As the resort's destination marketing organization, Tourism Whistler (TW) has polled thousands of visitors about their experience here. But, notably, it has never undertaken a comprehensive survey of the local resident and business community.
At its member and community engagement session on Thursday, Dec. 19, TW gave the public its first glimpse at "Whistler's Place Brand," the culmination of more than a year's work aimed at defining what truly makes Whistler special and charting the long-term vision and strategy for "ideal tourism" into the future. The results are meant to guide not just TW's marketing, by targeting guests who best match Whistler's community values and interests, but also to "provide a filter" for local businesses and policy makers to help guide decision-making on things like programming and infrastructure investment.
TW wanted to "really confirm the characteristics and the local spirit of who Whistler truly is," said TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher in an interview following the presentation. "And why? Because we believe it critically important that a healthy local community will bridge to a vibrant tourist economy. You need both working in tandem."
Based on online polls, in-person interviews and workshops, many of the findings reaffirmed what many already know about Whistler's appeal: its natural beauty, vibrant village, modern infrastructure and international flair. But TW also gained some insights it hadn't heard before, like how the community inherently magnifies experiences and emotion through its celebratory vibe and "go-all-out" mentality. It also heard how Whistler's environment is a strong draw, but it's the culture of the community that serves as the glue that connects people to this place.
"We have been marketing the essence of what makes Whistler special and unique but I think this uncovered some new insights that would lend itself more perhaps to a long-term, sustainable tourism strategy and would assist us in setting goals for how we will continue to sustain a vibrant economy while balancing volumes," Fisher said.
Armed with those insights, TW has developed what it's calling its "brand promise" built around the many different kinds of thrills that can be found here—and, not just the typical adrenaline-fuelled, outdoor-based thrills immediately associated with Whistler. Initial images from the campaign that TW presented showed, for instance, a diner sabreing a champagne bottle at the Bearfoot Bistro, a woman relaxing in the hydrotherapy baths at the Scandinave Spa, and a hiker on a contemplative hike through the forest.
Like a lot of other destination marketers, TW has increasingly relied on psychographics, the study and classification of consumers according to their values, aspirations and other psychological attributes, in its overall tourism strategy. Through its most recent polling, TW categorized the typical Whistler visitor into five broad categories that went beyond just demographics and geography: the "Purposeful Adventurer," the thoughtful and educated outdoor enthusiast; the "Sophisticated Escapist" who may ski along with engaging in other luxury activities; the "YOLO-er," who is typically younger, confident and willing to challenge themselves while travelling; the "Nostalgic Vacationer" who is slightly older and wants a more rugged destination paired with the level of comfort they can afford; and the "Curious Explorer," a visitor who may be surprised by what Whistler has to offer beyond outdoor activities, and enjoys shopping and dining with family.
Fisher stressed that the profiles are not intended to be exclusionary, but rather to better inform a self-sustaining, long-term tourism strategy that aligns with Whistler's ethos.
"We're trying to ensure that people who are passionate about Whistler, who are supportive of the natural environment are going to, in turn, be visitors who respect and give back rather than tourists who take away. And by 'take away' I mean, they're leaving garbage behind, they're coming in volumes but not necessarily engaging in our experiences. Maybe they don't really love our more rugged environment so they go away with not necessarily a positive impression," she said. "It's really about the visitor getting what they thought they were going to get. If they get what they thought they were going to get, then they will actually have an amazing experience and tell their friends and have positive word of mouth, and hopefully they'll come back again and again, rather than them come, be dissatisfied, have locals be dissatisfied, businesses be dissatisfied, and it's not really aligned with our destination, our values, our physical attributes or our intangible characteristics."
There were some distinct differences in the feedback TW received from locals compared to visitors. Residents, naturally, were wearier of Whistler's growing popularity, while visitors were more likely to see the resort's busyness as a contributor to its vibrant, dynamic atmosphere.
"It's relative to maybe that resident who has lived here for 20 years and has seen a growth in visitation compared to a visitor, who maybe has seen [Whistler] once or twice and think it's a very exciting place to be," Fisher explained. "From our perspective, nobody wants to go to a restaurant that's empty, they want to go somewhere that's vibrant. We want a vibrant tourism economy, we want people to be enjoying the ambience and the animation. The people themselves create animation. We have twinkly lights and we have entertainment, but there's a hum when you've got people coming to a place to enjoy and laugh and take in the sights. So it's just about how we manage those volumes."
Better dispersing visitation across different neigbourhoods outside of the village is one way TW has identified to allay some of the concerns around crowdedness.
Fisher highlighted Creekside as an example of a long-sleepy neighbourhood that is starting to become more of an attraction. "Now they have attracted some significant offerings down there which are actually very unique from elsewhere in the resort, which, in my mind, creates more of a destination draw," she said. "So then, Tourism Whistler could start looking at how we can promote different neighbourhoods and then how each maybe has a unique character."
Unsurprisingly, TW also heard from residents about the challenges around affordability and housing that have persisted in Whistler for several years. Fisher said that, while it's not in the organization's purview, other resort partners such as the RMOW and Whistler Chamber are working on these issues to help preserve and sustain Whistler's unique character for years to come.
"That's definitely a comment that a lot of the local residents were making, that in order to keep Whistler vibrant, we have to preserve our local community. In order for people to stay here, that means it has to be affordable and all of those things that are important to base living," she said. "We want to attract people and keep them because that's going to preserve the culture of Whistler."
Fisher underlined the need for collaboration in order for Whistler to achieve the right tourism balance that doesn't dilute the experience here.
"Bringing together the partnerships in the resort through what we loosely refer to as 'Whistler Inc.'—reenergizing them, reinvigorating them and bringing all the partners together is seen as a priority for the Tourism Whistler board of directors," she said.
"It's really about aligning everyone's interests, and I guess the point is that it's no longer solely about what the guest wants, it's the guest and the community working and playing hand in glove."
Tourism Whistler plans to launch its new brand in May, with a campaign video expected to roll out in the early fall of 2020. Next year will also see the organization conduct member workshops to connect with local businesses on how they can align with TW's new brand platform and work with resort partners on completing its long-term tourism vision and strategy.