Measured several different ways, the winter of 2011-12 has been one of Whistler's best. Snowfall accumulations, of course, set some records. And record snowfalls in a winter when most of the rest of the continent and large parts of Europe didn't get any snow until well into the ski season is a recipe for success.
A record number of room nights sold is also expected to have been set this winter, to be confirmed once the final tallies are done.
But despite the strong "fundamentals," 2012 is still a long way from the heady pre-recession days of 2007. Before the great global financial meltdown, punctuated by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the bailouts of several other American banks, things were different.
The Christmas holiday period in 2006 set up the winter of 2006-07 to be one of Whistler's best. There was abundant snow — while Europe again had little — and lots of people in town. And people were spending money — even if they were using credit — in a way that we haven't seen since then, paying full price for hotel rooms, for example.
The financial picture of 2007 is illustrated by looking back at some of the advertising. Pique was full of ads for real estate developments, many of them in Squamish. Optimism in the ski industry was high, as major investments planned for Red Mountain in Rossland and Revelstoke showed. With Whistler near buildout, local real estate prices were being pushed up and affordability was a major issue, which some of the advertising of the day played on. An ad from a Rossland development stated: "Imagine having bought in Whistler 20 years ago. Now imagine buying at Redstone." Meanwhile, a Whistler development claimed: "You can still own in Whistler for less than you think." Mortgage rates were about 6.5 per cent in 2007.
Ads for long-term accommodation were scarce, as affordable housing at Rainbow and the athletes' village was still three years away. Meanwhile, the Careers section of the paper regularly took up 14-15 pages. There were six and a half pages of jobs in last week's Pique.
While times were good, the Whistler economy, and much of British Columbia's economy, was further stimulated by Olympic preparations and the hundreds of millions of dollars from governments and sponsors that followed. The Sea to Sky Highway upgrade was about half done in 2007 but the huge fibre optic cable that now carries so much data between Whistler and the Lower Mainland had not yet been installed by Bell. Whistler was about to switch from propane to natural gas, as the gas pipeline was completed in parallel with the highway construction.
Infrastructure upgrades were a primary focus with the Olympics on the horizon. Major projects in Whistler included the Fitzsimmons Creek debris barrier, the sewage treatment plant and various hotel facelifts. "Sustainability" seemed to be the word of the day at municipal hall, although it wouldn't apply to the Whistler True Local brand that debuted at Crankworx 2007 (and hasn't been seen since).
But it wasn't just the economy that was different in 2007. Our habits have changed in the last five years as technology has evolved. In 2007 people still used telephone books, and there was enough advertising in the Sea to Sky corridor to support two competing phone books.
On Jan. 9, 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone, which became available (in the U.S.) in June of that year. Apple sold more than 33 million iPhones in the first quarter of 2012, while sales of all smart phones totaled more than 144 million in the same period, according to the research firm Gartner (http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/05/16/apple_grows_to_79_of_all_mobile_phone_shipments_worldwide.html).
In the five years since the introduction of the iPhone people have come to expect that they can surf the Internet, text, watch and shoot videos and listen to music any time, anywhere. The social impact of smart phones is a new area of study but there's little doubt that for many people the phone has become their window on the world, while their physical environment is secondary.
In the last five years smart phones and tablets have become the tools to access social media, which may have surpassed "legacy" media in revenues and influence, depending on how you tally the figures. Twitter was only launched in July of 2006. Facebook was three years old, and not nearly the monster it is today, in 2007.
Groupon, the best known of the group buying sites, was launched in November 2008. Group buying of consumer goods may have already spiked but there are likely to be niches of group buying that will remain popular, such as vacation packages.
EBay, Amazon.com, Craigslist and other e-commerce sites were all around in 2007 but many consumers, flush with credit, were still shopping with a sort of hunter-gatherer mentality. They could afford the time to go out and survey the market and see if there was anything they wanted. Today, with every dollar precious, consumers are more selective. And they are using technology to do their searching for them, whether they are looking for a particular bike, restaurant specials or snow.
The economy will one day "recover" and people will start spending again, but for Whistler and others that compete for discretionary spending it won't be the same as it was in 2007. Some people will have been chastened by debt problems. Most will have become more discriminating in their purchases — because technology allows them to compare prices and many other criteria that they decide are important. Visitors will likely know more about Whistler when they arrive here and Whistler should know more about its customers before they get here.
It won't be like 2007.