Anxiety high among businesses as Olympics get closer 

VANOC to hold ‘Game Plan’ this month to answer questions

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There's an undercurrent of stress and anxiety pulsing through small businesses in town as the 2010 Games draws nearer.

From Function Junction to the village, the overriding sentiment is that there is still a black hole of information about what business will be like before, during and after the Games.

Without a crystal ball to put business owners at ease, this gathering feeling of uncertainty, combined with these difficult and tentative economic times, has some Whistler business owners on edge.

"I don't know what to sell, to who," said Rusty Long, who has owned Katmandu on the edge of Marketplace for the past 16 years.

"I'm in a position where I'm probably just going to close my store if I can't lease it out because I don't want to take the chance of buying a whole whack of inventory and not selling it."

Long has done the research; he knows the town will be jam packed with media and Olympic organizers and Olympic family and sponsors. He knows they typically buy just a small Olympic related souvenir to take home as a keepsake of their time at the Games.

What he doesn't know is just how this new visitor will affect the sales in his alternative ski and bike shop.

"(It's) not knowing our market at all," said Long, who relies on local and seasonal workers as his core customer base.

"I don't see me being able to run my business as it is right now."

He's tried to develop a Plan B - changing his store to a temporary food venue. But, he asked, where do I get 20 competent staff and, more importantly, where do I house them?

Unlike Long, Dan Ellis at Armchair Books, knows just what to sell. He knows he has to stock souvenir books and any literature related to the Olympics.

What he doesn't know is how slow or busy his village bookstore will be next season. His research tells him that business will be down; it was down for bookstores in Park City at the 2002 Games.

"How do we prepare for a possible soft season?" he asked. "I guess we just have to hold on tight and see what happens. Hopefully that's not our experience and we have a really robust retail experience, but there are a lot of question marks about that. Who knows? We don't know what to expect. Absolutely no idea."

Ellis, however, is staying optimistic.

Even businesses that are expecting to be slammed from morning to night during the Games, like Black's Pub at the base of the mountains, have some concerns.

Owner Lawrence Black is enticing former Australian employees back for the Games to help out with the predicted onslaught of business in February.

"I've been aware of what to expect," he said. "And expecting to be really busy."

But it remains to be seen what business will be like for him in December and January.

"That's the part I'm nervous about," said Black.

Like Long at Katmandu, Pat Kelly has been trying to adapt to the changing circumstances of 2010, to no avail.

As the owner of The Whistler Real Estate Company, Kelly had done the research with realtors in Park City and the message was: things were not busy in the real estate business during the Olympics. He wants to lease out his space but no one is knocking on his door, despite the prime village location, steps away from Celebration Plaza.

"Certainly nobody's getting rich on their leasing," said Kelly.

"I haven't had anyone come along and rent my space."

He too is scrambling to come up with a Plan B in a vacuum of information.

"Most business people just want to know where they stand," he said.

"The level of detail is insufficient for anyone to make a plan."

For example, if his office stays open: will he be able to park at Marketplace, how many staff will he need, will he be impacted with security issues based on his proximity to Celebration Plaza?

SMD's manager Rob Sustarsic, who runs the busy auto shop in Function Junction, also has unanswered questions.

Sure, the resort will be jam packed with guests, but not the typical winter guest with cars needing repairs.

Sustarsic is expecting business to be down. But by how much?

"I wish that we would know exactly what to expect," he said.

"I wish they had a plan set in stone and could tell us what to expect and then we could make some arrangements."

Not only is he trying to predict how much business may dip, but also if he can operate SMD without too many disruptions, given the fact that he relies on twice daily deliveries from the city.

Other businesses are also concerned about how transportation requirements will impact business. Though they have a broad idea of the picture - deliveries will be happening overnight at Games time - the finer details have yet to be shared with them. And sometimes, the devil is in the details.

"I would say that there's a lack of information out there," said Tony Horn, owner of Slope Side Supply. "I have no idea how often, let's say, 18 wheelers can come to Slope Side or what time they're going to come. So how can I plan? I just don't know."

He knows it will be more difficult to deliver goods in secure zones, such as the area at the Telus Whistler Conference Centre, which will be the official media centre during the Games. And he knows that most of his big supply deliveries from the city will happen between midnight and 6 a.m. But it's hard to develop a plan, complete with staffing requirements, with critical pieces of the puzzle still missing.

Horn, however, doesn't believe he has the added worry of business being down during the Games. It'll just be a little more challenging.

"If I'm as busy as we normally are in February, I'm going to be happy," said Horn. "I know that there's probably going to be more headaches to doing those same kind of numbers like security, we might have to work at night... but those are just things that we'll just adapt to."

Olympic organizers released the first phase of the Games transportation plan in March this year. Eighty per cent of what traffic will look like during the Games has been made public, said Maureen Douglas, director of operations communications for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC).

The second phase of that plan will be rolled out in September. She acknowledges businesses like Slope Side will be impacted by deliveries to secure zones and that's why organizers are continuing to meet with businesses in those areas to hammer out details.

"Businesses that are right on the perimeter of a venue, we need to work with them so they fully understand the operating condition and we can work together to mitigate any particular challenges or concerns that happen around security requirements that exist right at a venue," said Douglas.

Leading organizations in Whistler, and Olympic organizers, have been trying to answer the questions from businesses. The Chamber of Commerce, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler (TW), Whistler Blackcomb and VANOC recognize the need to disseminate information so that businesses can plan.

They cannot predict, however, just how soft the season will be in January or how much people will spend during the Games. But the information from past Games is there for the taking.

The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Fiona Famulak, said there is no excuse for business owners to feel uninformed. The information is out there; it's up to each individual business owner to access it and use it accordingly to make their plans.

"Given the range of information streams being used by the chamber and the RMOW, and VANOC, and TW and Whistler Blackcomb, in my opinion there's no excuse for anyone to feel uninformed," she said. "It comes down to each business taking responsibility for itself."

"I think each business needs to take responsibility for sourcing what they need... and that means becoming engaged."

VANOC will be holding a public meeting in Whistler on July 29 at the Westin, from 7 to 9 p.m.

"The focus on that is very much operational updates," said Douglas. "It's down to the real brass tacks of what the operating environment of the community looks like during Games time.

"Our challenge is: we can't answer the questions that aren't asked."

In addition to the Whistler Game Plan meeting there will be a Game Plan on Tuesday July 28 in Squamish at Brennan Park from 7 to 9 p.m. and in Pemberton on Thursday July 30 at the new community centre from 7 to 9 p.m.

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