feature 334 

A marketing perspective David Thomson discusses the WRA’s role in the local community and the resort world By Bob Barnett Earlier this year TV viewers were treated to an ad in which a greyhound wandered out onto a runway and underneath a large jet, raised a hind leg and peed on the plane’s wheels. The intended message was that Greyhound, the Calgary-based bus company, was now a player in the airline business, ready to take on the big carriers. Another, incorrect, interpretation was that Greyhound was saying bus service beats flying. Whistler Resort Association President David Thomson raises the example when asked about the problems of marketing and creating a distinct image for Whistler. "To me, we’re two huge mountains with a walking village in between. Nobody else has that," Thomson says as he searches through a copy of Snow Country for this year’s Whistler ad. "Steamboat has a distinct identity with Billy Kidd and the cowboy stuff. Jackson Hole is identified as the extreme ski area, but does Vail have a distinct identity? "When we’re universally known maybe we can come up with a fancy moniker, but two mountains and no cars is the essence of Whistler." Getting that message across is the essence of Thomson’s job. The Whistler Resort Association was established in March 1979 to market Whistler to the world. The success of the resort is a measure of the success of the WRA, although anyone who has watched the resort association over the years knows it hasn’t been a smooth, steady progression. Thanksgiving this year will mark Thomson’s record fifth year as president of the WRA; some presidents didn’t last five months. The WRA has been the subject of criticism since its inception. The late Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nicholls called the WRA fundamentally undemocratic. Condominium owners have always grumbled about having to pay WRA dues. And earlier this year there were charges that the resort association should have stepped forward sooner to guarantee a portion of the $3 million W5 World Cup loan. Criticism is inherent in an organization that has 3,400 members, some of whom would drop out if they had a choice. "People don’t realize we have a zero budget," Thomson says when asked about another point of criticism, the WRA expanding into new businesses that compete with members’ businesses. "We have to look for other ways to generate revenue. There’s no huge pile of gold bullion underneath the conference centre. I’ve been down there and looked." The WRA’s mission statement says, "The mandate of the resort association is to increase tourism through the active marketing and sales of the Resort and to effectively operate and market the Whistler Conference Centre and Whistler Golf Course, for the benefit of the Association’s members." Marketing and selling Whistler is the reason for the WRA’s existence, but as Greyhound discovered, marketing can be a tricky business. For Thomson and the WRA there are a few new marketing challenges on the horizon. The first has to do with filling all the new beds being built over the next two years. The second is posed by the merger of Vail and Ralcorp, creating a huge resort company in Colorado. Then there’s the ever-changing world of co-op marketing and, finally, the task of convincing members of the importance of marketing. Challenge No. 1: The accelerated rate of Whistler’s growth over the next couple years has consequences and challenges for everyone. For the WRA the problem boils down to numbers. "Our target is a 6 per cent increase (in room-nights) per year," Thomson says. But the hotel inventory is going to increase by about 50 per cent over the next two winters. "The challenge is how do we accelerate visits to fill those new units? "Then we’ve got to worry about the restaurant and retail members." Filling those rooms requires three different marketing and sales campaigns, one for winter, one for summer and one for the shoulder/conference season. "Our November occupancy rate right now, even with the conference business we do, is about 18 per cent. If it stood the same two years from now it would be about 8 per cent," Thomson notes. Challenge No. 2: Last month’s merger of Vail and Beaver Creek resorts with the Ralcorp trio of Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone has created the largest mountain resort company on the continent. All five Colorado resorts are within a 40 mile radius. A five-resort ticket and ground transportation between the ski areas is planned. The new company also intends to spend $20 million annually to market the resorts and their individual personalities: Arapahoe Basin for the hard-core skier, Keystone for families, Breckenridge for those seeking variety, Beaver Creek for upscale visitors and Vail as the "premier" world class resort. Further marketing opportunities were explained by Andy Daly, president of Vail Associates, who told the Denver Post Keystone and Breckenridge already have a following in Britain, while Vail has a strong Latin following. "We will have the opportunity to cross sell that," Daly said. By comparison, the WRA’s marketing budget this year is about $4.2 million, in Canadian dollars. The resort association’s total budget this year is about $8.5 million. "Sometimes we don’t do a good enough job of explaining how much we need for marketing," Thomson says. "Our saviour has been co-op marketing." By partnering with the Canadian Tourism Commission, the Western Canadian Tourism Association, Tourism B.C. and various airlines Whistler will see about $8 million worth of familiarization tours and promotions this year, but Thomson says, "We’ve got to do a better job of growing our co-op funds." The Open Skies airline agreement between Canada and the United States and the third runway opening at Vancouver International Airport next month are helping to make Whistler more accessible to more Americans, but creating awareness through co-op marketing isn’t as streamlined a process as writing a cheque. As an example, Thomson saw 17 people in a day-and-a-half when he went to visit American Airlines. It took a year-and-a-half for the airline to tap into the Canadian Tourism Commission program. "They know us as ‘ski’, but didn’t know we could be partnered with Vancouver as a summer package," Thomson says. Then there was the announcement two weeks ago by Canadian Airlines, one of the WRA’s biggest fam-tour partners, that it was cancelling its flights out of Frankfurt, Germany. The WRA had been working with Canadian to develop the German market for the last four years and had a co-op program worth about $1 million this year. "Air Canada does fly Frankfurt-Vancouver but they’ve been more passive partners until now," Thomson says. "I don’t think we’ll lose all of (the German market), but we’ll have to re-start our program." Competing with Vail’s marketing machine and getting all the ducks in a row to make co-op programs work are two reasons why the WRA was reluctant to come to the table to guarantee the last $.5 million of the $3 million loan to the W5 group. "The carrying cost to the WRA is $50,000 a year," Thomson says. "That means someone in here has to give up $50,000 for their program." But Thomson admits the World Cup is "such a passionate thing for the valley," that in the end the WRA had to come to the table. However, he is blunt about the $375,000 transportation study the municipality has commissioned and which some have suggested the resort association contribute to. "We won’t be paying. It’s not an operational marketing scenario." What the WRA is meeting with the municipality about is cracking down on illegal rentals, particularly the nightly rental of suites which could be used for employee housing. "We want to be reasonable. We don’t want to hit the people who finance their annual two-week vacation by renting their house for a couple of weeks," Thomson says. An emerging angle on the issue of nightly rentals in residential areas — which, strictly speaking is illegal unless the property has been zoned for a bed and breakfast or pension — is the British chalet market. British skiers are used to going to resorts in the Alps and renting a chalet and an attendant chalet girl, who does all the cooking, shops for groceries and cleans the chalet. There are several companies providing that service for British skiers in Whistler. "That’s what the Brits want," says Thomson. "But how do we provide that in our mix without being unfair to everyone else? "We get thousands of Brits staying here who aren’t tracked in our visits." The British chalet business is an example of the changes resorts are having to make to accommodate vacationers’ desires. One of the largest trends is to doing a variety of things on a vacation. "When you go to the Caribbean nobody forces you to go snorkelling for seven days," Thomson notes. In Vail you can exchange a lift ticket for a credit toward a snowmobiling trip or some other activity. That type of flexibility is more difficult here, because the lift companies compete with one another and neither owns a snowmobile company, "but it’s what the consumer wants." Thomson feels Whistler can do a better job of marketing to families, too. A good toboggan hill is still missing, and discounts for putting more than one child in ski school, rather than charging the same for each child, are some of the things that families are looking for, he says. As for new markets, Thomson says you identify markets around the world, then you look at their air access. And when you start to market, you market for the long term. Whistler was making inroads into the Mexican market, until the crash of the peso. Mexico may not seem like a hotbed of skiers and snowboarders, but Thomson says it is still the number one foreign market for Colorado. "The wealthy in Mexico spend money to go skiing. In Brazil it’s similar," he says. There is a "philosophical barrier" to cross in marketing to countries like Brazil, namely that 18 per cent of the population is rich and the rest are poor. However, it is a market that Colorado has successfully targeted and, under Open Skies, Whistler can go after. Approximately 60 per cent of Brazil’s outbound skiers currently go to Colorado. There are 17 flights a day from South America to Miami landing before 8 a.m. With American Airlines’ new direct flight from Miami to Vancouver, suddenly the Brazilian market doesn’t seem so far away. As for the coming winter, Thomson is predicting an increase in visits, but how big an increase is hard to say. "The Open Skies connections helped last winter, but the co-op marketing wasn’t in place. This year (visits will increase), but how much we don’t know." Looking a couple of years down the road, in addition to having to fill 50 per cent more hotel rooms Thomson and the WRA will be faced with a plateau in membership. "When the growth plateaus the membership plateaus and the revenue from membership plateaus," he notes. There were nearly 500 new WRA members between 1994 and 1995, and a corresponding increase in membership dues collected. That will come to an end so the resort association has set out a five-year financial plan, but Thomson has his eye on other sources of revenue, including the 2 per cent hotel tax. The municipality, which collects about $1.5 million annually through the tax (and gives the WRA $475,000 to run the conference centre), will also be faced with declining revenues when the growth cycle comes to an end. It may be that on the issue of the hotel tax the municipality gives the WRA the same treatment the greyhound gave the airplane tire, so Thomson is also looking at increased corporate sponsorship, as well as getting more from existing amenities, such as the golf course and driving range. "I’m not saying we want to take money the municipality would be using to create another beach, or something like that. I really do think we’ve got something about as close as you can get to a balance between growth and the community." But in the world of mountain resort marketing, the stakes keep going up.

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