September 16, 2005 Features & Images » Feature Story

How can Whistler get its mojo back? 

There’s no magic bullet, but following Dr. Seuss’s advice may help

Whistler’s history over the last 15 years can be illustrated in a couple of quotes from Dr. Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go : "You won’t lag behind because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and soon take the lead. Wherever you fly you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest."

Sounds like an accurate description of the mood and success Whistler enjoyed between 1990 and 2000, but five years into the new millennium and the following verse may seem more appropriate: "… and when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping your self is not easily done."

Since 2000, we have become a society plagued by crisis. From Enron to WorldCom, from SARS to mad cow, and to the already heightened anxiety felt because of the constant threat of terrorist attacks on western targets. These factors leave many longing for a simpler time. Like Mike Myers’s famous character, Austin Powers, we would like to go back in time to recover our vitality, but we don’t have a time machine. Moreover, what has made us successful in the past may not make us successful in the future. It should be obvious that conventional practices are of little use in coping with or confronting the major issues that shape our current reality. Indeed, conventional methods may largely be to blame for many of our problems.

Whistler seems to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis. The shortcomings of a bad recovery strategy are usually painfully obvious, but only in hindsight, and even good strategies sometimes fail. Clearly, good planning and execution are of importance but what is obscure is the action plan. On what strategy should we be focused and what kind of leadership is required to turn strategy into results?

Something needs to emerge quickly as four consecutive years of declining tourism numbers have had many in Whistler wondering how we’re going to get our mojo back.

Emerging from crisis

The August issue of Fast Company magazine included an article entitled Brand Revivers that highlighted brands that have recently re-emerged after difficult circumstances. Their conclusion was this: "The only thing harder than developing a hot brand is turning around a once-popular one."

The Brand Revivers represented industries from fashion to hi-tech, including cool consumer brands like Vespa and Lacoste; some had been purchased by larger brands or were recovering from bankruptcy protection. In every example, change was initiated by focusing on passionate advocates of their brands. There were no magic bullets, just a lot of grass roots examples of people talking about their product. It was usually a viral, word-of-mouth initiative that proved to be the catalyst for turnaround. People telling the stories that set trends, and while keeping up with trends can be difficult, the alternative is not very appealing.

Brands are something that take time to develop; they aren’t created overnight. In an attempt to develop Whistler’s image and grow our brand, Tourism Whistler and Whistler/Blackcomb made the decision to work as a team and adopt the same look and feel throughout each other’s marketing campaigns. There is significant benefit to having one coherent message to revive our brand’s sagging fortunes.

Stuart Rempel, Senior VP of Marketing and Sales at Whistler-Blackcomb, knows a thing or two about creating successful brands. In an interview, he explained the strategy: "It’s important that we both take a leadership role to support the resort’s image and work together as a whole to market our brand through different types of communication. By pulling together the resort’s two largest advertisers, it’s not one plus one is two… It’s one plus one equals five. This is way more powerful and a key part of the overall brand strategy."

The power of teamwork

The collective approach taken by Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb in creating a one-two marketing punch is a sign that Whistler is headed towards a greater focus on teamwork. And according to Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher, it’s only one sign.

At its 2005 board retreat Tourism Whistler identified three strategic priorities: growing room nights; growing partnerships; and engaging members.

For years Tourism Whistler has partnered with organizations like Tourism B.C. the Canadian Tourism Commission, tour operators and airlines to get the most out of finite budgets, and is continuing to do so. "But we looked at how do we take it to the next level," Fisher said. "We have a couple of dozen hotels in Whistler that do marketing, how do we better utilize those partners?

"And we are using our partners and members in new segments: health and wellness, arts and culture, food and wine, and learning and education. Sports and recreation are always going to be big parts of Whistler, but we need to continue to diversify our tourism products. It’s best to do that through members and partners."

A new health and wellness committee, for example, is working on a theme week next year that will involve the local spas, health professionals, alternative health providers and others in the health and wellness field.

Getting individual businesses to work collectively for mutual benefit is one of the main ingredients in Whistler’s recovery strategy, according to business consultant and interim Chamber of Commerce President, Bernie Lalor-Morton.

" I think the struggle we have faced over the last few years has also made us realize how much we rely on each other for our success," said Lalor-Morton. "In the meetings I have been attending over the last few weeks, I have noticed a genuine recognition of the need to come together and work collectively rather that individually."

Part of that teamwork philosophy includes everyone on the team talking a good game. Lalor-Morton gave a hint of what’s required by adding: " I believe we need to regain our pride in ourselves and recognize the amazing product we have created together."

Research indicates that there is an unwarranted perception that the resort has become too expensive. Rempel echoes Lalor-Morton’s sentiments in addressing that assumption. "Part of the solution means saying we are an amazing value. We need to lead our conversations with benefits rather than costs and talk more about why a vacation here is so great, rather than how much it costs."

Like an athlete confidently holding the "number one" finger up in the air on the field of competition, Whistler needs to assume a more self-assured posture, and Rempel illustrates why a winning attitude is warranted. "The bottom line is we have the same assets we did five years ago. In fact, we’ve made the resort better with improved infrastructure and product mix. More importantly, we still have incredibly talented, animated, motivated, ambitious, smart, youthful people living here. They are the ones who will make things happen".

The customer is always right…

And conventional wisdom is (almost) always wrong.

Retail pioneer John Wanamaker is famous not only for inventing the department store, but for coming up with the all time most used service industry quote, "The customer is always right."

Many long time residents and business owners will admit that despite recent statistics that claim the contrary, Whistler has let its focus on the customer slip. A focus on improving service has been a hot topic in the resort for a few years and strategic plans have been created to address the issue, but recently the rhetoric has been turned up a notch. Before becoming the interim president of the Chamber of Commerce, Lalor-Morton chaired the 2001 Service Experience Committee that examined and made recommendations on service improvement in Whistler. The committee report (tabled in 2001) made some brilliant suggestions on what excellence in service would include and how it could be achieved. The recommendations included: "A Whistler Identity, the creation of an Information Centre/Employment Centre, Recognition and Awards, Whistler Service Certificate Training Program, Canadian Service Branding" and perhaps most importantly, "Support for Employers." The report suggested that, "these broad areas were identified as having the potential to impact the many service levels of the resort by creating a service culture within all businesses."

More recently, Lalor-Morton has been the chair of the Chamber’s Service Strategy Committee. When asked about what measures the committee suggested, she was quick to point to a few measures that could have serious impact.

"Some of the measures the Chamber has taken to support the business community include pursuing a service quality framework that we can bring to the business community. The program will allow businesses to embark on a quality journey where they will review and evaluate their business against a set of criteria. They will then determine a course of action for quality improvement. They will be guided through the process by experts in business development. We will be one of the first communities in Canada to implement a service quality initiative as a community."

Rempel also offered some insights into what Whistler-Blackcomb is doing to improve service immediately. "We are focusing on delivering exceptional value to our guests through significant investments in service. This winter we’ll be offering free mountain-top lessons for our guests as part of certain packages. We believe that our ski school can guide people to a better experience that will keep them coming back not just for lessons, but to the resort. It’s something I hope will be embraced at other resorts as well. We think that strategy will go a long way to retaining skiers in the sport. These aren’t just ski lessons; ski instructors have a bigger impact on the guest’s holiday than any other aspect of their experience."

Conventional wisdom tells us that when business is slow you should take out an ad and have a sale. That type of thinking might boost sales for a while but it’s no way to create long-term sustainable success for the resort. The aforementioned Wanamaker also observed that, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." The reality is that the marketing dollars we spend will result in a higher yield of visits. The difficulty is that we need to live up to the marketers’ message.

The July 26 th edition of the New York Times offered some hope for those bucking conventional wisdom when it featured a Martin Fackler story about Japanese car manufacturers raising prices while American manufacturers offered deep, "employee-pricing" discounts. According to the Times, Toyota "believes that customers will keep coming back if you offer them quality." That self-confidence reflects a company on top of its game. The Times article concluded that, "industry analysts suggest that the price-cutting by the Big Three has failed to erode the Japanese companies' customer base – an apparent affirmation of the Japanese companies' belief that buyers will choose quality and reputation over price."

The confidence to see ourselves as a premium brand and determination to stay the course is something Rempel believes is the key to getting our mojo back.

"It’s hard to see short-term benefits when you’re developing a brand. You need to be in it for the long term. If you want short-term results, you discount; but we will never be the cheapest so we prefer to focus on delivering excellent value. It’s a long-term vision for the brand."

Conventional wisdom would also suggest that market forces be left to shape the economic fate of the resort, but perhaps the time has come for government to take a more active role in our collective destiny. Government directly influences a community’s e-quotient, which measures factors such as its ability to attract new businesses, its ability to retain and sustain existing businesses, a skilled talent pool, and its ability to incubate new business start-ups. Rempel suggested that local and provincial government should be partners in the resort’s success. "We need help from the government, both local and provincial, to support the economic value local business brings and to re-invest in this place to maintain it as a premium product."

The hedgehog and the fox

Consider the hedgehog concept espoused by Jim Collins in "Good to Great; why some companies make the leap… and others don’t." Collins’s research is based on companies that had average shareholder return (good) and then underwent a transformation that led to a minimum of 6.9 times over performance of the market average for a minimum of 15 years (great).

The hedgehog concept is central to the companies’ turnaround. In the book, Collins explains it this way: "Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are scattered or diffused, moving on many levels. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple – indeed almost simplistic – hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance."

Companies that develop a hedgehog concept focus on three things: what they can be the best in the world at, what they are deeply passionate about, and what drives their economic engine.

As Collins explains, "A hedgehog concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial."

Luckily for Whistler, that distinction is abundantly clear. Tourism drives our economy and our mission is to be the best resort in the world. It’s simply assumed that the passion is innate, but maybe that passion needs to be reinvigorated.

The new realities of the tourism business

Crucial to Whistler’s economic recovery is the understanding that the rules of the game have changed. Tourism is a very different industry than it was five years ago; besides the fact the industry has been broadsided by wild currency fluctuations, international terrorism, freakish natural disasters and the threat of a global pandemic. The Internet has turned tourism and travel upside down, with pricing being driven down and expectations driven through the roof. Word of mouth marketing is no longer friends telling friends; it now travels globally instantly, offering every product, service, and experience a chance to be recognized in a flash. The Internet has levelled the playing field and turned every new brand into a potential global player.

Rempel understands the changing market. "What has changed is the context we are living in, and as a resort we need to adapt and respond to a hyper-competitive market. The resorts we stole market share from are gaining it back with aggressive marketing and deep discounts. We also have to understand that since September 2002, the price of a holiday here has increased 31 per cent just because of the exchange rate. We have to figure out how to adjust the product, price and service to remain competitive."

And while the rules have changed, the fundamentals of good business have not. One last quote from Wanamaker (this guy was prolific) sums up the part of the plan that delivers real returns: "A little more effort on the part of everybody to make the times better, and better times will surely come along."

That sentiment is shared by the new Chamber interim president as well when explaining what can be done to stimulate the resort economy.

"I think there are two things to look at.," said Lalor-Morton. "The business owners have been correct in challenging and looking at the bigger picture. Where are our guests coming from, where are we marketing, where are we having success, where have we shifted and what is the plan going forward? I think if they have been attending the Tourism Whistler value meetings over the summer they will have been pleased with what TW has been doing to date and where they are going.

"The second thing I believe business owners need to do is to take a hard look at their own businesses. Where do they need to shift? What is working and what is not? What do they have to let go of and where will their efforts best pay off? I know of many businesses that have been doing this over the past year. You cannot remain stagnant in your business, especially with the continuous change all around us."

Focusing on providing excellent service for our customers, maintaining appropriate pricing and working as a team are the keys to the long-term sustainable success of our resort. No matter how large or complex the issues may seem, the simple truth is that for business to turn around, it comes down to one employee serving one customer, one day at a time. It’s up to each and every one of us to assume a leadership role, to stoke the fire in our staff, in our colleagues and in our organizations, to ignite the passion and energy that made us great.

The last word on how to get our mojo back is best left to Dr. Seuss: "You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!"

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