Whistler then and now 

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Looking at the people wandering through the village during the holidays you can't help but notice that a significant percentage of them are... different. Many didn't look like skiers or boarders. They looked more like summer visitors: a mix of races, ethnic backgrounds, multi-generational families. They were not the traditional descendents of northern-European stock who popularized skiing in the '60s and '70s and sustained it through snowboarding and the rebirth of skiing in the '90s.

Not that there's anything wrong with this. These people came, spent some time and money in Whistler, hopefully they enjoyed their stay and will return.

But it's not exactly the same as it used to be. And it will be our mistake if we maintain that everything is status quo and we don't make an effort to understand the differences that are taking place and have taken place both within and outside of our little ski resort.

To start, there are many more reasons for a non-skier/boarder to visit Whistler today than there were just five or six years ago:

• The highway, for instance, makes it much easier to get here. (It also makes it much easier to leave Whistler, which we should not overlook.);

• The Peak 2 Peak is an attraction in and of itself. You don't have to be a skier or boarder to appreciate the engineering;

• The whole Olympic/Medals/Celebration Plaza experience, which includes an extensive children's playground and an outdoor skating rink is available to anyone, of virtually any age or mobility level;

• The Whistler Presents: Holiday Experience in the conference centre;

• The Nordic centre in the Callaghan, although the numbers will never rival Whistler Blackcomb's, is drawing new visitors to the region and young families into another winter activity;

• The tube park, for fun and excitement.

On top of these activities that didn't exist a few years ago, most outdoor tour operators, spas, hotels and restaurants have polished their acts. They are more aware of non-skiers/boarders than they used to be and some are making concerted efforts to cater to this group.

But in the last five or six years the world around us has changed substantially too. At last month's first public meeting on the municipal budget — attended by less than 20 members of the public — Tourism Whistler President and CEO Barrett Fisher presented a graph of external factors, or macro-environment influences, over the last two decades juxtaposed with Whistler's winter room-night totals for the same period.

The graph showed how room nights climbed steadily between 1991-92 and 1996-97 — then skyrocketed for the next four winters, reaching an all-time high in 2000-01. This time coincided with the end of the longest period of sustained growth in American history and a period when Canadian GDP grew more than 30 per cent. Oil was less than $20 per barrel and one U.S. dollar bought $1.60 in Canada.

And then a variety of events started to re-shape the world around us: the tech bubble burst; the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected travel, security and the economy; war was launched in Afghanistan; recession hit the U.S.; nine airlines filed for bankruptcy in four years; there was the SARS outbreak; the Iraq war; American travellers were required to get passports; the Canadian dollar reached parity with the U.S. dollar; and oil hit $147 per barrel before dropping back below $100. And, of course, there was the global financial crisis of 2008 which most of the world is still recovering from.

During this period Whistler's winter room night totals went on a roller coaster ride, bottoming out in 2004-05, nearing the all-time peak in 2006-07, bumping up and down for the next few years until last winter when room nights equaled the all-time high of 2000-01 again, helped enormously by the fact we had snow and most of the rest of the continent did not.

The difference between 2000-01 and 2011-12, of course, is that the revenue per room night was far less than it was a decade earlier. And Whistler had more rooms and more people and businesses to support, in 2011-12 than it did in 2000-01.

As substantial as the external changes around us have been, and as much as Whistler has changed to attract a different type of winter visitor, what has also changed substantially in recent years is visitors' expectations. In tough economic times everyone demands good value. And if they don't feel they got it, or they can get better value elsewhere, they don't return.

Related, but slightly different, is the expectation that some sort of deal should be available. Few brands have survived the last five years by holding inflexibly to their list prices.

People also have more information to make a decision these days and can compare prices and data before deciding about a vacation destination, a restaurant meal or which run to ski.

Looked at it together — the visitor profiles, macro-environment influences, visitor expectations and what Whistler itself now has to offer — it's a very different world in 2013 from what it was just five or six years ago.

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