Last month Tourism Whistler announced it was shifting its marketing focus to destination visitors as the organization, and in particular its member hotels, seek to rebuild Whistler's position following the recession. Discounting room rates and focusing on the regional market was a reasonable strategy during the recession but it won't sustain all that Whistler has built in the long term. We have 8,000 rooms in 132 hotels, condos, chalets, pensions and B&Bs. Last February, during the Olympics, was the closest Whistler has ever come to filling all of them, and there were still a few available. Most of the time there are lots of rooms available.
Whistler has overbuilt, according to most people. Filling all those rooms more often than 50 per cent of the time is critical, certainly to the people who own them, the companies that manage them and the hotel chains that have their logos on them.
But increasing occupancy and rebuilding room rates in the post-recession world is not a problem unique to Whistler. At last weekend's Crankworx Colorado, in Winter Park, hotel rooms started at $32 per person per night. That's based on double occupancy, so the room rate was $64 per night. However, the situation is similar elsewhere. In Aspen, rooms are available this month from $69 per night.
Trying to boost room rates, occupancy levels and attract destination visitors while rival mountain resorts are still discounting their rooms is a tough assignment.
Filling rooms is also important to the retailers, tour operators and food and beverage people in Whistler. People staying overnight, or several nights, tend to spend more than day trippers. But day visitors are still potential customers for many restaurants and retailers, even if they aren't customers for the hotels.
The B.C. Day long weekend brought lots of people to Whistler. Judging by the traffic on the road each day - an anecdotal, subjective measure but in the absence of any statistical data as good as any - many were day trippers. The much-improved Sea to Sky Highway has helped make Whistler an easy drive from Vancouver. If this is the trend for summer visitors it won't make the accommodation sector happy, but retailers and restaurateurs should be able to adjust.
All this is hardly news to anyone who has spent any time contemplating the current state of affairs in Whistler. But it leads to the question that most people and organizations have been grappling with this summer: where do we go from here? And the secondary question: who's going to figure that out?
In Lake Tahoe, California, they've hired a consulting firm to spearhead the Lake Tahoe Basin Prosperity Plan. The consultants have identified three economic development strategies: health and wellness, green building and "geotourism" - tourism based on geographic features as opposed to cultural, culinary or other features.
Most organizations and many businesses in Whistler have spent the spring and summer contemplating Whistler in the post-Olympic, post-recession world and what their role in that world can be. The chamber of commerce, Tourism Whistler, the arts council, the hotel association, Whistler Blackcomb and the municipality have all held retreats, done evaluations and solicited input from members. Each organization has its own roles and responsibilities. Mostly those roles and responsibilities complement one another, although occasionally they conflict. All are working within the guidelines of the Whistler 2020 Comprehensive Sustainability Plan.
But as Whistler Forum founder William Roberts asks in a letter to the editor this week, where in Whistler will the new and higher paying jobs come from? What innovative spin-offs and start-ups will be spawned in the next five to 10 years?
Is it council's role to answer that? Is it part of the economic task force within Whistler 2020? Is it the responsibility of everyone in Whistler?
The immediate problem is occupancy and room rates. It may be a long, slow grind to rebuild those numbers but are there complementary efforts that could help? The event business has been mentioned. The idea of reducing the inventory of rooms has been discussed. Education has been raised time and time again as a complementary industry to tourism.
It's time Whistler moved beyond ideas and concepts. Now that the key organizations have reviewed their mandates, a structure that gathers their disparate voices and moves the whole community toward specific, understood goals is needed.