Mountains, WRA partner to offer cheap flights for U.S. skiers Winter marketing campaign aimed south of the border By Andy Stonehouse Expect to hear even more American accents than usual in lift lines and restaurants this ski season if the community's two biggest advertising powers are successful in their winter 1998-99 marketing campaign. In one of their most aggressive moves yet, Whistler/Blackcomb and the Whistler Resort Association will be teaming together to help subsidize airfare costs for U.S. visitors from both the East and West Coasts. A new "air buy-down" program will enable Americans to purchase seats to fly directly from California to Vancouver for only $99 U.S., or $199 for direct flights from the eastern seaboard. Low-priced fares will be offered as part of ski and accommodation packages available at the resort, with local lodges and ground transportation companies also pitching in to cut the airfare costs. The plan will supplement increased marketing efforts in the U.K. and amongst Canadian skiers, who will likely be vacationing at home this year in light of the low dollar. Barrett Fisher, vice president of marketing and sales for the WRA, said the airfare subsidy is seen as one of the best ways of enticing even more Americans to visit the resort, even with total U.S. visits up almost 50 per cent last year. "Our research shows that the biggest block to most Americans is that the air costs are more expensive," she said. "Our routes are excellent, but when it comes to paying for airfare, Americans would rather pay less and fly to Denver than Vancouver." Vail has been subsidizing cheap airfares from major American cities to Denver or Eagle Airports for years. The special rates, which are being arranged through American Airlines and Canadian Airlines, will supplement a new round of media and direct mail marketing aimed specifically at skiers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Fisher said the expense of the subsidy will require some short-term costs for both marketing bodies and their local business partners, but said the new visitors will bring benefits for everyone. It's the first time the local mountains and the WRA have directly joined forces to sell the Whistler experience. David Perry, vice president of marketing for Whistler/Blackcomb, said he hopes the joint strategy pays off, although he said the ski company will continue to go after its own specific markets. "We're not going to duplicate any of the WRA's active areas, like ads in the ski magazines," Perry said. "We'll advertise in areas that are overlooked and neglected. We're putting our money in snowboarding publications plus niche publications like Freeze and Powder." Perry said the mountains agree that the U.S. will be Whistler's key growth market in the season to come, and said that calls for some sophisticated and co-ordinated efforts to reach the right potential visitors. "In California, we'll be mixing advertisements and some direct mail, but it will be centred around a tactical offer like last year's "Californians fly for free" deal," he said. Perry said Whistler/Blackcomb advertising will be aimed at skiers and boarders in Washington, California, and the Eastern U.S., with less of an emphasis on the American Midwest. In addition to U.S. markets, attention will also be paid to Southern Ontario and the U.K., as well as Australia, New Zealand and Germany. Traditionally one of Whistler's strongest markets, Japan, will now get less marketing attention, especially from the WRA. "Our efforts in Japan will amount to little more than maintenance," Fisher said. "We're concentrating on relationship building." The WRA's own print campaigns will continue to go after the skiing market, which tends to produce more high-end destination travellers than those in the boarding world. "Our research still shows that most destination visitors are still skiers... snowboarders only make up about 17 per cent," Fisher said. "There are a larger number of boarders coming from the Lower Mainland and Japan, but they're not our number one market." Fisher said the WRA is now anxiously awaiting word if the resort has received number-one ranking honours in the U.S. ski magazines, as that information will be applied to all campaigns.