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The forecast for 1996-97 After two years of record numbers skier visits declined last season. With more airline connections, another high-speed gondola and number 1 ratings from seven international magazines, how busy will Whistler be this winter? By Christopher Woodall Two years ago was the magic year. 1994 was the year there was no shoulder season once summer ended, the year the snow avalanched out of the skies as soon as September rolled into October. So much snow collided with the ground that both mountains opened — full-on, full-time and full mountain — by mid-November. Remember then? It was a ski season to beat all previous ski seasons. Two years hence and the crystal balls are out to see what the coming winter will bring. Of course everyone is hoping for great things. But this year there was no Ullr-sent mountain of snow that stayed to kick-off an early season launch. And Whistler has grown exponentially from two years ago: so much more retail; so many more hotel beds to fill. Smart retailers have anted-up their chances by modifying their operations, creating something unique that will bring the visitor into the shop. The World Cup races next month — skiing next week and snowboarding the week after — have a role to play, too, but the wise word in the village says the real impact won’t be felt until next ski season. Some retailers are looking at the coming ski season with trepidation. There are already some worried noises to be heard. Smaller, entrepreneur-owned boutiques think they are being squeezed out of Whistler sales opportunities because of large brand-name outfits that don't care a fig what they pay in rent. As long as it's the best possible village location and they can list "Whistler" alongside their locations in London, New York and Tokyo, the brand-name outlets can look at any losses here as simply the cost of world-wide image marketing. Heather Keithly of Durango Boutique, a western wear clothing store, is one of those concerned retailers. "We still have our fingers crossed," she says of the pending winter season. "We hope to have a good year, but with the number of new stores..." Having just one location — there were two — means fewer employees than last year. But Durango's long-term association with Whistler may also give it an edge over the newer stores this winter. "We're really focusing on local customer service to compete with the bigger stores," Keithly says. Over at Wild Willies Ski Club, offering a wider range of goods as well as better service is the strategy to keep the flow of customers coming. "We're definitely looking to increase business," says Tony Asher of Wild Willies. "The new shapes in skis have rekindled people's interest and is getting many newcomers into the sport as well." The ski store hasn't sat back waiting for customers to stroll in, but has raised awareness of its business by advertising directly to its core customer base: Whistlerites and the Vancouver crowd. Tapping into what customers want is important for any business. Wild Willies has seen this in the increasingly sophisticated demands for ski boot fitting. The shop has added a skier analysis system, including new foot bed measuring devices, and continues to retain Ernie Tysowski — an editor of Ski Canada magazine and a ski writer for the Vancouver Sun newspaper — as chief technician. Other businesses know that today's skier/snowboarder wants more than big snow. Satellite activities can seduce a visitor as much as number-1 ski conditions. Glacier Coach Lines thinks it has a winner in a program that does the opposite of the usual bus excursion. Instead of a bus tour from Vancouver carting sightseers to Whistler before returning to the big smog by the sea, Glacier takes people from Whistler down to Vancouver for a night on the town. "It's a great idea for people looking for a day off from skiing to rest their legs," says salesperson Carrie Hall. Glacier pioneered the tour last year as an experiment and looks for it to increase over-all business this winter. "It was really popular with British visitors," Hall says. The busier everyone in Whistler is, the better they like it at Roseway Travel. "This year is going to be a big year for us," says the always cheerful Layna Mawson. The more business everyone gets during the ski season, Mawson reasons, means they'll have that much more money to spend — and a craving to get away from the madness — by springtime. On the hotel side of things, this winter appears to be one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that the resort as a whole should attract more room bookings than in the past. The bad news — if that's what it is — is that hotels individually may be less full than in the past because there are so many more rooms available. Alan Rice of Whistler Chalets echoes a lot of hoteliers' predictions when he says pre-Christmas bookings have been a little slower than usual. "But we expect to have a pretty good winter," he says. It all comes down to a split in the type of visitor. Regional visitors — the Vancouver-area mob and the border hoppers from Washington state — still make up the largest percentage of the total visitor count. On the other hand, destination visitors — anyone coming from elsewhere in Canada, the United States or further afield — stay longer and spend more money. Another factor is that regional visitors are soonest here, but won't start zooming up the highway until snow conditions are perfect. It's that "wait and see" attitude that has retarded the booking frenzy at this time of year. "We're a little slower out of the gate this year" says Barrett Fisher, marketing director at the Whistler Resort Association. The association acts as a clearing house for incoming tour packages and reservations for the resort's hotels. Over-all business is down 10-12 per cent from last year, but the average dollar value of a reservation is up 37 per cent, Fisher says, pointing to lower regional bookings, but more bookings from long-distance travellers. "Visitors from Washington and Vancouver are waiting to see what'll happen with the ski season," Fisher says. All the hotel construction — and the vast increase in rooms available — in Whistler means never having to say "I'm sorry, we're full." "It's a selling feature," Fisher says. Because tour companies can be encouraged to book blocks of rooms instead of being turned away, new markets can be explored. And of course the more markets Whistler taps into, the less dependence there is on the old reliables — Japan and the Western U.S. This ski season, for example, there are 3,500 "units on inventory," compared to 2,900 units just two years ago. By the end of 1998 there will be an additional 2,000 units, although not all of those are destined for the rental pool. "We are continuing to see an increase in room nights generated, but the challenge is to maintain occupancy levels in individual hotels," Fisher says. Hotel forecasts are encouraging. Room nights were up 30 per cent this November from the same time last year. As for the rest of the winter, it's expected that room bookings will be up 6 per cent in December, up 17 per cent in January, up 4 per cent in February, up 3 per cent in March and up 20 per cent in April. The smaller percentage increases during high season months indicate hotels are at or near capacity anyway. Filling the shoulder seasons is key. "The early season is not easy to sell to Vancouver because people have Christmas shopping and other things on their mind," Fisher explains. The World Cup races should change that for regional visitors. "It's a reason to attract people to Whistler for the excitement of a World Cup downhill," the WRA marketing queenpin says. But the effects of that likely won’t be felt until next year and subsequent years. "We don't anticipate seeing a big increase in numbers for year one," Fisher says. National and international TV exposure of the World Cup at Whistler will catch the attention of more tour agency customers eager to get here by year two and onward. "Ten years of World Cup races is definitely the coup of coups," Fisher says. Whistler's late start in organizing the international ski race — final approvals were only in place two months ago — will also mean less commercial impact right away. "Once we have a strong World Cup year under our belts, a larger number of people will be interested in taking the World Cup into account," Fisher predicts. Certainly the world-wide tour agency community is titillated. "When we tell them about the World Cup, they get excited because it gives them a hook to sell Whistler," Fisher explains. Of more immediate impact may be the Open Skies airline policy in North America. It’s a fabulous opportunity for the resort, Fisher adds. Three years ago San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago were the only major American cities with non-stop flights to Vancouver. Now the number of cities connected by direct flights has thermometered up 10-fold to include Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver, Cincinnati, New York, San Diego, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix and Detroit. Open Skies created some new direct flights between Vancouver and American cities last winter, but detailed marketing strategies weren’t in place for Whistler to take full advantage of the new connections. This winter there are not only more flights, but more marketing efforts co-ordinated with those flights. "Direct flights are the key. Most skiers don't want to stop two or three times to get here," Fisher explains. International access to Japan and the rest of Asia has always been excellent Fisher says, but now tourists from Germany, Mexico and Brazil can get here easily, too — although financially-troubled Canadian Airlines could affect Whistler vis-a-vis Germany. "They were a big partner with us in the German market, but in early fall they cancelled their non-stop flights," Fisher says. Air Canada and Lufthansa have picked up the slack on that, but there are now only seven direct flights — down from 14 — between Germany and Vancouver. But working with Canadian Airlines doesn't mean the WRA's marketing eggs are all on the aircraft with flamed-out engines. "They have been a strong partner, but with any program, we must have a balance of markets and partners," Fisher explains, noting that the WRA also works with Air Canada, American Airlines, Northwest Air and others, depending where each has a particular strength in direct flights. Higher than the skies, however, are the stars. Movie and TV stars, that is. The third party endorsements of the rich and famous add to Whistler mania in mysterious, but definite ways, Fisher says. "When you have high profile celebrities seen at the resort, it generates excitement about the resort, especially when those 'sightings' are reported in People magazine or on Entertainment Tonight," Fisher explains. Little by little, as people come to recognize Whistler as a place where famous people go, the resort becomes less of a place that happens to have great skiing, and more of an icon —like Kleenex, Coke, or Jell-O — that represents something inherently excellent. And that's good for business.