Time for naval gazing

Tourism Whistler is posing an interesting question to its members this weekend: Is Whistler’s competitive edge disappearing?

On the surface, it’s a question Whistler doesn’t appear to need to answer. The last 15 years have seen exceptional growth, far faster and greater than just about anyone could have imagined. Skier visits have increased every year but one since the late 1980s. Hotel room-nights sold have also increased steadily. Even during the period from 1996 to 2000 when the number of hotel rooms increased by 50 per cent, visitor growth kept pace with the increase in room inventory – an impressive accomplishment, although it still left the year-round occupancy rate at about 50 per cent. Such is the nature of the mountain resort business.

But despite the numbers and the accolades, the question of whether Whistler’s competitive edge is disappearing is one that should be asked now and on a regular basis in the future. Many residents and property owners don’t know how Whistler stacks up against the competition, or even who the competition is (hint: it’s not just other mountain resorts).

Ironically, the foundation for Whistler’s success was laid in the municipality’s formative years when the architects of the resort spent thousands of hours visiting and studying other resorts and consulting with their key people. Knowing where you’ve come from helps you figure out where you’re going.

The secondary question of Saturday’s symposium focuses on two key components of perceived value for visitors: price and service. This is more of an internal issue than the first question, but both of these matters relate to the underlying theme of the symposium: the sustainability of the resort. Whistler has adopted a strategy for environmental sustainability but it will become irrelevant if the town is not economically sustainable.

A paragraph in Tourism Whistler’s 2001 business plan, released last fall, touches on this subject: "There is growing concern regarding the overall sustainability of Whistler’s success. Double digit advances in average room rates have not necessarily been accompanied by a corresponding increase in value to the guest."

So what is Whistler’s competitive edge? The Canadian peso, the natural environment, the people – and things such as affordable housing and transit which make it possible for people to live here. These latter investments suggest that, on the whole, Whistler has its priorities about right and understands what makes the town tick.

But perceptions and expectations are constantly changing. Ten or 15 years ago Whistler was worried about building a reputation as a discount resort, particularly in the summer. Increases in average room rates were seen as a positive thing.

In 2001, with Whistler’s fear of becoming a Wal-mart resort a distant memory, the goal posts have moved. The Internet is changing travel habits. People aren’t booking rooms and tours as far in advance as they used to, with the expectation of getting a better price at the last minute. Some people are booking multiple tours and then, with the convenience and impersonal nature of e-mail, cancelling all but one just prior to confirmation time.

There are also many who would argue that airline travel has become more difficult, rather than easier, in recent years. Marketing has become more specialized and the competition has expanded to include virtually all leisure activities.

Viewed in the context of this evolving tourism landscape, the question of Whistler’s sustainability is valid one.


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