It's the billion-dollar question: what's the fuel that stokes Whistler's economic engine to the tune of $1.27 billion in spending every year?
Extensive research over the last 10 months from the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) committee shows the winter destination visitor is critical to Whistler's success.
And while winter guests account for one million of 2.5 million annual resort visitors, those winter destination guests stay longer and spend more than twice as much as summer destination guests — a $350 average daily spend in winter compared to $160 in summer.
That magnitude, said Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO Dave Brownlie, was one of the interesting findings of the months-long research.
"People have it in the back of their mind maybe what some of the key drivers are but (it's) the magnitude of them," he said at the EPI open house on Wednesday, June 26.
"You talk about maybe going off and doing new things — diversity is a big topic in the community... and it becomes very clear that we need to leverage the infrastructure and resources that we have, we need to look at the things that are also driving and are important to the economy today and not forget about them."
That infrastructure includes more than 8,000 hotel beds — one of the largest inventories of hotel rooms compared to Whistler's closest competition.
In its research, Whistler was compared to six high profile destination resorts — Vail, Aspen/Snowmass, Breckenridge, Park City, Zermatt, and Ischgl. The next largest rentable bed base is Zermatt at approximately 7,300.
And that, according to Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher, is both Whistler's challenge and its opportunity.
"Whistler is large," she said during her presentation. "We are a very big engine, compared to other comparable resorts."
About 65 community members came out to hear the EPI committee's findings.
"I think it's great they're sharing this information," said Flora Ferraro who attended.
"I was surprised on a couple of things. I knew the destination market was big. I didn't realize it was that big."
She was also interested to see the impact of the local spend in the community. Permanent residents account for eight per cent of Whistler's spending, regional visitors 19 per cent and destination visitors 68 per cent.
The research also shows the contribution to the $1.27 billion GDP from different sectors. Arts, entertainment and recreation accounted for 12 per cent, food and beverage 15 per cent, accomodation nine per cent and retail 26 per cent.
"This is a great turnout," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "We've got a really committed and engaged community."
The committee's work, she said, will help form the rationale for future decisions.
"I have to emphasize that your input is critical," she told the crowd. "This research is the filter through which future decisions can be made."
While the EPI committee was formed in part to direct the spending of the $7 million Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) money from the province, it was also looking at the broader mandate of growing the resort economy and encouraging reinvestment.
It has narrowed its strategic directions to five key areas: support product re-investment and development; diversify resort products; grow markets; improve guest experience, and enhance key partnerships.
Among the actions the committee is considering are: expanding weather-independent attractions, expanding group and conference business and extending visitors stays by investing in winter animation programming.
"I think there's a lot of ideas and opportunities out there," said Brownlie.
"As a community we've got to figure out how we can all participate and step up and quite frankly support the things that we believe are going to drive the economic engine here.
"We as a community can't rely on the RMOW to do everything."
The EPI committee will consider feedback from the open house and the online questionnaire at www.whistler.ca.
It will then develop a series of key action opportunity recommendations for a 0-6 month timeframe, a two-year timeframe and a five-year timeframe.
Council is expecting a summary report in the early fall.