Measuring success, and depression

According to the Ministry of Skills, Development and Labour in Victoria, adding another statutory holiday between Jan. 1 and Good Friday - a gap of 98 days this year - would cost employers in B.C. $175 million in wages paid for that non-working day.

Then again, another day off in the middle of this stretch might spark productivity. It might improve some people's sense of humour. It certainly couldn't make people any grumpier.

Property assessment increases, lousy weather, poor service levels, business blues, the rumoured $2.4 million price tag on Whistler's OCP, George Bush, G.D. Maxwell - they've all conspired to make January of 2004 one of the most depressing and infuriating months of this year, so far.

But is it going to be the most depressing and infuriating month of the year, or are things going to get better? Would another stat holiday cost $175 million? How do we measure these things? Do numbers lie, or do they always stand up?

These weighty issues came to mind recently as another business owner groused about business being down, landlords trying to extract blood from a stone and property assessments that seem to ensure names like Gucci and Prada will be around longer than any local legends immortalized in Village Square.

Many business owners can provide anecdotal evidence things are still limping along after the collapse of the dot.com economy, 9/11, the implosion of the airline industry, SARS, and a year of weird weather. But aside from individual business stories how do we know the true state of Whistler's financial health?

Whistler-Blackcomb doesn't make skier numbers public any more, preferring to give percentage increases or decreases over the same period the previous year, or compared to what they had budgeted for. This practice started shortly after Intrawest acquired Whistler Mountain in 1996 . The explanation was that people - investors perhaps - might interpret the numbers incorrectly.

Tourism Whistler is of the same mindset when it comes to releasing figures on hotel rooms. Occupancy rates are eventually available, and percentage increases or decreases over the same time last year, but few actual numbers. Counting hotel rooms requires a little more context than counting skiers. For example, the total number of hotel rooms available in Whistler has increased every year for the last two decades, so comparing occupancy levels from one year to another requires some caution. But obtaining any figures on a regular basis is problematic.

The situation is very different in most Colorado resorts, where a resort tax is collected on almost all transactions. What the resort tax does, among other things, is provide a public record of how the local economy is doing. Every month people can look at the statements - broken down by sectors such as retail, accommodation, food and beverage - and get a measure of their resort's financial health.

But in Whistler most people, including business owners with a financial stake in the resort, are generally left with anecdotal evidence to try and figure out how things are going.

Perhaps there's something in the conservative Canadian psyche that recoils at the thought of an overt broadcasting of business numbers. Some years ago, back when the organization was still called the Whistler Resort Association, one merchant suggested at a meeting of retailers that they all write down on a piece of paper whether their business was up or down, and by what percentage. The slips of paper - without anything to identify the business or owner - could then be pulled from a hat and read aloud. Only a handful of the merchants at the meeting participated.

So to get the measure of business in Whistler people have invented their own indexes. Some people count the number of buses in the day-skier parking lots. Others go into the underground parking lots beneath hotels to gauge occupancy levels. Slopeside Supply, which supplies virtually all hotels and property management companies, measures occupancy levels by how much toilet paper is being ordered.

The big shopping centre conference is next week, and Altitude 12 is back on for the first week in February, giving local business owners some optimism. But a Canadian holiday between Jan. 1 and Good Friday, rather than costing money, might improve the bottom line for Whistler businesses. Whether it would be a measurable improvement is another question.


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