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Facing tough year, Whistler looks at pricing

Long haul U.S. market down by as much as 25 per cent Room night stays from long haul U.S. visitors are down by as much as a quarter this season. This is a trend that doesn't show signs of reversing any time soon.

Long haul U.S. market down by as much as 25 per cent

Room night stays from long haul U.S. visitors are down by as much as a quarter this season.

This is a trend that doesn't show signs of reversing any time soon.

"We recognize this is a tough economic year," said Barrett Fisher, president of Tourism Whistler.

"We're probably not going to see the bounce back until 2004-05 and so our strategy will be to make a greater investment and to work more aggressively in pushing the 04/05 winter season and focusing in the short term more on the regional markets."

Recognizing the decline in the long haul U.S. market, Tourism Whistler and other resort partners have embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign targeted at the regional market.

To date, the regional business has been up every month this season and overall has increased by 11 per cent.

"What we agreed upon is that the local and regional markets are really Whistler's bread and butter business and in fact, the loyalty from those markets has been exceptional," said Fisher.

Tourism Whistler traditionally has not focused its marketing in the regional sector, leaving that to Whistler-Blackcomb and the property management companies.

Tourism Whistler’s role instead has always been to drive destination business and that's where most of its marketing dollars have been invested in the past.

But research into the regional market showed that guests believed Whistler was out of their price range.

"I think there's a perception in the regional markets... that Whistler has become a world wide destination and as a result... that we're out of reach and we're too expensive," said Fisher.

"With the awarding of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games that's probably only exacerbated the perception.

"There are a number of visitors who don't know about the value offerings that we do offer in the regional markets and so this is where we believe we had to do a better job of communicating, that we do in fact offer value to the regional markets."

Among the Tourism Whistler campaigns this season is the Reconnect With Whistler deal, offering room rates starting from $89 per person, per night based on double occupancy. The deal is valid for any B.C. or Washington State visitor and lasts until the end of March.

Traditionally, in high season rooms can start at between $300 and $400 per night.

"What we're trying to do is balance some of those high season rates with a more value oriented offering," said Fisher.

She added that this deal is more in line with offerings at Sun Peaks or Big White in an effort to get regional guests to consider coming to Whistler.

When Tourism Whistler launches its April offerings Fisher said there will be even lower rates.

Tourism Whistler's isn't alone in its regional campaign.

Whistler-Blackcomb kicked up its marketing for the regional guest this year with deals on ski lessons for adults starting at $29.95, which is a savings of $95 compared to the regular price. There have also been discounts on food at certain times for season pass and card holders.

"We were watching the booking trend and it was clear that there was some issues developing in the destination markets early on," said Stuart Rempel vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler-Blackcomb.

He added that the company has always had strategies to support regional guests.

"Everybody focuses on the $70 a day lift ticket price but very, very few people in the regional market, and in fact very few people overall, pay that price," he said.

Lift ticket deals are included in the Corporate Club package, in Express Cards and at 7-Eleven stores in the Lower Mainland.

Along with these initiatives, Rempel said the great snow conditions have also been a factor for increased regional visits this year.

Despite the concerted effort to target the local/regional market, overall room nights are down this season.

Figures to the end of January show room night stays are down five to seven per cent from last year.

What that means for local business owners like Dave Kirk is that business in his sports stores is down too.

"This has not been a stellar year," he said simply.

December and January and the Christmas vacations were all quieter than normal he said. February had its busy moments, like President's Week, but nothing compared to previous years.

"What this represents is two consecutive years of downturn," said Kirk.

"I don't think anyone went into business this year expecting a second downturn."

Last year when the numbers were down many attributed it to less-than-average snow conditions but Kirk says that may have actually been the beginning of a softening economic climate.

Everyone agrees that a number of variables are contributing to the current economic climate. Chief among them are: the U.S. exchange rate, the cost of travelling on airlines, the fear of travelling after 9/11, the heightened terror alerts in the U.S. over the holidays, the psychological aftermath of the Iraq war, and strong competition from other resorts.

Another contributing factor may be the cost of vacationing in Whistler, especially for the regional market, said Kirk.

When you target specials at the regional market they respond he said, which shows that average Whistler prices without these specials may be out of reach for the regional guest.

"We all have to be conscious of our pricing," he said.

"Whistler, in my mind, is still one of the best resorts in the world, there's no question about that.

"(But) we have arrived at a particular place in time that might be what you call a new reality."

This new reality is also something that business owner Dave Davenport is thinking about.

He said the it's worth analyzing if the boom years in Whistler, like 1999 and 2000, were perhaps anomalies, as opposed to this season and last being the exceptions to the rule.

He said Whistler may have overshot its value equation by systematically increasing prices over the past five years but there are other things to consider in the new reality.

"I think part of it is that we are no longer the up and coming exciting resort that we used to be," he said.

"You just can't be number one always with a bullet. You can't always be achieving more."

But a second point is that Whistler's commercial capacity has grown in leaps and bounds.

"We've just built so many more restaurants, so many more stores, so many more hotels that we need to be really big to be economically successful," he said.

"It's not that we're not successful. It's just that we have to be so much more successful to keep this machine fed."

Tourism Whistler wants a balanced portfolio of regional and destination guests so that when there are decreases in one area, the other area can balance it out said Fisher.

The regional marketing campaign is a long-term strategy to keep those guests coming over the years.

Among the initiatives to target destination travellers in the future, Fisher said Tourism Whistler will focus in part on Internet sales.

The Internet has changed the way people book vacations because they can compare a variety of pricing very easily and can wait until the last minute to book deals.

To counter this trend Fisher said Tourism Whistler is prepared to create great offers next season as incentives for customers to book early.

Whistler-Blackcomb also thrives on a strong balance of regional and destination markets.

"The resort as a whole needs the destination people that stay overnight and eat in restaurants and shop in stores," said Rempel.

"That's the economic engine of this resort. We need a balance of both."