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Shooting ourselves in the foot

Since its incorporation as a resort municipality in 1975, Whistler has taken a number of steps to ensure the success of its primary business, tourism.

Since its incorporation as a resort municipality in 1975, Whistler has taken a number of steps to ensure the success of its primary business, tourism.

For instance, Whistler has, for some time, had a bylaw on the books that are intended to limit construction in the village to spring and fall seasons, when there are fewer visitors.

On the marketing and delivery side of visitors’ experience, Whistler has been stressing value. As tourism consultant Peter Yesawich told Tourism Whistler members last summer, everyone — including visitors who can afford to pay for the best service and the best hotels — likes to feel they are getting good value. The numerous accommodation and lift ticket packages available this winter are examples of the value Whistler is trying to offer.

One Whistler was formed because local government and businesses recognized that visitors only think of “Whistler” when they recall their experience here. They don’t generally distinguish, and usually don’t care, whether the municipality is responsible for clearing the walkway in front of their hotel or it’s their hotel’s responsibility — or someone else’s responsibility. But if it’s not done it lessens their Whistler experience.

These messages — value, service, visitor experience — are at the heart of the Spirit Course that most Whistler employees take in order to qualify for a discounted season pass. The Spirit program is built around the idea that virtually anyone who works in Whistler, but particularly people working in frontline service sector jobs, is a big part of the visitor experience.

So on the Friday afternoon of the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, the much-anticipated opening weekend of the ski season, in a winter of frightening economic forecasts, “Whistler” looked under prepared and complacent.

In the middle of a snowstorm Friday, a crew was paving the highway between Function Junction and Creekside, “finishing” the first phase of a project that was started in mid-October — although sections of the highway shoulder will remain unpaved all winter.

Once drivers had negotiated their way past the paving crew and reached the village, they would have found a concrete truck in the middle of Village Stroll, pouring concrete for a new patio.

At the original entrance to the village, work was continuing on the wheelchair ramp access from the taxi loop.

Elsewhere in the village, fences marked off multiple areas where paving stones were being pulled up or re-set. And minor building modifications were still being wrapped up.

There are, undoubtedly, explanations why each of these projects was still underway during one of the major weekends of the year. Labour shortages, delays in approvals, delays in material delivery… It really doesn’t matter. The experience for visitors was the same.

And a new graduate of the Spirit Program could be excused if, after a half day of hearing over and over the message of value and exceeding customer expectations, they took a stroll through the village and caught a wiff of something that smelled faintly like a bull had defecated.

Despite these annoyances, and snow accumulations more reminiscent of Canadian Thanksgiving than American Thanksgiving, people came last weekend — the day skier lots on Saturday were near capacity. And most of those people will return, such is the faith of skiers and snowboarders.

But counting on skiers to return, in this economy, is blind faith. The competition for visitors is fiercer than ever and the economic situation is making it more difficult for many to afford ski trips.

Convincing people to visit us and then delivering a good experience is the business that all of Whistler is in. And all of Whistler needs to pull together to make it work.

This is just as important a topic for a community discussion as, for example, the municipal budget. In fact, the two are directly linked. Since the “financial tools” deal was announced and the province ruled on tax classification of condo-hotel rooms, municipal revenue has become much more dependent on hotel occupancy than it used to be. When hotel occupancy declines the only other way for the municipality to make up for that lost revenue is to raise property taxes.

Similarly, the shortage of housing for seasonal employees is something that affects the entire community.

The limited success that Tourism Whistler and property managers have had in convincing the owners of condo-hotel units to make their units available for the Olympics is an issue for the whole community.

How to bring the community together to address these and other issues? No format is going to suit everyone, but picking a date in January to get together would be a start.