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What do Olympic sponsors know?

Much was made of Whistler’s designation as the first ever “Host Mountain Resort” for a Winter Olympics, but there are indications the world may not be beating a path to our door.

Much was made of Whistler’s designation as the first ever “Host Mountain Resort” for a Winter Olympics, but there are indications the world may not be beating a path to our door.

Birks Jewellry, an Olympic sponsor, feels it’s not worth being in Whistler before or after the Games. The Canadian institution promises to have “a presence” in Whistler during the Olympics and Paralympics but the company no longer feels it has to have a proper store in Whistler. Birks closed its Whistler shop last week and there’s now paper on the windows.

Earlier PetroCanada, another Olympic sponsor and Canadian institution, decided not to rebuild its service station in Whistler prior to the Games. There are likely many factors in this decision, including the cleanup of the site of the original PetroCanada station that was contaminated by leaking fuel. The Creekside property, which is owned by PetroCanada and sits next to the highway, may also have become too valuable for a gas station. And the company could be in discussions with the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations about the service station they have planned for their property at the entrance to Function Junction.

But PetroCanada, like Birks, will in all likelihood be a 2010 Olympic sponsor with no retail outlet in Whistler during the Games — despite the fact Whistler has been a one-gas-station town since the PetroCanada was shut down in 2006.

Among the international Olympic sponsors, there are rumours that Coca Cola may have decided not to book any rooms in Whistler during the Games for its executives. Instead, they’ll stay in Vancouver and commute to Whistler for events they want to see. They’ll return to the city for nightly festivities, receptions and parties.

Last week’s Olympic update to council, from Whistler’s own 2010 office, included the written statement: “More than 45 commercial spaces have been registered with the Commercial Space Matching Program, which is coordinated in partnership with and Tourism Whistler. The database will allow local businesses and property owners to connect directly with potential renters from groups associated with the Games (such as National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations and sponsors), who have a variety of space needs. As of March 31, 2008 no official enquiries from the Games related parties have been received.”

That prompted Councillor Tim Wake to ask: “Is everyone doing it privately?”

“There will likely be an increase after Beijing,” was the response.

And maybe there will be.

Or maybe there won’t be.

The Games are 22 months away, so there is lots of time for VANOC’s 31 other corporate sponsors, the IOC’s seven other international sponsors, and all the sports federations to decide what sort of space they need in Whistler. And right now they have their pick of 45 commercial spaces.

But at least a couple of Olympic sponsors have made their decisions. They’ve paid a lot of money to be part of the Games, but they don’t feel they need to be part of Whistler during the Games. In fact, they may not ever be part of Whistler again.

Which begs the question: What do these corporate sponsors, who work closely with VANOC, know that we don’t know?

Keep in mind that commercial rents are trending down, so it’s not “greedy landlords” that are keeping sponsors away.

“Overall, what we are looking at for lease spaces in the resort is that actually rents have come down over the last three years,” said Whistler Chamber of Commerce President Louise Lundy. “…five years ago everyone would have predicted that the rates would have been going way up as we get closer to the Games. But it is just not the case…”

Admittedly, marketing opportunities on site during the Olympics are limited. Olympic sponsors aren’t allowed to fly corporate banners in the Olympic venues. Where their Olympic investments pay off is television advertising during the Games.

Still, many sponsors find it advantageous to have a physical presence near the Olympic venues. And no doubt that will be the case at Whistler Olympic Park, Creekside and the sliding centre. But do they need to be in Whistler Village?

It all gets back to the question that no one has answered: who is going to be in Whistler during the Games?

Security personnel, volunteers, Olympic family members, the media, athletes, coaches and technicians will all be occupying beds in Whistler. How many beds that will leave to be sold to Olympic tourists and spectators we don’t know.

And they can’t be sold to tour operators until VANOC has met all of its needs. VANOC said in December it had secured 80 per cent of the rooms it needs in the corridor. It gave the same figure a year ago.

The suspicion, increasingly, is that most of the spectators for Olympic events in Whistler will be staying in Vancouver and spending most of their time in the city. Which might explain why Olympic sponsors and even B.C. businesses that have something to tell the world — like Okanagan wineries, forestry companies, Kootenay tourism associations and the bio-tech companies that traveled to Italy for the 2006 Olympics — have not yet felt the need to reserve space in Whistler during the 2010 Olympics.