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Tourism Whistler facing host of challenges



"In the time I've been here we've faced some of the worst situations the tourism industry has seen in our lifetime, perhaps in 100 years."

In case anyone was uncertain about the economic climate the tourism industry - and by extension all of Whistler - is dealing with, Tourism Whistler (TW) Chair Roger Soane spelled it out at the opening of TW's annual general meeting last week.

Soane, the general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, arrived in town in September of 2008, about the time Lehman Brothers collapsed and people began to realize the recession was going to change things for all of us. Vacation and conference bookings started to implode shortly thereafter.

This past winter, as anyone who was in Whistler knows, was unusual: there was hyper activity during the Olympics in February and lower than normal traffic the rest of the time due to Olympic aversion. While room nights were up this past winter and last summer, in both instances revenue declined. The Peak 2 Peak is credited with boosting Whistler's profile as a summer destination, helping the resort achieve record room nights last year, but the forecast is for room nights to decline about 2.5 per cent this summer.

There are some hints at a recovery but Soane and Tourism Whistler President and CEO Barrett Fisher dispelled any thoughts of an early return to numbers like those seen three or four years ago.

"I'm very concerned, as chair of Tourism Whistler and as the operator of a large hotel," Soane said.

The United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, Mexico - virtually all of Whistler's destination markets - continue to face problems. The general economy is a big part of it but factors also include less favourable exchange rates, high unemployment and, in the case of Mexico, visa requirements. About the only market that's showing positive signs is Australia.

These problems, of course, are universal to the tourism industry now and probably for the next two or three years. In fact, Whistler may be better off than most, if the tremendous exposure through the Olympics (awareness in key overseas markets increased 12 to 25 points) can be turned into actual visits.

"Eighteen days of the best marketing you could ever see," Soane said. "Hopefully it will bear fruit."

Capitalizing on that exposure, in the current economic climate, is one of the challenges facing Whistler. And it will likely have to be done with fewer resources. Corporate sponsorship and government funding has accounted for about 10 per cent of Tourism Whistler's revenues in recent years. But some of that funding is disappearing, as the dropping of the "Telus" name from the Whistler Conference Centre illustrates.

Since the economic downturn began, most mountain resorts, including Whistler, have shifted their focus from the destination market to the regional market. A drop in room rates has corresponded. How to get out of that cycle and re-build the destination market - as the economy recovers - is the task. But as Soane said, if you talk to 12 different people about what to do you get 12 different answers.

"There's no harder job in Whistler right now than being president and CEO of Tourism Whistler," he said.

Fisher would like to see Tourism Whistler get out of the regional marketing business altogether, leaving it to Whistler Blackcomb, the hotels and the activity operators. Tourism Whistler could then focus on the destination markets.

That's part of an ongoing restructuring at Tourism Whistler that includes moving from event production to event solicitation; moving from brochure to online content; and moving from traditional media to social media. The organization is not abandoning traditional media or brochures but is streamlining where possible and adapting to the new market realities.

The accommodation sector, meanwhile, is desperate to rebuild room rates and increase bookings. That would explain the election of Westin General Manager Trevor Graham to the Director at Large position when there are already five elected directors on the TW board representing various types of accommodation. It reminds us that there are literally thousands of owners of condo-hotel units, each with a vote and each looking for a return on their unit.

But if you are part of the Four Seasons, the strategy for filling rooms is different than if you represent the Delta Village Suites. The approach used by a company managing properties on the Benchlands may be different than that used by The Legends at Creekside.

And therein lies one of the side-challenges facing Tourism Whistler in this tough economy: how to represent all members of the resort association and still present a clear image of Whistler.



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