feature 251 

By Neville Judd At Olympic Station, by the Platter lift, Fiona Delement wipes out and gets her first taste of snow close-up. "That wasn’t so bad," she says smiling, struggling to stand. It’s her first morning in Whistler, first lesson, first wipeout. Like many Brits she learned the basics back in the UK on a dry slope, a giant toothbrush of a hill with a skiing surface of thick nylon bristles that hurt like hell should you fall. Compared to falling into 32 cm of new snow, flying 6,000 miles to Canada’s West Coast appears worth the jet lag. Last winter, 54 per cent more Brits visited Whistler than the previous season. After North America and Japan, the UK now represents the resort’s third biggest market. Snow has been very good in Europe the last few years (if a little late in coming), so why have so many British skiers deserted doorstep destinations "on the continent" for Canada, and Whistler in particular? The reasons are as varied as the Brits who come. "This time last year we were freezing our goolies off in Les Deux Alpes in minus 37," explains Clive Ackerman. "The snow was lousy." Ackerman, who runs an import giftwear business and lives in Nazeing, Essex, shuts down business every Christmas and usually takes his family skiing, typically to resorts in France or Italy. A balmy one degree above and 120 cm of new snow in the last week has a smile on his face within hours of getting off the plane in Vancouver. "I travel a lot in business to the Far East so the jet lag certainly doesn’t bother me. The currency exchange is very good right now and it seemed a good way of combining our ski trip with visiting my brother in Vancouver." Ackerman said he’d read about Whistler in the Daily Mail, an established British tabloid, as recently as two weeks ago. Taking her first lesson, Delement, a 20-year-old "nanny" from Bournemouth, in Dorset, is staying in a Creekside condo for two weeks with the English family she works for. So far, night life has been limited to dealing with dirty diapers and crying children. The skiing she’s not too sure about but she has booked three days of lessons, "to see how it goes." It’s the resort itself that has impressed her most. "Most of the stores aren’t too expensive and the shopping is pretty good," she says. "Everyone I’ve encountered has been very friendly and very polite." Anne Miller, a university lecturer from Oxford, came to Whistler with a friend on the advice of a friend in Vancouver. Staying at the Alta Vista Bed and Breakfast, itself run by Brits Tim and Yvonne Manville, Miller says despite jet lag and wet snow she will definitely be coming back. "We’ve been impressed by the whole range of skiing, lots of variety. It compares very favourably with places we’ve been to in Colorado — Vail, Winter Park, Keystone. "Normally we go to Europe, either down to the Pyrenees, which is very friendly but not so snow-sure, or Austria. We stay away from France because we don’t like the crowds. "Here it’s been excellent, line-ups are five minutes, tops, which other people might think are queues but not to us." Mike Welby, assistant publisher of the influential UK publication The Good Ski Guide, sums up Whistler’s appeal. "Canada is flavour of the month right now. It has a lot to do with currency and the fact that Whistler is always in people’s top five resorts in the world, some say the best. Word of mouth is important. "Since currency has moved very much in our favour it has given people the opportunity to try Whistler. It far outweighs any disadvantage about the length of travel and inevitable jet lag. "There’s the scope and variety of skiing, it’s very snow-sure and, for a North American resort, it has more nightlife than most, almost on a European scale." Editor of the popular Daily Mail Ski Guide David Watts adds that Whistler’s chief advantage over other North American ski destinations, particularly Colorado, is direct flights from the UK. "Continental used to fly direct to Denver but don’t any more, which can only help Whistler, which is a comparatively short nine-hour direct flight away." Watts has been to Whistler twice and described skiing as phenomenal. "The greatest vertical drop in North America, a good interlinked ski area, amazing variety of terrain, groomed runs, first class lift system, plus a good variety of bars and restaurants." Anyone responsible for marketing such a sellable product would seem to be blessed but, according to Whistler Resort Association director of marketing Barrett Fisher, some barriers remain in selling Whistler to the British. "Distance and cold weather are perception things," says Fisher. "If you travel to resorts in Eastern Canada it’s going to be very cold there. Compared to conditions in those resorts, where you’re seeing minus 30 to 40 degree conditions, we don’t have those kind of temperatures here. "But the resort’s positive attributes, the vertical, the terrain, the all-encompassing village, the friendly Canadian foreign experience, exchange rate, direct flights and consistent snow conditions are all things that make it attractive and account for the strong numbers coming out of the UK." With British skiers have come the British press. The WRA hosted 24 per cent more media visits in 1994 compared to 1993. According to Fisher the trend is continuing. "We’ve got tonnes of media coming here. From a marketing perspective it’s one of the biggest success stories we’ve had. "There was a special insert in the London Times that just came out on Canada in which several of the writers had been to Whistler and did articles on the resort. Wish You Were Here (a popular holiday show on UK television station ITV) did a big profile on us and we’ve been in Vogue UK — they came and did a big fashion spread at Whistler and they’ve since done several articles and incorporated us into that. "That kind of exposure for Whistler is phenomenal, to receive that kind of third-party endorsement." As the numbers coming from Britain increase, marketing becomes more sophisticated. In a cross-marketing approach with corporate partners Labatts, British pubs have been targeted for some joint promotions. "There was the thought that that would be a good way, a social way to highlight the ski product and people having fun," says Fisher. Whistler is not alone in pursuing a more targeted approach to potential customers. Breckenridge, Colorado, another resort destination popular with British skiers, has undertaken special promotions in Audi car dealerships throughout London’s suburbs. For a resort that keeps the actual numbers of visitors from individual countries a secret, it’s not surprising that the dollars spent on attempting to lure more Brits to Whistler is also off limits. But, has the WRA been getting a good return on its investment into the UK market? "Yes, absolutely 100 per cent," says Fisher. "We definitely see the UK as important to us and based on that our dollars have slowly but surely been increasing in that area." UK tour operators Crystal Holidays, who brought 1,500 Brits to Whistler last year, confirm bookings are up again this year and fast approaching Crystal’s most popular Canadian ski destination, Banff. How long can Whistler expect to see such significant increases in UK visitors? "Over the next several years we do anticipate there will be continued large growth," says Fisher. "I imagine in any market there’s going to be a plateauing effect eventually and certainly the new market development stage is when you’re going to see the greatest growth. Even this summer we saw a 269 per cent increase in summer business. "The numbers aren’t huge themselves and we’re not talking millions of visitors, but in the same breath it’s a strong showing. "As the numbers begin to grow we’ll probably see the percentage increases going down." But is the WRA doing enough now to sustain levels of UK visitors when the numbers do eventually even out? Mike Welby of The Good Ski Guide doesn’t think so. "There’s a lot of mixed information depending on which tour operator you talk to, but there’s no doubt numbers are significantly up. "Very rarely do people have their own opinions though, their opinions are collective. You hear one person say Whistler is the greatest in the world and it becomes fashionable. "I would say one thing. They haven’t been promoting (Whistler) enough here (in Britain). And they should do to hold on to this because it’s a classic case of relying on people coming back and it might not always be this attractive. "Times change and so does currency." Twenty-four-year-old Gary Amos, from Coventry, has no doubts more Brits will be back though. "Skiing-wise you can’t beat Whistler. I would definitely come back. More people are going to be coming here from Britain once word spreads. It’s really going to take off." "Even if you can’t get a beer for under $4."

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