The variables affecting business

The 2000-01 season in Whistler won’t go down as a banner winter, but it wasn’t as bad as people might have imagined if you told them the base was less than 200 cm through February. Indeed, for some people the increased sunshine this winter made up for the lack of snow.

But the fact that it’s only the end of March and people are already discussing the end of the winter season is perhaps a more telling statement. Because we didn’t get as much snow as normal this winter the bottom runs on the two mountains are starting to show brown streaks. That means more than just the end of ski/snowboard season and the start of mountain biking/golf. It means the winter season is about a month shorter than we’ve become accustomed to – that means layoffs start earlier, seasonal employees have to leave or scramble for new jobs, many businesses have a shorter high season and thus less revenue for the year.

From a business perspective – and most of the people who continue to live here can do so because of the business that goes on in this town – it’s a little bit unnerving. What if we get a couple of years in a row like this?

Many people and businesses in Whistler only know continued growth, year after year. For nearly a decade each April or May has brought news that the mountains have set another new record for skier visits.

The numbers are a reflection of the perceptions people have of Whistler. It only takes a couple of years, or visits, in a row where people don’t find the snow or the service they expect for perceptions and attitudes to gather momentum. Just ask some of the Colorado ski areas which suffered through poor early season snow two years in a row and then had decent snow this season but continued to see a decline in visitor numbers.

Part of that is due to other resorts, including Whistler, taking market share. But there are other factors at work that hold consequences for everyone in the mountain resort business. For example:

A survey by the Ski Tour Operators Association this year found that people are waiting later to book ski vacations, checking out the snow levels and even the weather before plunking down their credit cards. The tourism industry in general is finding that because of the ease of doing business over the Internet vacationers have few qualms about booking or canceling at the last minute.

Barriers to easy travel, whether real or perceived, are as big obstacles as poor snow or poor weather. Airline travel has become so stressful that to many people it in itself is a reason to book a cruise ship vacation.

Those destination visitors that survive the airline food and manage to arrive with all their luggage then may have to drive themselves up Highway 99, a road which has earned an unenviable reputation throughout the world.

On top of this there is the fact that the absolute number of skiers and boarders in North America hasn’t increased significantly in 20 years. Whistler’s growth in popularity has largely come from stealing market share but that won’t continue indefinitely. If Whistler doesn’t continue to take market share how do we fill the new hotel rooms, how do we get people in shops and renting equipment?

Aspen has, belatedly, realized it’s already in this predicament and businesses there are suffering. So to try and steal back some of the market it’s launching a campaign to fight the perception Aspen is too expensive for the average ski vacationer. It’s an interesting problem for the Colorado resort; exclusivity has always been one of the reasons to go to Aspen, it’s been part of its cache. Their job now is to maintain that cache and invite the "common" skier or snowboarder as well. The problem was summed up by one member of the Aspen marketing group who said: "I think Aspen is a vibrant, glamorous place to visit, but I also think it’s a warm, decent, friendly community. How do we marry those two images in an attractive way to visitors?"

Whistler is a warm, decent, friendly community too. It is that way because of the people who choose to live here. They are one of the primary reasons many visitors return to Whistler year after year. But those warm friendly people won’t be here if businesses cease to thrive.

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