To many people, including week a large number in Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York, the quest to host the Olympic Games is an all-or-nothing competition. To the winner fall opportunities and riches that the losers can only dream of, and which only become available every four years.
Whistler, with Vancouver, is fortunate to be part of that select group of cities and towns chosen to host an Olympic Games. That honour brings a number of opportunities. But making the most of those opportunities requires some specific planning. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
But before Vancouver and Whistler get their opportunity on the world stage, Torino and the Piedmont region of Italy will host the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Piedmont region sought the Olympics because the Italian auto industry, based in Torino, has been in decline for years and a new economic focus was needed. With a beautiful and varied natural environment, great food and wine, and thousands of years of history, tourism was an obvious choice. The Olympics were intended to help tell the world about Piedmont and all that it offers.
That message will be relayed through thousands of hours of television coverage, numerous written stories and images published around the world next February. But the message, and the subsequent benefits in the form of tourism, likely wont be as strong as they could have been. Its a matter of details.
Montagne DOC is the equivalent of Tourism Whistler and the chamber of commerce for the entire region west of Torino. It represents 95 municipalities, including the six towns in the Alps that will host Olympic events: Bardonecchia, Sauze dOulx, Sestriere, Pragelato and Cesana-San Sicario. That the Olympic events are spread through six towns plus the ice events in Torino is part of the reason the Games may not have quite the impact some were expecting. As a Montagne DOC representative explained last month, during the bidding phase the towns each thought hosting an Olympic event would be a big boost for them. Now they are starting to realize that television viewers arent going to remember six different towns; it is the whole Piedmont region that will be remembered.
Similarly, local businesses in Sestriere and elsewhere initially saw the Games as a huge windfall. But as the people from Park City, and others, have told us, visitor numbers usually drop off the winter that a town is hosting the Olympics, because people think it will be crazy busy. It is, but only during the 16 days of the Games. The rest of the winter is a challenge to maintain normal tourist numbers.
The value of hosting the Games, as the Park City people have also explained, is that in subsequent years the visitor numbers are significantly higher than they were prior to hosting the Olympics. But that doesnt help individual businesses during the Olympic year. In Sestriere there is some grumbling from business owners about bookings for next winter being down. Montagne DOC is trying to convince them to take a long-term view of the Olympics and their benefits.
Condo owners in Sestriere, like those before them in Park City, are also learning this Olympic lesson. While they may be able to rent their units for above-normal prices during the Games, they ignore the fact that overall visitation is down during the winter of the Olympics. The return on their unit for the whole season could be well below average. And as Park City learned with dozens of empty houses and condos during the 2002 Olympics, there is a limit to what people will pay to be part of the Games.
In the case of Montagne DOC, which is the main booking agent for accommodation, they have another problem: TOROC. The Torino organizing committee has told Montagne DOC not to release rooms to tour operators until TOROC has decided how many rooms it needs for the Olympic family. But nine months prior to the Games, TOROC still hadnt decided how much accommodation it needed. As a result, tour operators have taken to knocking on the doors of individual condos trying to secure rooms.
Condo owners should also keep in mind that spectator enthusiasm and numbers for some of winter Olympic sports may be higher at the Torino Games than at the 2010 Olympics. There are several major cities and several million people living within driving distance of Torino and the southern Alps. The history and culture of most Winter Olympic sports also have their roots in Europe. So the Scandinavians, for instance, who are crazy about cross-country skiing, or the Dutch who love speed skating, are expected to flock to the 2006 Olympics, many of them in cars. Its a bigger commitment for them to come to Vancouver and Whistler in 2010.
One of the obvious lessons for Whistler businesses and condo owners is to take a long-term view of the Olympics. But we also need to focus on specific strategies, rather than assume that just because we are hosting the Games the benefits will role in.