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Accurate numbers help tell the story

How well do we know the people we are trying to attract to Whistler? For that matter, how well do we know ourselves? The lead story in the business section of Saturday’s Vancouver Sun described how great weather, new attractions and increased regiona

How well do we know the people we are trying to attract to Whistler?

For that matter, how well do we know ourselves?

The lead story in the business section of Saturday’s Vancouver Sun described how great weather, new attractions and increased regional visits were helping B.C. mountain resorts make up for high fuel prices and declining numbers of American visitors this summer. Mount Washington, Grouse Mountain, Sun Peaks, Whistler and Panorama Resort were surveyed and all reported “daily attendance for activities” in July on par or ahead of last year’s numbers. Overnight visits were another story, varying from resort to resort.

But the thrust of the story was that, despite the gloomy U.S. economy, the high price of fuel and the dollar near par, mountain resorts were still busy. On the surface it appears to be a sort of gravity-defying result. But as Sun Peaks’ Christopher Nicholson pointed out, “weather impacts our numbers more than gas prices.”

Peter Yesawich had a similar message for Tourism Whistler members a couple of weeks ago. After numerous polls done across the United States Yesawich’s firm, Ypartnership, found that increases in gasoline prices will not affect the travel plans of 59 per cent of drive travellers. That still leaves a whopping 41 per cent of drive travellers who will curtail their travel plans when the price of gasoline is deemed too high, but within that 41 per cent there will be different price points and different lengths of trips.

A survey commissioned by Visa and published last month also found reason for optimism in a time of U.S. economic despair. The survey, which polled U.S. payment cardholders who had traveled outside the U.S. in the past three years, found that 63 per cent are equally or more willing to travel compared with one year ago. Half said they are likely to take a trip abroad in the next 12 months, and for those people Canada and Mexico are the most likely destinations.

  The one-third of Visa cardholders polled who had traveled outside the U.S. in the last three years and who are not likely to travel internationally this year cited the cost of travel and the state of the economy as deterrents.

Clearly, the economy and fuel prices are making the U.S. pie smaller, as expected. And the competition for that smaller pie is fierce. But it never was as big as some people assumed. As Yesawich said, there are about 116 million households in the United States; 40 per cent of them do not travel. It’s the 60 per cent — 69.6 million households — that do travel that people in the tourism business need to concentrate on.

Another distinction to be made when trying to understand Whistler’s summer business is between overnight stays and “daily attendance for activities”. Hotel rooms in the summer are roughly half the price they are in winter. The discount may be even greater when things like gas rebates and special package deals are factored in. And the accommodation sector should be acknowledged for boosting summer visitor numbers with discounted rates and reacting to unforeseen disasters like last week’s rockslide with special deals.

But summer is more complicated than winter when trying to assess the overall economy. Whereas in winter the vast majority of visitors are here to ski or snowboard, which is easily measured, there are a multitude of activities for people to do in the summer. Statistics have been collected on rounds of golf played, but there are dozens of other activities — many operated as small businesses. This diffusion of visitor spending is harder to track, and as a result trying to measure the summer economy has involved a lot of anecdotal evidence.

This contrasts with American resorts, where local governments have the authority to impose a tax on consumer spending. One result is that the economic performance of most sectors in the local economy is a matter of public record, available each month.

Whistler’s economic measurements, which have largely consisted of room nights, skier visits and golf rounds, may finally account for the variety of summer activities (and spending) if businesses participate in the chamber of commerce’s new EPIC program. The EPIC program (Economic Performance Indicators for Whistler) is a confidential survey of businesses that will ask a series of questions to determine each business’s economic progress. Results of the survey will be published in the EPIC report, which will be available online in the Members Only section of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce website.

The key, of course, is to get Whistler businesses to participate. If they do, Whistler will be on the way to a better understanding of its visitors and itself.