During the municipal election campaign — which already seems like it took place in another economic era — Mayor Ken Melamed echoed a position put forward earlier by Tourism Whistler, namely that Whistler is better positioned than a lot of other resorts to face what was then referred to as a slowing economy.
It’s called other things now. Even the prime minister and finance minister have used the word “recession.” The argument now is over how long the recession will go on and how deep it will be.
Resorts probably aren’t the best business to be in during a recession, given that their whole economy is largely based on discretionary spending. Being a well-positioned resort in a recession may be like being the most distinguished sheep amongst a pack of wolves.
But if I might take a stab at what the mayor, and others, were referring to: it’s the Olympics; the $1 billion worth of infrastructure improvements in and around Whistler that will be completed prior to the Olympics (and the money spent locally to build those various pieces of infrastructure); it’s Whistler’s established reputation as a destination resort (as opposed to a wannabe destination resort); and it’s how the Olympics should increase the global awareness of Whistler.
As well, the U.S. exchange rate is more favourable to American visitors than it was at this time a year ago and, at least for the moment, oil and gasoline prices are conducive to travel.
That doesn’t mean all is well. While the economic situation has been dire in the United States and central Canada for many weeks, we are finally starting to see the impacts regionally and locally. The layoffs at Whistler-Blackcomb and parent company Intrawest are just one example. Some hotels in Whistler have also had to lay off staff — immediately prior to the start of the ski season.
And the next few years’ municipal budgets were already going to be difficult to balance without further tax increases. But with municipal revenue more dependent on hotel occupancy levels than ever before, it’s going to be especially challenging.
The economic difficulties are shared by many communities, but the timing and the circumstances make the situation unique to Whistler. It calls for a re-examination of some fundamental assumptions Whistler makes — about municipal spending, about Whistler 2020, about the budgets and expectations of visitors, about corporate support for Whistler, perhaps even about Whistler’s belief that it is special.
It also requires a collective effort, as opposed to individuals pursuing their own interests. At the very least, we need a collective understanding of where Whistler is and what it needs to do to get through the next couple of years.
The community has a history of stepping up when needed. During the 1982 recession municipal employees took a 2.5 per cent pay cut and were asked to work three days for free. (Of course, the municipality’s capital budget in 1982 was only $650,000.) In that same era, with the hockey rink/conference centre sitting unfinished, some Whistler trades people volunteered to work on it themselves — they weren’t working anyway and they’d grown tired of all the whining.
Rallying the Whistler community to a collective cause is much more difficult today than it was in 1982, as the situation with Olympic accommodation and the owners of strata-titled hotel rooms has shown. But an attempt should be made. Bring the new council together — before they’ve had their January retreat — with the new chamber board, the Tourism Whistler board, senior managers from Whistler-Blackcomb and all the rest of the community for a respectful, informative discussion. Tourism Whistler could provide some information, the municipality’s finance department could put up some numbers, Whistler-Blackcomb managers might be able to shed some light on their parent companies, and perhaps someone from outside of Whistler, like Peter Yesawich, could provide a perspective on the economy and North American tourism.
The meeting does not need to involve VANOC, an organization that will exist for only another 16 months.
Such a meeting wouldn’t solve all of Whistler’s problems — it might not solve any of them. But it would help everyone understand how well Whistler is positioned. And perhaps through this discussion we’d find ways to better position Whistler.