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Protecting Whistler from poor weather on the slopes

Resort leaders ponder what all-season activities might benefit Whistler
Under the weather A quiet Whistler Village on Wednesday morning, Jan. 15. Photo BY Clare Ogilvie

Weather proofing Whistler has long been on the community's radar but after this year's dismal snow start to the season, the time may be ripe to zero in on opportunities that cushion the resort through those difficult seasons.

Those opportunities could be as grandiose as a large-scale multi-million dollar water park that could compliment Whistler's busy high season and also serve as a stand-alone attraction, or as simple as expanding the already popular Whistler Holiday Experience of family-friendly fun in the conference centre.

"One of the examples that we talked about at the Tourism Whistler board table was: do we look at attracting a water park for example," said Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher, pointing to the Pump House Indoor Water Park at Jay Peak in Northern Vermont and other examples in the U.K.

"If you look at Tourism Whistler's winter activities, certainly swimming is right up there in the top three activities. So, we recognize that families and guests in general are looking for supplementary experiences that something like a large-scale water park could fulfill."

The TW board discussion did not narrow in on specifics but flowed in part from a study out of its research department on analysis of what it would take to bring the resort from its existing 54 per cent year-round occupancy to 60 per cent occupancy.

"Through those scenarios it became very clear that even if we filled the resort to 100 per cent capacity in our high-season winter and our high-season summer we would not achieve 60 per cent occupancy," said Fisher. "And so coming out of that we recognized that in order to be successful in achieving our goals, we not only need to continue to build our high season winter and summer... but we also have to fill shoulder seasons such as spring and fall."

The groundwork has now been laid to take that discussion from Tourism Whistler's boardroom to the wider community; it's right there in black and white in this year's Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report, which is a blueprint for growing the resort community economy, building confidence in it and encouraging reinvestment in Whistler.

There are 13 key strategies for moving forward in the report, including "Expand Weather-Independent Attractions."

Each recommendation in that strategy, which includes one to review and consider opportunities for weather-independent attractions, has a medium timeframe associated with it.

The EPI committee next meets again in February and there will be a discussion at that point.

"It is a very timely discussion," agreed Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "When we look at what happened over the Christmas break, there certainly were many, many guests in the village. Just in talking to the number of guests that I did, notwithstanding the skiing wasn't the best, many people did enjoy themselves here. But we might have been able to get away with it, so to speak, one Christmas. But we wouldn't want to see something like that happen year after year, after year. So it is time to look at other opportunities."

Dave Brownlie, president and CEO of Whistler Blackcomb, who like Fisher and Wilhelm-Morden is also a member of the EPI committee, said WB is constantly looking at its business and ways to grow. He highlighted the Peak 2 Peak gondola, the ever-expanding bike park, the on-mountain upgrades like last year's $18 million investment.

"We as a business are always looking at those things," said Brownlie. "Hopefully, we can ultimately bring some further opportunities to the table that will help take the resort to that next level.

"Certainly, if somebody comes to the table today with something and you relate to the situation that we've gone through, it certainly becomes much more relevant because of the reality of our weather patterns here," he said.

To make a real difference, it has to accommodate significant numbers of people.

A golf course, for example, can handle 250 people per day; that doesn't disperse a lot of people to make really a difference, said Brownlie, particularly over the peak periods like the Christmas holidays.

Bear in mind, over the holiday period there were times when the resort was at capacity, or close to, bringing tens of thousands of guests to the town of 10,000.

Skating at Whistler Olympic Plaza was up 25 per cent over last year.

Meadow Park Sports Centre saw a 64 per cent jump in usage.

The Whistler Holiday Experience, the temporary rainy-day Mecca for kids, saw a 57.8 per cent increase over last year (bearing in mind it was open one extra day).

While it's true Whistler's rainy day options have grown over the years and there is more to do now than ever before, the resort game remains a competitive business.

"If you look at how we have done as a community over the last three years, there's been some challenges for sure but you know what? I think we've weathered the storm," said Brownlie. "I think we're coming out of it in a great position. And I think as the world economy is improving, I think we're well positioned to take advantage of it. But we have to recognize that it is competitive out there and there's other resorts and other communities and every day they're thinking about how they're going to improve and how they're going to get better and how they're going to take the customers from Whistler. So, we can't be complacent."

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