Great expectations are met through participation

For those people in Whistler who ended 2008 vaguely cognizant of layoffs in the auto industry, the implosion of the commodities market, the chaos on Wall Street and Bay Street and questions about when and if the excrement was going to hit the fan in our neck of the (soft) woods, the answer began to arrive this week.

On Monday Tourism British Columbia announced it was anticipating a decline in hotel revenues of about 5 per cent — for December, January and February — over the same period last year. “It’s very significant. This is provincewide,” Tourism B.C. president Rod Harris told the Vancouver Sun .

Taken as a whole, British Columbia doesn’t sell that many hotel rooms in December, January and February; it’s mostly the ski areas that sell a lot of rooms at this time of year. So for the province to be down 5 per cent, the hotels in the ski areas are probably down significantly more. Which is what Tourism Whistler and others have been predicting for several months.

The scary part is that for ski areas, December, January, February and March are when they make their money. That’s when hotel room rates and occupancy levels are supposed to be highest.

Check out the deals hotels are offering right now on whistler.com, or any other Whistler accommodation website, and comparisons of 2009 for the tourism industry with 1937 for the airship industry come to mind.

Tourism in B.C. is just starting to feel what autoworkers in Ontario, machinists in Ohio and oil workers in Alberta have been feeling for a few months. These are very troubling, pessimistic times.

But it’s telling that in these pessimistic times the most inspiring leader in several generations will be sworn in as president of the United States next week. The world has been craving new leadership in the United States for years now, a fact that seemed to surprise a Republican senator who basked in the media glow that surrounded the president elect Tuesday while announcing to the world that he had been to Europe and people there were excited about Barack Obama. People everywhere are excited by the possibilities Obama represents.

Of course the expectations are ridiculously high. As president, Obama can’t possibly meet them all. But he can bring people together and inspire them to work together, to find common ground, to understand the problems and the times and find common goals.

That’s what many of Whistler’s leaders will be gathering in the conference centre to do Friday evening. That’s also what Monday’s first meeting on this year’s municipal budget was about. And that’s what the Jan. 23 update from Tourism Whistler is about.

The economic problems Whistler, like most of the world, is facing are obviously a big part of these meetings, but that’s not all they are about. The changing shape of tourism, how people move around the globe, changes in the corporate world, and Whistler’s relationship to the rest of the world — these are higher level questions than can’t be fully addressed in community meetings, but they are part of the background to these discussions.

And how Whistler decides to deal with these issues goes a long way to defining itself as a community.

There isn’t a solution out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s a process that needs to be worked through, that involves participation. It starts with establishing a baseline of understanding, which is where representatives from Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler, the chamber of commerce and the municipality come in at Friday’s meeting. They will provide some context for where Whistler is at the moment, what steps are being taken and what difficulties we face. Göran Carstedt, a former CEO of Ikea and Volvo, will help provide some outside perspective.

And then it’s up to the people of Whistler to participate in determining courses of action.

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