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Businesses scramble to keep skiers happy

Despite warm, wet weather there’s still lots of time for winter to return

Ten days of warm weather and at times torrential rain have definitely put a damper on resort business.

Some travellers are cancelling their vacations, snow-based activities are stalled, and only the bravest of souls have been heading up the mountain.

"We are getting maybe (three cancellations) a day," said Tim Morrison, general manager at the Pan Pacific. "A lot of people are inquiring about it. Others are just trying to see if (the rain) will be over by the end of the week before they decide what to do.

"We are just trying to have a brave face and be very positive with the individuals who are here."

Service providers resort-wide have been pooling their creative juices to come up with ways to keep guests happy and entertained while everyone waits for the weather to turn.

The Pan Pacific has been telling guests about off-mountain activities to keep them busy and they relaxed their cancellation policy during the rainy period so that people could re-book vacation time up until the end of April.

"It is important to do this," said Morrison, "because Whistler is a fantastic spot… and we just want to make sure we are not leaving a bad taste in our guests’ mouths. We have a wonderful and fantastic resort and we want them to understand that we care about them and we want them to understand that we can be flexible."

Over at the Four Seasons Resort guests were being called ahead of their arrival date so they could choose whether or not to re-book their vacation time later in the season.

"Quite a few people are choosing to move their dates," said spokeswoman Laurie Copper.

Others are coming anyway and enjoying the spa, which has been very busy in the last week, and other resort activities said Cooper.

Tourism Whistler opened up the Telus Conference Centre last week to tourists and showed free movies, offered dream-catcher workshops and allowed everyone to warm up by the enormous fireplace with hot chocolate.

"One thing we can say is that even though it is not ideal conditions at least we do have a lot of the things going on in Whistler," said TW spokeswoman Michele Comeau. "None of these are new things necessarily, but people are trying out things they probably would not have done."

That includes putting on rain gear and heading to the Zip Trek for a canopy walk or a aerial view of the valley, taking day trips to Vancouver and Squamish, or trying your hand at in-door rock climbing.

"We are taking unhappy skiers and unhappy snowboarders and turning them into happy climbers," said Corinne Allison, one of the owners of the Great Wall Climbing and Guiding Centre.

"It has been a very busy week. We have been filled to the rafters in here." Allison said she has seen every possible reaction to the weather, from frequent destination travellers who take it all in stride to those who have saved for months for their ski vacation and are devastated to see rain and not snow.

Allison is keeping her fingers crossed that the wet weather won’t impact bookings leading up to the U.S. President’s Day long weekend Feb.21.

"For those who are flying and making arrangements now for President’s Day week long weekend they might be re-thinking that trip," she said. "For those who drive into Whistler, from say Washington or other parts of B.C., they will come as soon as the snow comes back. You know when you are partners with Mother Nature you have to take it as it comes."

Morrison said the hotel sector is also concerned about the wet weather’s impact on bookings in the coming weeks. Bookings at the Pan Pacific were up over last year for February and March before rain set in.

"If this continues past this week then that is when you are really going to start to see some business drop off," he said.

"You have to be a little bit concerned because when people see this type of weather it does impact them. So much business is short lead now so everyone has a more wait-and-see attitude and the phones just don’t ring like they do when we have consistent weather and the guest can see there is a consistent base there."

Doug Washer of Canadian Snowmobile Adventures said while numbers are lower than you would expect for this time of year tourists have still come out in the wet weather.

"I am finding a lot of people are happy to have something to do," said Washer. "A lot of what we do is getting people in to the backcountry and the wilderness and teaching them things. It is about the sport, but it is more about the guides, meeting people, being entertained and being shown around. Right now that aspect of the tour is very exciting. Alexander Falls in the Callaghan is just spectacular at the moment. We have never seen it like this."

Washer said once people are dressed for the weather they enjoy the ride and the adventure.

However, he too is worried about how the warm wet weather will affect bookings with so many tourists leaving planning to the last minute these days.

"We all have trying times and everyone has a rough season now and again, but you live through that and I think we will live through this.

"…It’s about how do you react to it and how do you keep things moving along. We can’t go into this blindly. We have to look at who is coming and what we can do, and we have to be smart from a business perspective."

Washer hopes he won’t have to lay off any workers.

"The winter is not over and anything can happen with the weather," he said recalling the first winter he arrived here in 1989.

"That year it was a very thin, weak start but come March it snowed everyday. That can happen. We do live in the mountains and weather is a huge factor in what we do.

"We have to hope that winter is still on its way."

Whistler-Blackcomb is also looking for snow on the horizon.

"We had a big staff party last Thursday night with a bonfire burn at Base II in Lot 7 trying to bring Ullr back on side," said mountain spokeswoman Christina Moore referring to the Norse god of snow.

Even cooler temperatures would help as the snow guns can let loose as soon as it hits —2 C.

Skier numbers are down to between 5,000 and 7,000 a day said Moore. But the mountains are working hard to make those who are venturing up feel they are getting real value for their experience. On mountain restaurants are offering 50 per cent off meals and some beverages until Sunday. And the price of adult day tickets has been reduced to $59. Group lessons for intermediate or advanced skiers or boarders are also 50 per cent off.

"We have been really happy to see the general response from our guests in the resort," said Moore. "They all seem to appreciate the efforts that everyone in the resort is going to, to try to make their stay the best it can be.

"It is just not easy for anyone and hopefully this anomaly will just go away."

Whistler-Blackcomb is also concerned about their staff, many of whom are not working because the guest numbers aren’t there to support bringing them in.

"We operate on a variable operating model that does respond to the volume of guests that we expect on any given day and we are exercising that at this point," said Moore.

But she added that the mountains are working hard to look after their staff by offering inexpensive meals, entertainment opportunities and get-togethers to keep moral high.

"The one thing about Whistler that you do learn is that the weather can change in an instant," said Moore. "We are definitely not discounting the season at this point. There is lots of time left."