Editorial 

Pressing home B.C.’s advantage

Last week in this space, in a little pre-Christmas inspirational speech, we told you about Al Raine’s thoughts on B.C. challenging Colorado to become the pre-eminent ski/snowboard region in North America.

"I would love to participate in a think-tank session where we said we were going to surpass Colorado by 2015," Raine said. "Forget the budgets, just look at our image, our problems, the markets we’re going after or should go after, then look at the money. I suspect it’s not just a money issue but looking at where the markets are.

"We’re all so busy looking after our own business and problems we don’t spend enough time looking at the big picture. Nobody usually thinks ahead 10 or 15 years."

This issue is not top of mind at Christmas time, the busiest time of year for most ski areas. But there was news last weekend that Colorado resorts have already had the type of think tank session Raine was talking about.

The Denver Post broke the story on Sunday about a report commissioned by Colorado Ski Country USA, which shows Colorado resorts have lost more than 1 million destination skier visits over the last six years. Most of those losses have been to Utah and Canadian resorts. While the percentage of destination skiers at Colorado resorts has declined in recent years, Canadian ski areas have seen a 127 per cent increase in American skier visits over the last seven years, according to the report.

Colorado understands how important the ski industry is to the state’s economy; anyone can look at receipts from resort sales taxes and tell exactly how much people are spending at ski areas. The state government has looked at the receipts, and at the Colorado Ski Country study, and decided it needs to get involved. This year, for the first time in a decade, the state has put money into a winter advertising campaign to bring back destination skiers.

Instead of a shotgun approach to marketing Colorado is now narrowing its focus to its traditional core destination markets: Texas, California, Illinois, New York and Florida. "We are concentrating our efforts on the existing skiers and snowboarders," Rob Perlman, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, told the Post.

From one perspective, there’s nothing new here. Colorado has been trying to steal market share from Whistler for several years. As Raine said when he suggested a think tank session for B.C. ski areas to plan strategies for stealing more skier visits from Colorado, "We’re already in an arms race."

From another perspective, the story about the "closely guarded industry report" was front-page news in a Denver daily. It may become more relevant to B.C. ski areas, including Whistler, after the Christmas holidays are over and people get a handle on bookings for the rest of the winter.

Among the concerns, if the arms race for skiers escalates, is that the pool of skiers and snowboarders in North America isn’t growing. Despite record skier visits in Canada and the U.S. last winter, the number of people taking up the sport is about the same as the number of people retiring their boards.

If B.C. decides it wants to follow Raine’s suggestion and become the snow capital of North America – a goal that would seem to fit with the provincial government’s resort task force and that will get a huge boost from the 2010 Olympics – who is going to lead that charge? Whose job is it to come up with a strategy to steal market share?

Intrawest owns resorts and has contractual obligations in both Colorado and B.C., as well as other parts of Canada and the U.S. Rather than steal from one area to feed another it would seem to make more sense for Intrawest to concentrate on developing new skiers and boarders, and future purchasers of recreational real estate.

Similarly, some property management firms and hotel chains have operations at ski areas across the continent, so they would probably prefer that efforts be put into increasing the pool of skiers and boarders, rather than one jurisdiction stealing market share from another.

And yet there is more resort expansion and development happening in B.C. than in any other part of North America. Growth in skier visits – whether stealing from other areas or attracting new people to the sport – is needed to pay for that expansion.

Some growth should come through the 2010 Olympics, an advantage Colorado will never have after the state rejected the 1976 Olympics. But a co-ordinated effort by stakeholders in B.C.’s mountain resorts would press home that advantage. And with Colorado ski areas re-arming, it may be essential.

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