Intrawest anticipating slow start to season 

Mountains won’t be up to full staff until Dec. 20

Intrawest does not plan on fully staffing its operations until late December in an effort to keep costs down in an uncertain market.

"Normally we would be fully staffed by the U.S. Thanksgiving (Nov 22)," said Dan Jarvis, Intrawest’s executive vice-president and chief financial officer.

"We see December 20 th as when we will bring on most of our seasonal labour.

"We are trying to keep staffing very tight until we get close to the Christmas season."

The move, euphemistically called resort maximization, "will put our resources in the periods of the year where we really make money and not fritter away those resources in periods of low demand," said Jarvis.

Speaking during a conference call with media and analysts this week to discuss Intrawest’s first quarter results, Jarvis said staffing levels were 10-20 per cent lower at Intrawest resorts than they were last year.

He said year-round staff and management were committed to filling in where necessary to make sure guest experience remained high, but that if staff were needed due to a higher than expected demand they would be brought on board.

"We have enough planning tools so we can react to a busy time," said Jarvis.

"We are confident that when the people are there we are going to have the staff. We have a franchise that we have to protect so we have to keep (guest experience) foremost in our minds."

Whistler Blackcomb has hired 200 fewer first year employees this year said Kirby Brown, director of employee experience for Whistler-Blackcomb. And all were told that their start dates would be staggered up to the start of the Christmas holidays.

"We told the entire group that if they had the ability to leave Whistler and return we would hold housing spots for them," said Brown.

"We had about 200 people who chose to do that, to go do something different rather than hang out in town."

Anyone who chose to stay in town can use their ski pass as soon as the mountains open and enjoy all the discounts given to staff.

Whistler-Blackcomb is suffering due to the general recession and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

While many of the Intrawest resorts are in a good position to weather the storm because up to 85 per cent of their guests can drive to their destination, Whistler relies to a greater extent on customers arriving by air through Vancouver International Airport.

"Obviously people out there are concerned about Whistler, as we all are, and we are running well behind where we would like it to be," said Jarvis.

Intrawest bookings are about 80 per cent of where they were last year at this time.

"We were ready for a downturn," said Jarvis.

"But what nobody was ready for was Sept 11. And the impact that that has had on people’s willingness to travel in the air, that has really been the body-blow."

Intrawest closed at $28.85 (Canadian) on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Sept. 10. The stock dropped to $25.50 when the TSE reopened Sept. 13. At deadline it was listed at $ 23.05.

However there are bright spots on the horizon said Jarvis. Last week Whistler-Blackcomb had a couple of super busy days.

"We had a couple of very good days last week so we see some bright spots but we have a whole lot of work to get done," he said.

Some new aggressive marketing is planned for slow periods in the season and Intrawest is working with local hoteliers to sell attractive packages to get people to the resort, said Jarvis.

Pass sales are up 27 per cent across all Intrawest ski resorts this year. Individual figures for Whistler-Blackcomb are not available and it is likely the pass sales figure was affected by an aggressive price war in Colorado, where Intrawest’s Copper Mountain is located.

Intrawest’s first-quarter earnings for fiscal 2002 reflect the economic slump in just about every sector.

The company reported a net loss of $9.6 million US on a total revenues of $93.7 million for the quarter ending Sept. 30. Earnings shrank to $7.2 million form $15.5 million.

The decline, said Jarvis, was due mostly to expected lower real estate earnings. Most of the company’s earnings in real estate won’t come in until the third or fourth quarter.

One bright spot for Intrawest was the recent sale of 11 Kadenwood lots at Whistler, all priced over a million dollars.

The buyers were mostly from the Lower Mainland and B.C. said Jarvis.

"It seems to be a combination of recreational and second home buyers," he said.

"We are seeing people who are looking at building a place where they are going to spend quite a bit of time in Whistler. It is not just a weekend place."

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