chalets 

By Loreth Beswetherick While Whistler enjoyed a bumper winter season, numbers out of the United Kingdom were disappointing and, it is the uncertainty that has been hanging over the legality of chalets in Whistler over the last two years that is being blamed. The two key British tour operators who service the Whistler market are both pulling back operations for next winter. Inghams Travel has cancelled all its chalet operations and charter flights to the area and Crystal Holidays will be slashing its chalet program in half. "The turmoil over the chalet status has gotten a lot of UK operators nervous," said David Perry, vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler-Blackcomb. Perry said the UK is Whistler's number two market after Colorado for destination travellers. "The British tour operators have shied away because of the reception in this town. It certainly has been very challenging trying to keep our operators positive." Although Whistler Resort Association figures show a three per cent drop in winter business from the UK, the mountains show an 11 per cent increase. "But it's not what we hoped for," said Perry. "The results from the UK have been disappointing." He said the statistics differ because the WRA room night counts do not incorporate a lot of chalet business whereas the mountains sell lift tickets directly to the tour operators. Perry said council's recent decision to axe all chalet rezoning applications is "terrible." He said councillors who think the traditional British chalet customer will simply shift into a condo-hotel property demonstrates "a complete lack of understanding of the British tourism market. There is a very established client from the UK who is used to booking exactly that kind of vacation." Paul Baumgartner, the North American general manager for Crystal Holidays, said his company will cut its chalet program despite an increase in demand for the Whistler product. "The impact of the chalet issue will be felt next year," he said. "We had hoped the issue might be resolved, allowing a number of these properties to still run but things have taken a turn for the worse." Last winter Crystal offered nine chalets in Whistler. It will offer four next season. Last winter Crystal brought about 3,300 UK guests to the resort, 500 more than the previous season and 800 more than the 1996-97 winter. Of last winter's guests, 1,300 of them were chalet clients. Baumgartner estimates each chalet guest pumps between $1,500 to $1,750 into resort coffers on an average 10-day stay. For many it could be well over $2,000 per person. He estimates maybe 200 to 300 chalet clients may make the shift into condo-hotel lodging, the rest will go elsewhere. "We run a lot of chalets in the States," he noted. Baumgartner said Crystal considered "wiping chalets out of Whistler completely" because of the uncertainly. "The decision was made not to do that. Crystal is known for its chalets — it would not be a wise decision for a company like ours," said Baumgartner. "In France, for example, we sell significantly more of our holidays through chalets than hotels or condos. We run over 100 chalets in France alone." Inghams, however, had no qualms about axing its Whistler chalet program. Inghams vice president for North America, Frank van Roy, said his company used to offer between six to eight chalets in Whistler which represents about 1,200 guests over a winter season. He said the chalet and charter flight business is a "very high risk" enterprise — charter flights must be paid for whether they are filled or not and properties in Whistler were getting expensive. He said council's indecision over the tourist accommodation issue helped his company make up its mind to quash the program. WRA vice president for sales and marketing, Barrett Fisher, said the resort association is trying a proactive approach to the issue. She said the WRA canvassed a number of chalet guests last winter to find out if they would consider other products, such as condo-hotels, should they return to the resort. "Between 80 to 85 per cent of the respondents said they had such a positive experience in Whistler and they realized may condo-hotels could be booked at a similar price, that they would in fact consider a shift. "So, our message to tour operators has been to educate the market on the variety of product we do have and the benefits those products offer, such as excellent value and amenities," said Fisher. She said the WRA forecasts a "strong pattern of visitation" from the UK in the long term — more families, more "upscale" and less price sensitive than those likely to opt for a charter package. Chalets aside, both Inghams and Crystal still book guests into a wide range of properties. The Chateau Whistler is a top performer for Crystal and Baumgartner expects similar results from the new Westin. He too sees a demographic shift in the visiting Brit. "Despite the exchange rate, Whistler is still expensive. Where you see the greatest advantage is with expensive properties. You can stay at the Chateau for significantly less than you could stay at The Lodge in Vail. It is still good value for money."

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