$630,000. The price of security in New York this year is still being tallied but estimates I’ve read peg it in the neighbourhood of US$5 million. The WEF, by the way, is not picking up that bill.

So the idea that they could simply come to Whistler if they wanted to is absurd. It will take the support of local, provincial and federal governments.

But maybe New York isn’t such a good example. After all, it’s a big city. What was the experience with security at Davos?

Glad you asked. Davos is a bit like Whistler. It sits in a narrow valley with one road in and one road out. According to a piece by James Atlas, who attended the 2000 WEF conference for Vanity Fair, police and Swiss soldiers blocked the road at both ends, letting only credentialed people pass through. Protests were banned and the Swiss government virtually imposed martial law on the area. A few intrepid souls who managed to slip past security were repelled by water cannons. In frustration, protesters rioted in Zurich. Unlike similar protests in Genoa last year, no one was killed.

Great publicity for a ski resort, don’tcha think?

But surely, I can hear you say, there must be some benefits to bringing the WEF to Whistler. Of course there are. Next week I’ll take a look at some of them and wonder about just what the role of Tourism Whistler might be in all of this.

Unless, of course, no one really cares about this. In which case I’ll just go back to writing cute dog and cat stories.