The Sky’s no longer the limit By Bob Barnett Up until this week London, England was closer to Vancouver than New York City. That changed on Thursday, when Continental Airlines began direct flights between Vancouver and New York. The daily service, part of the first phase of the Open Skies agreement between the United States and Canada, means the more than 10 million people in the New York area are just six hours from Vancouver. That has tourism people in the Lower Mainland, Victoria and Whistler salivating. "This is just the best thing that could have happened to us," says Janet Hart, sales and marketing director of the Chateau Whistler. "Apparently we’re going to be number one in Snow Country Magazine again, and now the whole Eastern Seaboard can get here. It's no longer a marathon journey to get to Whistler from the Eastern Seaboard." The Open Skies agreement, reached in principle in December and signed in February, has so far been universally hailed and seen as a coup for Vancouver. Indeed, UBC commerce professor Michael Tretheway has said the deal may be the single most important economic breakthrough for Vancouver and B.C. in 15 years. The impact on Whistler won’t begin to be felt until next ski season. The timing of the agreement and the speed at which it was finalized left marketers little time to plan strategies that would take advantage of new flights to Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago and New York this summer, and Whistler’s summer traffic is still primarily regional anyway. But the groundwork is now being laid that will increase visitors from those areas next winter. The Whistler Resort Association will target four key sites for next winter — San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York, with some promotion in Phoenix, Minneapolis and the existing market in Los Angeles. "Open Skies is huge," says Barrett Fisher, the WRA's director of marketing. "Airline access is a key motivator for travel. When you can hop on a flight in New York and fly directly to Vancouver without any stop-overs or connections it's going to make it so much easier. "We've been fortunate to attract some of the New York market in the past but we expect a huge increase now that direct flights are coming." The WRA is working on a four-pronged marketing strategy for the 1995-96 seasons that will take advantage of Open Skies. For the ski season a co-operative program through the federally-funded Tourism Association of Western and Northern Canada is planned to promote ski areas in B.C. and Alberta, including Whistler, Silver Star, Big White, Sun Peaks, Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, Banff and Lake Louise. The program will target some of the cities with new flights to Vancouver and Calgary, including offering familiarization tours to tour operators, travel agents and media in those cities. A second ski marketing program, run under the new Canadian Tourism Commission's national umbrella, will likely promote some ski areas in Quebec, Banff/Lake Louise and Whistler alongside cities such as Victoria, Vancouver and Montreal. For next spring, summer and fall, Tourism B.C. is proposing a broad marketing plan for the whole province in some of the markets opened up by Open Skies. The WRA also plans on participating in that program. The fourth component is a soft adventure program to promote summer in Whistler. It will be done in co-operation with some soft adventure companies and other travel destinations. "We're working with the airlines, identifying the airlines by market, and finding ways we can most effectively work with them," Fisher says. The WRA sales team made two trips to Texas in April, to attend the Texas Ski Council bid meeting and the American Airlines Vacation Supermarket, which hosted 3,000 travel agents. Hart says CP Hotels has regional offices in Chicago and Texas and began increasing sales trips to those areas about a year ago. "We’ll certainly take advantage of WRA marketing trips to ski shows in New York and Texas," Hart says. After a record winter of nearly 1.8 million skier visits, just how many more people are expected to come to Whistler next winter? "It's too early to tell," says Fisher. "There's supposed to be an increase of 1.2 million seats coming into Vancouver, but we'll have to work with the airlines to see what percentage they fill and what we can do." The WRA is analyzing the potential skiers in each of the new markets now, but expects an increase in visitors next winter. While Vancouver International Airport will be handling at least 23 more scheduled cross-border flights a day this winter, the airport is still two hours away from Whistler. Meanwhile United Airlines flys right into Vail, Aspen, Hayden/Steamboat, Telluride, Gunnison/Crested Butte, Jackson Hole and Twin Falls/Sun Valley during the ski season. That will continue to make those resorts more attractive than Whistler for some American travellers, but Vancouver’s new connections should help boost the profile of all ski resorts in the province. And the YVR connections are not just with the United States. Vancouver already has more Asian connections than the Seattle-Tacoma airport and is closer to Asia than any other major North American city. The list of Vancouver-Asia flights that will start by the end of 1995 includes: o A Vancouver-Taipei-Kuala Lumpur service by Canadian Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. o A Vancouver-Manilla service Canadian is working on with Philippine Airlines, which will include a stop in Honolulu. o Canadian is talking with Vietnam Airlines about a Vancouver-Ho Chi Minh City service, with stops in either Taipei or Hong Kong. o Canadian is also working on a Vancouver-New Delhi service. As well, Canadian is looking at a Vancouver-Guangzhou, China service and Canadian and Air Canada are both applying to Transport Canada for the rights to a Vancouver-Jakarta route. All these flights aren’t necessarily going to mean more skiers at Whistler, but destination summer visitors are increasing every year, particularly from Japan. The Chateau’s Hart points out that the opening of Tokyo’s second international airport last winter has doubled the number of seats available between Vancouver and Tokyo, from 500 to 1,000 a day. "In the summer, most of those seats were going to the Rockies and then Niagra Falls," Hart says. "We couldn’t get any of those seats for Whistler. Now we can." Cruise ships booked a lot of the seats that flew into Vancouver from other North American cities in the summer. With roughly a 100 per cent increase in seats available to Vancouver, that should have an impact on Whistler's summer destination visitors. Hart adds the four designer golf courses in Whistler and Pemberton are beginning to be recognized, particularly with regard to group sales. She says a number of corporate and incentive groups who wanted to come to Whistler last summer couldn’t because there were no airline seats available. The lead time for group sales and conferences is anywhere from nine months to two years, so the Open Skies impact on conference business likely won’t be felt in Whistler until next spring. The only cloud on the horizon at this point is the potential bottleneck at Vancouver International Airport. Before the Open Skies agreement Vancouver International was expecting a three per cent increase in passengers, with roughly 2.46 million passengers travelling to and from the U.S. this year. With Open Skies the estimate is now 2.8 million. The new terminal at the airport, scheduled to open next June, will remove some of that congestion, although the new runway will not open until the fall of 1996. Customs facilities are also expected to be under severe pressure until the new terminal opens, but it's something airport and tourism officials can live with for the time being. After all, getting to Vancouver International is now just a single, non-stop flight, rather than a marathon.