feature 551 

Packing on the pounds The British Invasion is sweet music to Whistler By Oona Woods There are around 750,000 Brits currently planning to bind themselves in to various bits of plastic moulding, with or without silicon foam injection, slip on some serious duds and get the gear out before they take to slopes all around the world. Skiing, and its cooler little sibling boarding, have managed to maintain a firm grip on the British psyche as a brilliant way to spend the winter holidays. In the summer the masses of middle classes head for the sun on package holidays. In the winter that package contains skis, chalets and a little fold out map of the slopes. Although European resorts like Val d’Isére, Courchevel, St. Anton, Verbier and Courmayeur are just hours away, over four per cent of skiing Britons are still making their way to Whistler each year with sliding in mind. And the numbers are growing. Travellers from England, Scotland and Wales occupy more winter room nights in Whistler than any other overseas visitors. But why? When you break down the factors of attraction like terrain, accommodation, food, lift facilities, no language barrier, altitude, attitude, exchange rates and the always-aprés-scene it’s hard to figure out why more people aren’t piling over here. Oh yeah, the 10 hour flight and the coastal weather, but that’s pretty much it. Add to this the fact that any Brits flicking through the year end best of OK (a syrupy glossy celebrity magazine) will of course spot the spread on Charles and sons cruising around Whistler and Blackcomb and you have a whole host of royalty-approved publicity. Even if people aren’t avowed royalists (and most aren’t) they couldn’t help but notice the scenery surrounding the Royals on the news clips last spring and note that if the people who can go anywhere they want are coming here there must be something to it. As you go swinging up Emerald Chair along with a guy from Southampton who now lives in Germany you have to ask why he’s not skiing in Austria. "It’s absolutely massive here," he said looking around in pure awe just before getting quotable: "There’s so much terrain from the heroic to the novice. It’s just so massive, it’s just a pity it’s a bit far." The Whistler Resort Association has compiled a profile of the average UK (that’s England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the pedants) visitor to the resort in the winter. This fictitious person, Joe Bloggs (he’s a bloke because there’s a 65 per cent chance he’s a bloke, has a 35 per cent feminine side which I’m sure he acknowledges), has been planning to come here for five months, will travel here by plane, and will take the bus from the airport. Around 47 per cent of himself is under 35 but he’s getting up there, which is probably why he can afford to ski, and 48 per cent is between 35 and 54 (that’s including his feminine side). Because he’s a bit more long in the tooth than his Japanese counterpart for instance he is only 12 per cent likely to be toting a board (The Japanese visitor is 34 per cent more likely to board). In fact there’s an 88 per cent chance Bloggs’s got skis. He is more likely than most to work out at the gym or play squash. He plans on staying for just under 10 nights and was influenced in his decision by his tour operator, word of mouth or a magazine article about Whistler. There’s only a 30 per cent chance he’s married. Danny from Scotland is here on his honeymoon. He must know Mr. Bloggs. "It was just word of mouth," he said explaining why he and his wife chose Whistler. "And it’s nice to ski in trees. Lots of European resorts are above the tree line. You don’t really get that feeling unless you’re cross-country. And then there’s the quality of the snow and the friendliness of the people." Apparently the attitude of Canadians towards the Brits makes them feel warm and fuzzy. All those Intrawest-fuelled "moments of truth" must be paying off. Joe Myers sells timeshares at Whiskey Jack and says that he often hears British visitors comment on this trend. "They love the fact that people are so polite. They absolutely love our friendliness. If we bump into them on the street it’s always ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hi’. They are used to going to Europe where in the queues everyone steps on your skis. They love the way people here can queue in an orderly fashion." This ‘orderly queuing’ may just be an untapped marketing pitch. It would seem that the slopes of Europe are a free-for-all with poles, skis and boards all wielded towards gaining advantage in the lift lines. Sandy Wells who trains tour operators for Club Med is here from London on a skiing holiday and reflects this same point. "Let’s face it, it’s the furthest away from Europe you can get to but people still come over. It’s friendlier and the staff at the lifts are friendly. In Europe they don’t talk to you. Everyone pushes, shoves, clambers over your skis. I saw a French couple try to push in at the lifts today but they weren’t allowed. There was a space but the other people just slowly closed it. They stayed back in the end. The lift lines are so much shorter here as well." The high speed quads, gondolas and lifts themselves are impressing visitors who are used to rickety old lifts, drag poles and trams all over the older mountain resorts in Europe. Older lifts (probably not unlike older liftees) take longer to get up the mountain and this takes away from over-all skiing time. "The gondolas they are used to are so stinking old," says Myers. "They’re rusting out like old cars. One couple were telling me you could see out of the bottom of them all the way up the mountain. Here everything is modern and clean and of course people don’t step on their skis." As if all this new fangled praise wasn’t enough, Whistler also wins marks for not being too high and mighty. Britain mostly sits at sea level with a few variations to 500 meters and more in mountainous regions, but not much more. "They are sea-level people," points out Myers. "In Aspen, Colorado they get altitude sickness. At 8,000 feet sea-level people and children suffer, they get earaches and stuff." Terrain wins out a lot of the time, too. "The skiing is prettier with all the tree skiing," says Wells. "And there’s a vast number of runs. It’s the largest season I’ve ever known. I’ve been here twice in early December and the skiing was absolutely fantastic. I like the way some runs are pistéd, or groomed and not others. In Europe they pisté them all, all the time. Here you have a choice of going on a groomed run or not." All this praise may be getting sickly, but there’s even more to come. The standards of accommodation North Americans have come to expect when they travel are diametrically opposed to what Europeans put up with on a regular basis. Ski chalets and boarding houses in Europe are often like hostels where you will share a bathroom with others in old buildings. The term "Full of character" will often allude to the fact there’s no TV, microwave, hot tub or Jacuzzi — staples of the North American travel experience. In fact there are still people in Britain who don’t have a microwave in their own house let alone expect one when they check in to a condo. It wasn’t hard to get Brits talking about the food and drink in Europe either. "They are mad for that glüwein in Austria," says one visitor from London. "All the food is really rich, heavy and thick. Here you have so many different kinds of food. There everyone goes into these little huts on the hill and starts pounding back the drinks from 4 p.m. onwards." Okay, now that’s starting to sound a bit more familiar. The aprés party scene is global after-all. The Ski Club of Great Britain publishes a quarterly magazine called Ski. Unlike the hard-core ‘zines of B.C. and Canada this one focuses on intermediate skiers much more than backcountry or extreme experts. Articles such as Celebrities Favourite Ski Spots (Kim Wilde loves St. Anton) and Beginner Boot Guides (how not to by a padded pedal bin) fill the pages and there are step by step guides to approaching steep slopes of 30 degrees or more. The gist of this is that the country is comprised of more beginners and intermediate skiers because of the lack of ski hills on hand. Outside of Scotland the only skiing regularly available is on plastic slopes. Consequently, skiing there is regarded as a bit of a la-di-da privileged sport because you have to go abroad to do it — not quite as sniffy as polo and fox hunting but hovering well above football all the same. The odds of Brits being introduced to skiing during school or as a child (when most people pick up the bug) decrease with class ranking because of the expense. Schools in England made an effort to subsidize skiing vacations through their budgets until the 1988 Education Act made that logistically impossible. But there is currently a market full of twenty and thirty somethings that have been working long enough in a prosperous economy that they can now afford to slide up a class sports-wise. And here comes another benefit of Whistler. The exchange rate (approx. $2.43 CND per pound sterling) is making a ski vacation in Whistler highly affordable. "A week in France can cost around 750 pounds, including accommodation, meals, afternoon tea and an evening meal," says Wells. Here, with the flight, it works out to about the same, depending on whether you get an Express card or whatever." There isn’t what you could call an out and out language barrier, just slight to dangerous subtle differences. One of the ski magazines promoting North America Ski USA is very careful to point out that a fanny pack is a bum bag and suspenders are braces, saving consternation at best. They lost something in the translation of the effects of a wipe out though, calling it a Yark Sale. Other notable differences are that Canadian green runs are European blues and blue trails here are European reds. Happily black diamonds are the same all over the world. Mr. Bloggs develops an instant attraction to Whistler once he gets here and gets past those minor language details. Around 94 per cent of British visitors intend to return to Whistler in the future and 25 per cent have been here before. Add to that the fact that the average Bloggs coming in from the UK has the highest expenditure rate of all groups (wads of dosh), is most likely to go out to dinner (especially for a curry), make side trips (have a go at anything) and take in a few rounds at the local clubs (ditto) and you have the kind of visitor Whistler is interested in accommodating. And if the current forecast increase in British skier visits — 22 per cent annually — holds steady, in just over 19 years all 750,000 Bloggs in Britain will be spending their skiing vacations in Whistler.

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