Prior to Christmas, an English family flew from the U.K. to Seattle, rented a car there and drove to Whistler. After 13 or 14 hours of travel they arrived, only to find that there was no one around to check them into their hotel. They ended up sleeping in the lobby that night.
The problems with WhistlerÕs strata-titled hotels and multiple property managers in the same building have been well documented, and in fact that was one of the main topics at a special Tourism Whistler meeting about three years ago. The situation has gotten better Ð thereÕs now a company in town that provides front desk service for condo-hotels 24 hours a day Ð but thereÕs still room for improvement.
But itÕs not just hotel check in. ThereÕs the shop employee who doesnÕt have proper training, or may be the only employee trying to deal with eight customers at once. ThereÕs the machine thatÕs out of order, and no matter how many times you come back to use it itÕs not fixed.
These are the type of problems WhistlerÕs business leaders have made special efforts to address in the last 12 months, following consecutive years of declining visitor numbers. As Tourism Whistler board chair Rick Clare told Pique last month: "The last two years are not an anomaly, this is the reality. We canÕt blame everything on September 11 th and a higher dollar. The problem is that we havenÕt kept our service standards up with the pricing of our product."
Last summer Tourism Whistler announced its "value" campaign, which included lower prices and discount packages for early bookings. Whistler-Blackcomb got on board with a variety of pass options, particularly for regional skiers and boarders, at reduced prices. But despite these efforts, and a record week between Christmas and New YearÕs, Whistler has a ways to go to get back to the numbers of four years ago. In fact, much has changed in the first few years of the new millennium.
Statistics Canada recently released numbers that show total international tourism fell 1.2 per cent in 2003. Most of the reasons for tourismÕs global decline are well known: 9/11, travel fears, SARS etc.
Locally, the situation is mixed. The Christmas period was good but the early bookings for Altitude, the annual gay and lesbian ski week in February, are down. Organizers cite costs and increasing competition for the gay travel market as reasons for the decline. Bookings for the gay ski week in Aspen are similarly slower than in previous years. The worldÕs largest gay cruise is competition for both gay ski weeks.
As the gay market illustrates, the competition for vactionersÕ dollars Ð not just skiersÕ dollars Ð is increasing, particularly in British Columbia with the government encouraging expansion of resorts. Competition is not a bad thing; it should lead to increased levels of service and value. But everyone in Whistler has to understand that we are in a competitive business. What was good enough last year may not be good enough this year.
One of the factors in people choosing to go to one mountain resort over another is ease of access, and for the foreseeable future getting to Whistler may not be as easy as getting to some other resort areas. Highway construction will continue for the next four or five years, which will mean delays and increased travel time for much of the year. Passenger train travel to Whistler wonÕt start until the spring of 2006 and scheduled commercial or charter flights into the Pemberton Airport, or any other regional airport, are still at the discussion stage.
Add to this snowfall accumulations that make this January look like November and a tropical monsoon in the middle of the FIS Snowboard World Championships, the biggest snow event Whistler will hold prior to the Olympics, and itÕs easy to be discouraged.
But there is plenty of room for optimism, too. The provincial economy is growing; the 2010 Olympics are on the horizon; Whistler is still much more of a year-round destination than most B.C. mountain resorts; and most of WhistlerÕs problems are solvable. But it starts with everyone in Whistler Ð including landlords, ski bums and construction workers Ð realizing that we are in this together and acknowledging that the tourism landscape has changed in the 21st century.