A message that may finally be getting through

Economists, who usually seem about as likely to reach consensus as members of the Tory-Democratic Representative coalition and the Canadian Alliance, seem to all be in agreement this week, spreading the gospel that the economic decline the world is now coming to grips with started before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

How that helps anyone, I don?t know. But it does seem to somehow validate the authority of economists.

I make no claim to understand economics or economists, but in the interests of having my authority validated I would like to join them in a chorus of "I told you so." Actually, it wasn?t me that told you so; it was Tourism Whistler. In the uncertainty that has followed Sept. 11, maybe it?s time to revisit what Tourism Whistler has been saying all this year. Allow me to explain.

Since the Sept. 11 attack and the economic downturn, the whole world has been scrambling to figure out what is going to happen to their business/industry/country. Tourism Whistler, like others in the tourism industry, is trying to grapple with the massive cutbacks in the airlines, including those at Tourism Whistler?s major airline partner; the one with its hand out for $2 billion, $4 billion or whatever figure comes to mind this week.

(It?s also worth remembering, in the wake of two European airlines announcing bankruptcy this week, that the airline industry was also in trouble prior to Sept. 11.)

Most tourism organizations in Canada, including Tourism Whistler, are participating in a Canadian Tourism Commission travel intentions survey this week, which will help guide marketing plans for this winter.

While the results will no doubt be valuable, the general feeling on Whistler?s cobblestone pathways already is that marketing efforts should focus on the regional markets this winter; those people who can drive here. The only difficulty with that is those are the people who have been drifting away from Whistler. It?s an issue Tourism Whistler has been warning members of for months.

At a breakfast meeting this past July, marketing research and intelligence manager Alan Rice told Tourism Whistler members winter surveys had found only 28 per cent of Lower Mainland visitors rated Whistler good or excellent value for money. He added there was a perception across all income groups that Whistler had become "expensive."

In February of this year Tourism Whistler released its 2001 business plan, which issued a similar warning. "There is growing concern regarding the overall sustainability of Whistler?s success," reads the business plan summary. "Whistler is reaching a point in its evolution where it must become more sensitive to the guest experience." And the guests Whistler has been least sensitive to are the regional visitors.

The report points out that the number of hotel rooms in Whistler has grown faster than the number of guests to the resort over the last several years, which has pushed overall occupancy levels down. To compensate, average room rates have climbed steadily, to a point where some people have decided to go elsewhere. The business plan states: "The value equation must be considered before any potential downturn in business arises."

Not convinced that the message was getting through to members, Tourism Whistler called an extraordinary meeting on April 21 to outline the problems facing the resort. Only about 200 people showed up to hear President Suzanne Denbak call for a new business model for the resort, one that included doing away with the confusion created by multiple property managers in condo-hotels.

"The only perceptions and the only beliefs that matter are our guests? and tour operators?," Denbak said. "Guests experience ?Whistler? regardless of who runs the hotel, the ski school, the restaurant etc. All experiences affect the guests? perception of Whistler."

What Tourism Whistler has really been calling for all of this year is a co-ordinated effort that puts the resort ahead of individual members who feel there is an extra dollar to be squeezed out of someone somewhere. In the post-Sept. 11 world, with fewer airline flights into Vancouver, fears of a recession and general uncertainty, that effort is needed more than ever.

Just ask an economist.


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