Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jumbo still faces big hurdles

By on Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 1:13 PM

Last week’s approval of a master development agreement for the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort in the Kootenays generated predictable support from the business community and outrage from opponents.

But is Jumbo really any closer to becoming the first four-season ski area in North America?

Skeptics may recall that a master development agreement for Al Raine’s proposed Cayoosh ski resort between Pemberton and Lillooet was also approved several years ago. In the face of opposition from First Nations and the legal limbo that surrounds Crown land and Aboriginal title in British Columbia, nothing has happened since.

Proponents of Jumbo claim to have the support of the Kinbasket Shuswap First Nation. The Ktunaxa First Nation, however, is vehemently opposed.

While opponents and proponents battle it out in the Kootenays, generating headlines for the foreseeable future, there are several other underlying stories. The first being a provincial government, sinking in the polls and desperate to build support among the business community, trumpeting the announcement of the master development agreement. Last week’s approval came after more than 20 years of reviews, and about a year ahead of the next provincial election.

A related story is the provincial government’s latest five-year tourism strategy, released last fall and titled Gaining The Edge. It identifies the major trends in tourism, the obstacles holding back tourism in B.C. and some general steps to reduce those barriers (leadership through partnership and coordination; strategic marketing; world class visitor experiences).

Gaining The Edge quotes Premier Christy Clark as saying “British Columbia will become North America’s No. 1 ski destination.” That’s an ambitious but perhaps achievable goal, and Jumbo may be part of it. But if that is the goal it’s going to require a lot more detailed strategy than just building new resorts.

The absolute number of skiers and boarders has been more or less stagnant for years. Attracting more of that stagnant market to B.C. means stealing skier visits from other provinces, states and countries. The most obvious target would be Colorado, which drew more than 12 million skier visits in 2010-2011. But Colorado wouldn’t give up its market share easily. It knows better than most jurisdictions how important skiers are to the state’s economy, and has a well-established marketing plan to ensure the flow continues.

Gaining The Edge talks about focused marketing for B.C. but skiing and snowboarding is just one of six “products” to be marketed. If the premier is serious about making B.C. North America’s No. 1 ski destination more money, as well as more focus, is needed for marketing.

Part of the reason for that is because B.C. — and particularly Jumbo — is a long way away from most North Americans. One of Colorado’s advantages, as far as the North American market goes, is it’s in the centre of the continent. B.C. is in the upper left corner, many miles further from the densely populated eastern seaboard.

B.C.’s geographic advantage is its proximity to the huge California market and to Asia. California — and Oregon and Washington — have been strong, steady markets for Whistler for years. But getting to the interior of British Columbia is more of a challenge than getting to Whistler.

Gaining The Edge talks about reducing the barriers to travel to B.C., including more direct air access for Asian countries. That’s a theme the provincial Liberals have been harking on for a few years. To date, however, the federal Conservatives have been mostly unresponsive.

As far as building Jumbo, the proponent’s plan calls for three phases of construction over 20 years. They predict $15-$20 million per year in construction for 20 years. Media reports have put the total cost of the resort at $900 million.

Financing the development is where the numbers start to become questionable. At buildout there would be 5,500 bed units (plus 750 employee beds) and 20-23 lifts. For the past 20 years ski area operators have said that ticket sales alone can’t finance modern high-speed lifts. Real estate sales are what have made investments in lifts possible.

To grossly over-simplify the Jumbo proposal, $900 million divided by 5,500 bed units means you would need about $163,000 per bed unit. If a hotel room is two bed units, the average cost of a strata-titled hotel room would have to be about $326,000.

And who is going to buy vacation property at Jumbo? Albertans perhaps... But Revelstoke still has some real estate for sale — including single-family lots with their own helicopter landing pads, relics from a bygone era. Red Mountain at Rossland is also selling real estate, so is Kicking Horse…

As for ongoing operating revenues and expenses, Jumbo proponents estimate the ski area will attract 2,700 skiers per day, on average. A busy day on Whistler Blackcomb would be 25,000 skiers.

Proponents predict Jumbo will generate $12 million in tax revenue annually for all levels of government. Whistler claims to generate $376 million in annual government revenues.

The numbers, the politics, the geography all suggest Jumbo is a long way from becoming a reality.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Arts and culture front and centre

By on Tue, Mar 6, 2012 at 2:34 PM

The hornets’ nest that RMI funding had threatened to become should get a little less frenzied with council’s appointment tonight of an RMI oversight committee and a Festivals, Events and Animation oversight committee.

These are steps council identified last month as priorities when it introduced its Council Action Plan, (not to be confused with Canada’s Economic Action Plan).

They are also steps the Hotel Association of Whistler has been looking for. RMI funds are roughly equivalent to what the hotel tax used to bring in. The hotels feel they are responsible for generating that revenue and so they should have a say in how the money is spent.

The province has announced $10.5 million in RMI funding for resort communities this year, the same amount as last year when Whistler received $7.5 million of that total. Municipal staff is operating on the assumption Whistler will receive about $6.5 million this year. There’s no money yet, and no oversight committee until tonight, but the lineup for RMI funds started some time ago.

Off the top, the RMOW has budgeted $2.685 million of RMI funds for Festivals, Events and Animation this year.

The Whistler Film Festival Society is also on tonight’s council agenda, with a request for $338,000 in RMI funds to go towards the renovation of Rainbow Theatre. Previous estimates for the renovation came in at about $2.6 million. The renovation of the lobby/entrance area has been put on hold for now, leaving the WFFS to concentrate on renovating of the auditorium and adding new technical equipment, at an estimated cost of $1.626 million. An application for federal funding of $661,000 is another item on tonight’s agenda, subject to the province’s approval of $338,000 in RMI funds.

The WFFS is also looking for the municipality to increase its annual contribution to the festival, from $50,000 to $300,000.

Not all arts and culture funding is drawn from the RMI funds, but with the commitment of $250,000 annually for three years to the X-Games, council indicating in its Action Plan that development of a cultural plan for the community is a priority, the $2.685 million allocated to Festivals, Events and Animation and now the WFFS’s request, the arts and culture are front and centre.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Council's Action Plan signals new direction

By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 12:07 PM

The headlines coming out of Tuesday’s council meeting were, rightfully, all about the fact that Whistler taxpayers will not see property taxes increased this year, for the first time in a decade.

And not insignificantly, utility fees — which have also climbed steadily in recent years — will also be kept at current levels.

But beyond the good tax news, Tuesday’s meeting signaled the first substantive steps by the new council to reflect the seismic change residents voted for last November.

The measures are outlined in the Council Action Plan http://www.whistler.ca/sites/default/files/council_action_plan_2012-2014-1.pdf, a 12-page document that lists general priorities for the next three years and timelines to accomplish them.

Among the priorities are:
• an economic development strategy
• initiating a draft cultural plan
• advancing the post-secondary education initiative
• working towards an improved special occasion liquor licence system
• expanding sport tourism in Whistler
• supporting the advancement of the Spearhead Hut initiative
• reviewing and monitoring customer service levels
• updating the municipal communications and engagement strategy

There is considerable focus on financial issues, which again reflects voters’ concerns. There are plans to “revitalize” the annual financial planning process, including providing more accessible financial reporting and accountability and quarterly updates.

The decision to “pursue” an economic development strategy over the next 12 months is a notable direction change from the previous council. Not that there was a bias against economic development, but there was a sentiment that Whistler is in the tourism business and economic development should be limited to tourism-related businesses or those that complement tourism. Trying to attract high-tech companies to Whistler, for example, was not a priority.

The brief notes under “Pursue Economic Development Strategy” indicate that the effort will be led by the Chief Administrative Office and the Resort Experience Division. The plan is to engage key resort partners to undertake an economic planning review, review roles and individual agency plans, and “ensure alignment of organizations (i.e. WB, Chamber, TW & RMOW).” This last point may prove interesting, as some of these organizations were firmly of the belief that Whistler should remain in the tourism business.

Interestingly, considering the emphasis on financial issues, in the newly restructured municipal hierarchy the finance department has moved under the umbrella of Corporate and Community Services, which is led by Bob MacPherson.

MacPherson is one of a trio of veteran department heads that report to Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey. The others are Jan Jansen, head of Resort Experience, and Joe Paul, acting head of Infrastructure Services.

The smaller Communications, Legal Services and Human Resources departments report directly to Furey.

The full organizational chart is in the Council Action Plan.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Olympic Games then and now

By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 11:45 AM

It was two years ago this week that the 2010 Winter Olympics opened in Vancouver, on Feb. 12.

Tomorrow, Feb. 15, is the deadline for candidates to submit official bids for the 2020 Summer Olympics, and this morning the shaky state of the economy whittled the field of candidates down by one.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced today that Rome’s bid for the 2020 Games has been scrapped. Monti said the Italian government can’t afford to guarantee the financing of the Games.

“We arrived at this unanimous conclusion that the government didn’t feel it was responsible to assume such a guarantee in Italy’s current condition,” Monti said.

Monti’s government is imposing austerity measures as the country tries to reign in its public debt and get its financial situation under control.

The remaining candidates for the 2020 Summer Olympics are expected to be Madrid, Istanbul, Doha, Tokyo and Baku, Azerbaijan, although Spain is also facing severe economic problems and high unemployment. And today Reuters reported that the European Union is likely to take action against Spain for delaying austerity measures.

The socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero approved the Spanish 2020 Olympic bid last July but the new conservative government of Mariano Rajoy may have second thoughts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Soane lands at Nita Lake Lodge

By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 1:27 PM

Roger Soane, former general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and current chair of Tourism Whistler, has landed at the Nita Lake Lodge.

The Nita Lake Lodge announced Soane’s appointment as general manager on Thursday.

“Nita Lake Lodge is a true gem in Whistler and perfectly positioned to become the number one boutique hotel in Canada with a reputation for tailored experiences and leading hospitality,” Soane said in a release.

Soane left the Fairmont Chateau Whistler last year after nearly three years at the helm. He came to Whistler from Victoria, where he managed Fairmont’s Empress Hotel and was chair of Tourism Victoria.

Originally from London, England, Soane spent the first 16 years of his career as a chef, becoming an executive chef with Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts before moving into senior management. He has worked in the hotel industry in Europe, Asia, North America and the Caribbean.

Pique app is back

The Pique app for iPhones is working once again.

The app ceased to work when we moved to our new website in late November. Diligent work by Chris Armstrong in Whistler and the crew at Desert Net in Tucson have got the app working with the website again.

Look for further improvements in the months ahead.

Monday, January 30, 2012

California dreaming of snow

By on Mon, Jan 30, 2012 at 10:44 AM

Further evidence of the fortunate, snowy position Whistler is in this winter, while other ski areas have been thirsting for the stuff, came on a trip to San Francisco last weekend.

Baggage on flights between Vancouver and San Francisco included lots of skis and snowboards, as Californians seem to have given up on winter in their home state. Indeed, sunny skies and warm temperatures inspired some residents to dawn shorts and T-shirts on the weekend.

And above the bicycles, pedestrians and clean cars of the dry San Francisco streets was this billboard for Shell Oil advertising free skiing at four California resorts with the purchase of 10 gallons of gasoline. (Apologies for the fuzziness of the photo).

Ski Free, the Shell offer on a San Francisco billboard.
  • Ski Free, the Shell offer on a San Francisco billboard.

In fact, the offer is good at 19 ski areas in California, Oregon and Colorado, and another 25 in Michigan, from Jan. 2 to April 16.

The fine print reveals that the voucher for a free ticket must be paired with the purchase of a full price adult lift ticket, which could be $96 at Squaw Valley, one of the participating California ski areas.

However, with regular unleaded gasoline selling for about $3.70 a gallon in California, the discount is still significant.

The fundamental problem, and presumably the reason for the offer, is the lack of snow. The first big snowstorm of the winter hit California/Nevada just over a week ago. The Squaw.com website this morning is claiming: “With close to five feet of new snow in the last week Squaw is back in the winter groove.” However, daytime temperatures will be well into the 40s F again this week and Squaw’s snow base is still between 30 and 36 inches.

Whistler can count its blessings; they measured 248 cm at Pig Alley this morning.

Monday, January 23, 2012

X Games questions

By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 11:30 AM

With Whistler council presumably deep into the zero-based budgeting process, including no increases in property taxes (two of Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden’s 10 recommendations during last fall’s campaign), the new council is about to run into its first big budget decision: pony up as much as $2 million to bring the X Games to town or pass.

Exactly what the figure will be has yet to be determined, but it’s likely the money would come from RMI funds, the annual mystery allotment from the provincial government for tourism-related projects.

The new council’s decision comes down to whether spending RMI funds on the X Games, or X Fest as it would be known once integrated into the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in the April timeslot, is a good use of that money.

Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler have decided the X Games would be a good fit for Whistler. They’ve agreed to commit $500,000 annually to the project. Another $2 million is expected from sponsorship sales. Assuming sponsorship targets could be reached that would still leave a $2.5 million gap. Federal and provincial governments, along with the RMOW, will be asked to help fill it.

The success of the Winter X Games in Aspen is apparently beyond challenge. Aspen has hosted them for a decade and in 2011 the X Games drew more than 114,000 people, making it the Colorado town’s second busiest week, after Christmas.

Now ESPN, producers of the X Games, is expanding the series. From one winter and one summer X Games to three each season. ESPN is taking bids for three-year commitments to host, starting in 2013.

The lure, for Whistler, is the 24 hours of live broadcasting that come with the X Games, as well as the opportunity to leverage ESPN’s Internet media platform. Integrating the X Games into the 10-day World Ski and Snowboard Festival and its cultural events would also continue WSSF’s 17-year tradition of evolving and growing the festival.

The few details that have been released to date sound promising, but before Whistler council commits potentially millions of dollars to the project some more questions should be answered. Such as:

• with three winter X Games instead of one is the value of the coverage Aspen gets going to be reproduced in Whistler? In April?

• are the X Games going to fill more hotel rooms, in April?

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival has successfully extended the winter season into April, drawing visitors and creating a buzz when previously few people were thinking about Whistler. Melding the X Games and WSSF could be the next phase in that evolution, but it looks like it’s going to require a big cash outlay and the incremental increase in business and exposure has yet to be fully quantified.

Recall that in the mid-90s after guaranteeing a loan of several million dollars for snowmaking Whistler secured a three-year commitment to host early-season World Cup downhill races, based substantially on the assumption that early-season coverage of ski races in Whistler would generate awareness and boost bookings through the winter. That theory was never really tested because all three events were wiped out by weather.

However, the X Games seem to be operating under the same premise as the World Cup: if Whistler puts up some money the organizers will deliver media exposure and fill rooms.

The formula may work with the X Games, where it didn’t with the World Cup. But at a time when participatory events like the Whistler Half Marathon and the RBC Whistler GranFondo are bringing thousands of people to town who are willing to pay their own way the X Games model needs to prove its value.

You can check out the winter X Games on TV and the Internet this weekend.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tourism industry still waiting

By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 1:10 PM

In 2004, during the heady pre-Olympic, pre-recession days, then-Premier Gordon Campbell challenged the province’s tourism industry to double in size — to $18 billion — by 2015.

Last fall the government of Premier Christy Clark updated the province’s 2007 Tourism Action Plan, producing a new five-year strategy designed to help the industry reach $18 billion by 2016. (According to the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., tourism generated $13.4 billion in revenue in 2010.)

Among the promises made by Premier Clark were that “British Columbia will become North America’s No. 1 ski destination.”

The tourism industry in B.C. has gone through a number of changes in recent years, including the sudden assimilation of the formerly independent Tourism BC into the Ministry of Tourism six months before the 2010 Olympics. And, of course, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the sputtering recovery of the last three years have hurt tourism everywhere.

Clark and the Liberals have been heavily committed to tourism, one of the main benefits of hosting the 2010 Olympics, we were told. But with tourism numbers stagnating, the Liberals reassessed the industry and its strategy last fall. Among the key points of the updated strategy:

• B.C.’s strategic location relative to Asia and the need for improved air service;

• the shift to shorter, less expensive vacations;

• a need to respond to potential future labour shortages.

The province then committed to removing barriers to industry growth. These promises include improving the timelines of Crown land-use decisions; enhancing the Small Business Venture Capital Program tax credit; promoting the expansion of passenger pre-clearance at air, marine and land borders; and working with air carriers to identify opportunities to develop and expand service.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of streamlining liquor laws.

However, the province’s efforts to grow tourism run up against the federal government’s apparent disinterest. In 2006 the Conservative government created a Federal Tourism Strategy Framework. That was updated to a Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan in 2008. It melded with the Conservatives’ Economic Action Plan of 2009 and 2010, which largely meant funding for tourism events, including Kokanee Crankworx and the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival in 2010.

Among the feds’ “priorities for immediate action” in 2008 were improving border crossings to ensure the efficient flow of tourists to and from Canada. Last month Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama announced the Beyond the Border Action Plan, which is expected to simplify and streamline the process of crossing the border while also providing greater security to both countries. Full details have yet to be announced.

The Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan also emphasized the need for transportation policies and programs that “take into consideration national, provincial/territorial, and regional tourism economic benefits.” This includes “the ability of tourists to travel to and within Canada.”

Attracting more flights, particularly from Pacific Rim countries, has been a priority of B.C. governments for some time, as evidenced by the International Open Skies Summit in Vancouver in September 2009. Last fall’s provincial tourism strategy reaffirmed improved air access to and within B.C. as a key priority.

But opening up more air routes is a federal responsibility, one that the Conservatives have yet to show much interest in.

True, the federal government is working on a number of trade agreements, including a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Canada-European Union trade agreement, bilateral negotiations with India, South Korea and other countries. But the Harper government seems to favour more complex, time-consuming, comprehensive trade deals rather than negotiating individual aspects of international relations, such as Open Skies.

Which leaves the tourism industry in B.C. waiting…

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blessed are those with snow, this year

By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 11:16 AM

As one of the few ski areas in North America blessed with plentiful snow this winter, Whistler continues to enjoy nearly holiday-like visitor numbers well into the second week of the New Year. Californians, Brits and eastern Canadians are following the snow and joining regional visitors to make January 2012 one of the strongest in recent years.

For most other North American resorts, however, this winter has not been nearly so good. According to the New York Times, the snowpack in the Lake Tahoe basin was just 9 per cent of normal on Jan. 1. Squaw Valley had a base of 12 inches as of this morning.

In Colorado, for the first time in 30 years a lack of snow has prevented Vail from opening its Back Bowls, although investment in snowmaking has paid off. As of Tuesday, Vail had 21 of 31 lifts operating and 111 of 193 runs open despite a base of just 22 inches.

In New England, colder temperatures this week are offering some salvation but the snow drought has now made the number of snowmaking machines a resort owns one of the vital statistics. Weather reports now refer to “snowmaking conditions,” i.e. freezing temperatures.

Some of the bigger resorts are scrambling but still finding ways to stay in business despite the lack of snow. “Even in what has been a very, very difficult situation in terms of national snowfall, our total revenue is actually up,” Robert A. Katz, chief executive for Vail Resorts, told the Times. Vail Resorts reported that season-to-date lift-ticket revenue increased 0.6 per cent and ski school revenue was up 0.9 per cent compared with last season, when record snowfall was reported across its resorts.

Inevitably, the disparity in snowfall has led to the “haves” trying to attract customers from this winter’s “have nots.” Big Sky in Montana, for example, claims to have the most snow in the U.S. Rocky Mountains and is offering Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass holders free skiing this month if they book lodging through Big Sky Central Reservations.

Closer to home, at Red Mountain Resort in Rossland where all 88 runs are open and there is a 110 cm base of natural snow, they are offering 30 days of free lift passes to U.S. visitors who book through Red Mountain Resort lodging using the booking code RedsGotSnow, according to the Times.

Of course, every ski area offers deals in January, particularly in these economically uncertain times. But weather is becoming as hard to predict as the economy, and ski areas — like Whistler — that have snow this year may find the situation quite different next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A successful holiday season

By on Tue, Dec 27, 2011 at 2:19 PM

Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.
— attributed to Mark Twain

Whistler has enjoyed a good holiday season, by most accounts. Visitor numbers have been strong, the village has been alive with people, the ski school has been busy and anecdotal reports from high-end restaurants suggest some people are ready to spend money again.

And, of course, we deserve it. Whistler has worked hard in a tough economy over the last few years, improving service, dropping prices, offering innovative packages and increasing value.

But that’s the formula that any serious operator in the tourism business has adopted since 2008. What has helped set Whistler apart from other ski areas this holiday season has been something even more basic — snow.

Even for those who don’t ski or snowboard, snow helps make the holidays special. For those who view the Christmas-New Year’s period as the time for a vacation sliding on snow, ours is the only corner of North America with a relative surfeit of the stuff.

Most California ski areas reported temperatures above 40 F Tuesday. Utah ski areas were only slightly cooler. Ski areas in Colorado had about two feet of snow, on average, this week. Vail had a 19-inch base on Christmas day. Many Colorado ski areas were only operating about 70 per cent of their lifts.

In the east, temperatures remained above freezing, with ski areas in Vermont reporting between three and 18 inches of snow.

By contrast, Whistler Blackcomb has been advertising 100 per cent of terrain open, although avalanche and severe weather conditions have meant the alpine hasn’t always been accessible. But with a 158 cm base Tuesday and more snow in the forecast, Whistler Blackcomb — and by extension, all of Whistler — has been blessed.

That has been the case for almost all of the 46 winters lifts have been turning on Whistler Mountain. But it doesn’t mean it always will be so.

The planet is getting warmer and moister. Climates are changing, becoming less predictable. A tiny slice of local evidence includes the years of weather and snow statistics put forward to support Vancouver and Whistler’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It turned out that the first two months of 2010 were the warmest January and February in Vancouver’s recorded history.

What can we do about it?

Public demand for action on climate change seemed to be reaching consensus about four years ago, but evaporated shortly after the global recession took hold. That’s not to say everyone forgot about climate change, but the economy diverted a lot of attention. The results have included climate-change deniers regaining their voice and federal governments avoiding having to take serious action. You only have to look at Canada’s shameful performance in Durban at last month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference to see where our priorities lie.

South of us, climate change has become, like everything else, a political battle. As the New York Times reported Sunday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this year tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments. However, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it — even though the idea had originated in the Bush administration, was strongly endorsed by an outside review panel and would have cost no extra money. “But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a ‘propaganda’ arm on climate.”

Whistler faces many issues and political battles in its quest to attain economic, social and environmental sustainability. Doing whatever we can to ensure snow continues to fall in winter and the planet doesn’t get any warmer will help move us toward those goals.

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