Following the money 

RMOW commissions consultants for detailed economic study of resort

click to enlarge ECONOMic drivers
  • ECONOMic drivers

With a budget of $75,000, the municipality is commissioning a major study, with an aim to examine what's keeping the economic heart of Whistler pumping.

The idea is to look at the threats and challenges, and the opportunities facing Whistler in the ever-shifting world of tourism realities.

This comes as Vancouver research and strategic planning consultants Urban Futures released a study into visitor trends to British Columbia since 1998, which shows an overall decline.

The study, which looks at travel trends and factors influencing visits to B.C., found that the number of Americans visiting B.C. has declined by 36 per cent or 2.4 million visits since 1998.

Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher confirmed that the decline of U.S. visitors is happening in Whistler too.

"Over the past decade there's no doubt that we have seen a decline in our U.S. visitation, most pointedly from the long haul markets, but certainly from regional U.S. markets as well," she said.

"But then most recently, looking at 2012, we're starting to see that rebound, not in huge leaps at this point, but there are some positive signs.

"To a certain degree we're at the mercy of things that are out of our control — disposable income, consumer confidence, all of those sorts of things."

The new economic study is a first step to begin mitigating those factors beyond Whistler's control.

It begins with data collecting and then some soul-searching to figure out Whistler's place in this ever-changing world of global recessions, fluctuating currency exchange rates, cultural tourism, a decline in destination visitors, and all the other factors having big impacts on the local economy. Ultimately, the report will form the basis for potential economic development down the road. Or not, depending on what the case may be.

"Basically... the market and the world around us is not the same as it was," explained Councillor Jayson Faulkner, the council representative on the EPI committee. "Because it's changed as rapidly as it has, it's important to identify and have an idea of what those threats and opportunities are and what our strengths and weaknesses are relative to those. Those are big questions."

They're too big for the key organizations in Whistler to answer with the data at hand.

And so, the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) Committee, which is made up of top reps from Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler, the Chamber of Commerce and the Hotel Association of Whistler, brought together by the municipality, decided to issue a Request For Proposal (RFP) for consultants to do the work with a budget of $75,000.

That decision was not taken lightly, said Faulkner. "It was something that we took very seriously," he said. "We have a high degree of intolerance of wanting to spend money on outside consultants if we can avoid it and wanting to use as much in-house and in-community expertise as we can possibly find. But the challenge in this was that we don't have anyone or any organization that has the data that we're looking for. And it's really crucial data."

It's the data that will go a long way in forming the committee's future recommendations on how to grow Whistler's resort community economy, build confidence in the economy and encourage re-investment.

There is a wealth of information already in the community — room night numbers from Tourism Whistler, skier visits from Whistler Blackcomb, to name a few.

Still, the committee members are looking for answers to deeper questions, answers that consider Whistler as a whole.

"Really what we want to do is we want to build our competitive advantage," said Fisher. "We want to ensure that Whistler has compelling, desirable, leading edge products that motivate visitors to choose Whistler over other resort destinations."

The key, to some extent, lies within the data.

"You can make these things incredibly wide-ranging and then somewhat meaningless, or too narrow and somewhat meaningless," said Faulkner. "So part of this way trying to find a balance to getting to the salient, most crucial nub of what defines us as an economic entity."

Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO Dave Brownlie emphasized the importance of gathering the facts when the committee was first struck in September.

"We've got to be careful that we prioritize and put our resources in the right area and don't distribute them and try and do everything," said Brownlie. "If we try and do everything we may not accomplish anything, as opposed to focusing on those key drivers that are going to make a difference for us for the future.

"I think what's important in this whole thing is we get the facts on the table."

Six proposals were submitted to the municipality last week in response to the Request For Proposals (RFP) on Resort Community Economic Activity and Economic Sector Analysis.

In addition to the primary study, the consultants will also produce a "benchmarking addendum" overview, which will, according to the RFP:

"... identify key economic trends, investments and economic planning initiatives currently, or recently undertaken at select benchmark North American and European ski resort destinations providing competitive commentary on the initiatives as well as a brief review of the appropriateness of these initiatives for consideration within the Whistler context."

The contract will be awarded the week of December 3 to 7.

A draft report is to be delivered within 75 days of the signed contract with a final report due within 100 days.

Urban Futures, a tourism study released this week., states that the share of U.S. visitors travelling to B.C. by vehicle fell from 71 per cent of all U.S. trips to the province in 1998 to 62 per cent in 2011.

Non-U.S. international entries to B.C. have declined by eight per cent since 2008.

Provincially, the downward trends in travel have been echoed in hotel occupancy, with B.C.'s occupancy rate shrinking from 61.9 per cent in 1998 to 59.6 per cent in 2011.

Urban Futures' director Ryan Berlin noted most figures did not represent as steady decline, with some years actually seeing small increases in visitor numbers, but overall the trend was for fewer people.

He said the study used provincial statistics, was macro level and did not break for regions or specific locations within B.C.

"We didn't look at data specific to Whistler or any other city of community, and certainly in terms of long-term declines it could be that this isn't the case for everybody," Berlin said.

The reason for the decline has much to do with value and cost, he added.

"There are a lot of things conspiring to make it much more expensive for Americans to come up here, one has been the strengthening of the Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar and so every aspect of the trip is more expensive," Berlin said.

"On top of that, in the U.S. in the last 10 to 12 years their gasoline prices have increased fourfold, whereas ours have doubled. Gas prices are one of those things that people irrationally respond to, or over respond to."

Added to that was the doubling of the U.S. unemployment rate following the 2008 recession.

Berlin said he expected visitor numbers to plateau and turn around as people adjust their spending priorities.

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With files by Cathryn Atkinson

Speaking of RMOW, Tourism

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