Family Day move hits B.C. ski resort business hard 

Operators say province’s distinct February long weekend added revenue opportunity

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOHN ENTWISTLE, COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB - FAMILY DAY Moving the long weekend to the third weekend in February has hit ski resorts hard.
  • PHOTO BY JOHN ENTWISTLE, COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB
  • FAMILY DAY Moving the long weekend to the third weekend in February has hit ski resorts hard.

The B.C. government's decision to push Family Day back a week, to the third weekend in February, dealt a blow to business at the province's ski resorts, with a substantial drop in visits during the second weekend of the month.

The third weekend of the month was hectic for resorts, but that long weekend is ordinarily the season's busiest long weekend, because Ontario and Alberta are marking Family Day and the U.S. is celebrating Presidents' Day.

Executives at three of the province's busiest resorts-Whistler Blackcomb, Big White and Sun Peaks-each told Business in Vancouver that their resorts are normally nearing capacity during the third weekend in February, which means they are approaching the upper threshold of potential revenue they can take in.

Spacing out the traffic over two separate long weekends, they said, also makes for a better experience for B.C. guests.

Premier John Horgan campaigned before the 2017 election on changing the date for Family Day. The Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) then unsuccessfully lobbied his government to keep B.C.'s February statutory holiday on the second weekend in February.

The Horgan government, instead, was swayed by critics who wanted the province's Family Day holiday synchronized with other jurisdictions' holidays to ensure that B.C. workers who have to interact with counterparts in other jurisdictions could be assured of a common day off.

"It's an incremental opportunity that is now lost," said CWSAA CEO Christopher Nicolson. "We have gone from two long weekends, in the tourism industry, to one."

Nicolson said his organization is no longer lobbying the government to move the holiday back to the previous date because he does not believe that the political will is there to make the change.

Instead, his organization is encouraging British Columbians who cannot find accommodations at a major B.C. ski resort to try some of the province's lesser-known 37 ski areas, such as Harper Mountain or Salmo Ski Hill, which cater predominantly to local skiers.

Big White's senior vice-president, Michael Ballingall, told BIV that not having two consecutive long weekends, "from a business point of view ... was a considerable cost."

On previous B.C. Family Day weekends, he said, Big White was extremely busy, in part because on the Mondays it offered a 50 per cent discount on lift tickets to anyone who could show identification with a B.C. address.

Ballingall said Big White could not offer that promotion this year because it would not go over well with the large number of skiers from outside the province.

His statistics showed that 54 per cent of the resort's accommodations were taken by U.S. residents and that only 27 per cent of the guests were from B.C.

That disparity likely happened because out-of-province visitors are used to booking a long-weekend vacation on the third weekend in February and booked far ahead.

"We're 52 per cent full for next year already," Ballingall said.

Sun Peaks' chief marketing officer, Aidan Kelly, told BIV that a similar scenario is playing out at his resort: business down over a two-week period in mid-February, year-over-year, despite a phenomenally busy third weekend in February in which hotels were at or near capacity, and strong bookings for next year.

"From an experience perspective, it is better to space out the two weekends," said Whistler Blackcomb spokesman Marc Riddell.

"What you have during peak time is that it is busier for hotels, busier in the restaurants and busier in our lift lines."

Kelly and Ballingall said their resorts are tracking last year's record pace for skier visits. Riddell said his resort's traffic has been "comparable" to last year, since December.

BIV reported in January that a sluggish December at Whistler Blackcomb prompted owner Vail Resorts Inc. (NYSE:MTN) to lower guidance, prompting share values to plummet 13 per cent.

This story originally appeared in Business in Vancouver on Feb. 26.

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