For the better part of seven years, Whistler was all about hosting the 2010 Games. It dominated plans and strategies for all of the resort's major stakeholders, and put other initiatives - like a much-needed update of the Official Community Plan - on the backburner.
Now that the Games are in the history books, Whistler is in the position again where the resort is adjusting to new realities while planning for the future.
To that end, an unprecedented meeting of One Whistler was held on Jan. 27 at Millennium Place, with representatives of four major stakeholders in the resort taking part - the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. One Whistler does meet on a regular basis, but never at such a high level.
The goal was for stakeholders to share information on what they're working on, and to look at ways they could work together in the future.
There were several themes that emerged during the meeting, such as the long-term changes to the economy, the need to cooperate between agencies, the potential to open Whistler to new markets and efforts to improve the level of service.
The resort's goal going forward is to increase hotel occupancy from an average of 55 per cent to 65 per cent, but One Whistler members felt that goal needed to be articulated better within the resort, in a way that inspires the community similar to delivering the Olympics.
RMOW faces budget challenges, but committed to building tourism
Mayor Ken Melamed spoke on behalf of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, and noted that service is key.
"The fundamental notion that we all accept is that we're a resort municipality... it's all about servicing our visitors, and the visitor who comes here doesn't distinguish between who delivered the services, whether it's Whistler Blackcomb or the municipality. If everyone is committed to providing that same level of guest service, then everybody is going to benefit."
Melamed noted the municipality's current budget issues, and the demands on the share of hotel taxes that the province shares with the municipality to improve tourism.
The big initiative for the RMOW is the Official Community Plan update, and local participation in renewing a now 17-year-old document that helps determine municipal priorities.
"As a resort we are intensively planned, it's something that is part of our culture and it's one of the key reasons for our success," said Melamed.
As for the hotel tax, Melamed noted that those expenditures have to approved by the provincial government - including $2.6 million for festivals, events and animation that have been proposed. As well, the resort is looking at the resort arrival experience and the need for a central arrival centre for guests.
He also noted that the municipality was working harder to communicate with stakeholders, such as the local hotel and restaurant associations, and local retailers, as well as improving Whistler's relationship with the provincial government.
Tourism Whistler developing new markets, backs events
As Whistler's tourism marketing organization, Tourism Whistler reaped a windfall from the Games with over 3.5 billion people tuning in during the 17-day Olympic Games. The awareness of Whistler has increased in several key markets and surveys with tourism partners show that some of those people are planning to visit the resort and province in the future after watching the Games.
Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler, said the challenge ahead is to build on Whistler's brand awareness, to grow Tourism Whistler's funding to market more extensively and to "close the sale." More funds are also needed to combat the reduction in tourism marketing by the provincial government, which is facing its own budget pressures.
"This is the time when we absolutely must increase our investment in marketing and sales, because we just hosted the Games," said Fisher. "We saw a growth in brand awareness in countries like the U.K., Australia and Germany of 20 to 25 points, which is huge. Now the challenge is on us as to how we maximize that opportunity."
During the run-up to the Games the resort's strategy was to target the local market because destination markets, hit by the financial downturn and other factors like new visa and passport requirements, were not travelling. Tourism Whistler is now looking to redevelop those destination markets, but Fisher says the game has changed - possibly forever.
"The world has changed," she noted. "It's no longer about finding the place and then the best prices, it's about finding the best price and then seeing what that option offers. (Our approach) needs to be a hybrid of brand and tactical."
In other words, having a great brand is not enough anymore because guests are more price-conscious than in the past and Whistler needs to compete based on the price as well as value.
One reliable draw to the resort is the festival and events calendar, which is a bigger focus for Tourism Whistler with new online tools for event organizers, a resort-wide events calendar and ongoing efforts to attract and grow events. Fisher says there will be six to eight new events this year, many of which are building on the momentum of the Games.
Whistler is also seeing growth from group meetings and conferences, and expanded its staff to specifically attract more business to the resort.
On the destination side, working with partners, Tourism Whistler is also making inroads into China, India and Brazil - markets with potential that will take years to develop.
In the question session, local realtor Pat Kelly asked whether Tourism Whistler thought that changes to the market were permanent, or whether people would spend money again as they have in the past.
"It's an incredibly challenging issue," answered Fisher. "It's almost become a badge of honour for a wealthy individual to say 'I got a deal.' There are lots of articles about the whole shopping experience and the shift away from all the brands... and we are adapting as quickly as we can. For some, there's a belief that once we get back to the good old days then everything will be fined, but I think the good old days as we once defined them are no longer the reality. We need to replace that model."
That said, Fisher says most tour agents are predicting that business will rebound in 2012, and that the resort should continue to invest in markets where there is the greatest rate of return while growing new markets as well.
Whistler Chamber to focus on service standards
According to Chamber President Fiona Famulak, the core purpose of the chamber will remain the same, serving almost 800 members with a variety of tools and resources, and to "make sure our businesses are ready to deliver on the promises made and expectations set by Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb." On that front, the chamber's members are asking the organization to take more of an advocacy role in dealing with issues.
The other front, which represents about 20 per cent of the chamber's budget, is dedicated to three strategies - recruitment and retention, resort success and a Whistler service strategy.
Recruitment and retention is about helping local employers to adjust to the cyclical nature of the employment industry, and to warn employers about the pending worker shortage that the national and provincial chambers of commerce are predicting.
The service strategy is about working with businesses to ensure that their staff are providing a level of service that's consistently high across the resort. "We can't control things like the exchange rates or the weather, but we can control the quality of service we deliver to each guest," said Famulak. "The ability to develop and sustain a service culture is our ace card."
On the topic of resort success, some chamber initiatives include measuring progress on a number of fronts, holding businesses accountable for service and ensuring that members are prepared for the future.
"For six or seven years leading up to the Games our role was to make sure our members were prepared," said Famulak. "That is still our role, making sure that our members are prepared for future opportunities; for example, what to expect when providing service to the Chinese and Indian tourism markets."
Famulak says it has been a tough few years for the resort with the economic downturn and Olympic aversion affect. "Lower numbers affecting businesses across the spectrum is the reality, there's been lots of finger-pointing, but it's time to move on from that. The success of the resort depends on us all being engaged."
Whistler Blackcomb cautiously optimistic
Dave Brownlie, the Chief Operating Officer for Whistler Blackcomb, has seen a lot of changes recently now that the resort has been spun off as a separate company that is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
The company is committed to growing numbers, which he says is necessary for the town. In terms of skier visits he says the resort has hit the two million mark for eight of the last 12 seasons, while increasing the number of visits to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park to 130,000 over 10 years.
"The customer mix has changed dramatically," he said. "In the '90s and early 2000s, 40 per cent of visitors were from the U.S. (which now accounts for just over 20 per cent of overnight visitors). With a 64 per cent dollar exchange, we were all brilliant business people. The people kept company, and we kept adding capacity - more capacity on the mountain, more rooms in the community, more restuarants, more grocery stores, more activities and attractions. We have a lot of stuff here, it's pretty clear we need more people."
Brownlie pointed to Park City, Utah, which has seen winter visits increase an average of 6.2 per cent over the five years following the 2002 Winter Games - growth that was five times higher than the ski industry as a whole. "We don't expect that, but we do expect to grow over the next five years - and if we get even half of that we will be successful as a resort."
Brownlie says the goal is to make Whistler Blackcomb the number one mountain resort in the world.
"The most important thing for our business is that we need a good return for our shareholders so we can reinvest back into facilities, back in the mountain, so we can continue to deliver on those expectations," he said.
Whistler Blackcomb recently submitted its five-year master plan to the province, and will be presenting those plans to the community on Feb. 26.
The open discussion touched on a few topics, like increasing diversity in resort staff to better service a more diverse clientele, increasing cultural programming and infrastructure, increasing youth participation on boards, and the status of our Olympic legacies.
Brownlie cautioned about adding too much infrastructure. "I think we need to be careful investing in more infrastructure, we've invested in so many things and every time you add infrastructure your costs go up... we have to get more people here before we build more stuff," he said.
On the legacy front, Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies president Keith Bennett noted that the Whistler Sliding Centre is close to launching a program where members of the public can try the sport of skeleton, while the Whistler Olympic Park is doing fairly well with roughly 1,000 visitors per day over Christmas and on weekends.
Joey Gibbons made the point that the resort needs a unified goal similar to the Games for the resort to shoot for, at which point he was informed that a goal of increasing hotel occupancy rates from 55 per cent to 65 per cent already exists - though it hasn't been well-communicated in the resort.
Barrett Fisher had the final word.
"There's an expression, that if you only focus on the numbers and technical pieces then your business will struggle," said. "But if you focus on the experience and celebrate, then the number will follow. We've always said our greatest asset is the energy of this place and the energy of its people, and the question is how do we spread it virally around the world?"