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A sign of the times

Following the announcement last July 2 that Vancouver and Whistler had been awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics there were some who feared Whistler prices would climb even higher and the resort would become less affordable, for vacationers and residents

Following the announcement last July 2 that Vancouver and Whistler had been awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics there were some who feared Whistler prices would climb even higher and the resort would become less affordable, for vacationers and residents.

On Monday of this week, half way through the ski season, Tourism Whistler took a significant step in tacitly recognizing part of that problem.

A campaign aimed at B.C. and Washington state residents, called Reconnect With Whistler, was launched. The basic message is that from Feb. 22 to March 31, the busy spring break period, hotel rooms start at just $89 per person per night. There is no minimum stay and many hotels will offer late check out options.

A random sampling of some of the specials advertised on the official Web sites of other B.C. mountain resorts on Monday suggests Whistler’s is very competitive offer. Silver Star was offering a 15 per cent discount on accommodation from Feb. 21 to March 25, but only between Sundays and Thursdays and with a minimum three-nights stay. Sun Peaks was offing $89 per night packages that included one lift ticket, but some restrictions applied. Fernie was offering one night’s accommodation and a lift ticket for $115 through February and March.

The Reconnect With Whistler campaign is a long way from the days when local businesses were wondering why the FIS World Cup downhill circuit was coming to Whistler in late February and early March and demanding discounted hotel rooms, as some said, "at a time of year when demand was so high we could charge twice our normal prices."

The campaign comes on the heels of last month’s extraordinary Tourism Whistler meeting, where members looked at short-term marketing strategies for the rest of the ski season as well as mid-term strategies for next year. As Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher said following the meeting: "Some (challenges) are internal, within the resort, that we can effect and influence, and some are external, outside of our control."

Fisher added that the long haul U.S. market was down 15-20 per cent and overall the resort was down "one or two points to last year to date."

The anecdotal evidence from individual businesses is also accumulating. Many report that business is down from last winter, which was down from the previous winter.

At the same time, property values and lease rates are continuing to climb. Visitors see these costs of doing business and/or of living in Whistler reflected in higher prices. A stronger Canadian loonie, at least against the U.S. dollar, has also made Whistler more expensive for Americans.

It is a positive step that Tourism Whistler and its members have recognized and acted on this situation with the Reconnect With Whistler campaign. Enticing people here is the first step in turning the situation around.

The municipality, which is in the process of finalizing its budget, also needs to recognize that business is down and some individual businesses are hurting.

It starts with overhead costs, including those inflated by lease rates and property values. Some commercial property assessments have gone up 20-30 per cent over last year.

Another perspective of Whistler property values is that the overall assessment roll increased from $8.7 billion in 2002 to $9.88 billion in 2003. That’s a 13.5 per cent increase on top of a 34 per cent increase from 2001 to 2002.

The last few years the municipality has shown some sympathy for people facing skyrocketing property values by lowering the mil rate. As well, last year the municipality, with the help of some individuals, was successful in negotiating a change to the provincial homeowners grant program that allowed more Whistler residents to qualify for the grant. Still, with the overall assessment roll making huge jumps annually, the municipality and the province have continued to reap increased property tax revenues from Whistler every year.

The municipality has maintained for several years now that it needs additional sources of revenue and has been pushing for new "financial tools" to find that revenue. Most interpret this as some sort of tax on visitors. Tourism Whistler’s Reconnect With Whistler campaign suggests now is not the time for anything that will boost the cost of visiting Whistler.

Municipal council also needs to consider its spending priorities carefully in the current economic climate. If it can save some money and further reduce taxes there are lots of businesses and residents who could use the break.

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