Opinion » Editorial


Incremental growth the future



There's a feeling that now that the Olympics are over and the "recovery" is underway, things will get better, get back to the way they were. But as travel industry consultant Peter Yesawich told Tourism Whistler members in October, the tourism industry is not going to return to the status quo before the recession.

In fact, general consumer behaviour is changing rapidly.

"People are now programmed to wait for things to go on sale," Yesawich said.

Value and price are more important to more people than they used to be, and there are more tools available for consumers to find deals. It's more than comparing prices, which the Internet has let people do for several years. It's the third generation websites like groupon.com - which Google has reportedly offered $6 billion for - that provide group discounts to "members." All you have to do to become a member is enter your e-mail address.

TripAlertz is leading the group discount parade in the travel business, buying vacation packages in volume and selling them to members. The volume is so great that individual buyers have all kinds of flexibility in dates, level of accommodation and other variables.

The trend toward last-minute bookings, and away from advanced bookings, has played havoc with travel forecasts for several years now. This trend has been helped by Internet comparison shopping and by hotels, resorts and airlines that have looked at their forecasts and decided to offer deep discounts - often at the last minute - to fill seats or beds. It's been a downward spiral in prices during the recession that will be hard to get out of.

Whistler has seen this but some anecdotes in this week's Mountain News show how some American resorts are also struggling in this new era where value and price trump brand and loyalty.

In Steamboat Springs, one lodging agency is offering gas coupons of $50 and $100, depending on length of stay, to encourage skiers to make the drive to Steamboat.

In Aspen, the high end Little Nell hotel is offering free lift tickets and extra nights. "I think everybody is out there looking for a deal, even those that don't need a deal," said John Speers, general manager of the Little Nell.

At Lake Tahoe, one general manager said, "We are giving up revenue in order to get people to come back. We are recovering somewhat, but we are nowhere near where we were two or three years ago."

While value and price have become critical factors in people's decision making over the last three years, long-distance travel has become more difficult and annoying. Getting on an airplane, particularly if you intend to cross a North American border, now requires a little humility and a lot of patience - more than some people have.

But if the central question is what do we have to do to return to the "good times" of three or four years ago, the bulk of the answer lies to the south of us. The U.S. economy continues to stutter, showing no signs of a real recovery. In fact, while there may be no further banking crises the worst of the recession may still lie ahead. Unemployment in the U.S. remains stubbornly high and there's no indication Congress will be able to agree on steps to reduce it.

Meanwhile, many state and local governments are facing huge budget problems. With no assistance coming from the federal government they are being forced to make cuts, which are contributing to the unemployment problem.

This is an issue for smug Canadians and Whistlerites because so much of the Canadian economy is dependent on the U.S. market. If Americans aren't buying the automobiles and Blackberrys made in Ontario that affects the Ontario economy. That means Ontarians won't be coming to Whistler. That means local restaurant workers may be laid off in March rather than April.

Years ago Al Raine used to say that if British Columbia ever decided to compete head-to-head with the Colorado ski industry, it could. The terrain, the snow, the climate, the entrepreneurial skills, the expertise are all here. Despite the provincial government's challenge to the tourism industry to double in size by 2015, and the streamlining of regulations to encourage resort development, the obstacles to growing tourism and the ski business in B.C. are now becoming apparent.

The border is more of a barrier than it has ever been. The recession has decimated the market for recreational real estate. Patriotism and the economy are keeping Americans closer to home.

The first weekend of this post-Olympic ski season was very encouraging. But incremental growth, rather than large leaps that take us back to "the good old days," is likely to be the trend for the foreseeable future.



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