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Feature - Old growth

Tapping into our elders’ wisdom to keep the ski industry and Whistler community alive



So, the numbers were disappointing. All winter long, Whistler-Blackcomb execs, Tourism Whistler staff and local business owners were huddling over spreadsheets and balances, worrying about the sag in skier visits. What’s fast becoming the usual suspects was blamed: the loonie’s brave stand against the greenback, a war in Iraq, a nesting instinct that surfaces whenever terrorists are about. Band-aid solutions were thought up: discount vouchers, free ski weeks, targeted marketing drives, bargain room rates. No one really dared to dig around in the wound, to ask the harder questions. Like, maybe it’s Whistler. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.

The facts are hard to come by, but according to the Canadian Ski Council, the facts are these: the Canadian skier is becoming rarer, older and richer. Foreign skiers are keeping the industry alive. Prices are increasing. The overall number of skiers is not. We’re fighting a custody battle with other ski resorts, not to mention the lure of all-you-can-eat cruises, Disney vacations, and genealogy tours. The key demographic sustaining the ski industry is the baby boomers – the 40-58 year olds, who at that magic date of 2010 will be making a mass exodus from the work place.

What this means is a game of speculation. It does seem to indicate that maybe those "sustainability" folk are on the money when they tell us that there is no such thing as unlimited growth. It suggests that to put bodies in the beds and on the boards of Whistler, we might need to turn our attention to the under 21 year olds. Almost as numerous as the boomers, the echo ranks have swollen slightly in the snowsports game, but the places enjoying that swelling are the fringe hills, the low key smaller surviving ski areas. Dare I say it, the places with character? Whistler might need an extreme makeover to attract these kids. Or at the very least some budget accommodations.

It also suggests that we need to bear in mind the changing needs of the boomers, who are starting to drift away from skiing, to cottages, to home renovations, to elixir-of-youth retreats. The boomers are integral to sustaining the ski industry – prices have increased in line with their promotions and salaries, they’re introducing their families to the sport, and they typically are the big-spenders that keep all the resort’s cogs spinning happily. Not only that, but as they retire and pack the sprogs off to university and independence, they’ll start to come outside peak holiday periods, and stabilize the non-peak periods with steady business.

But, how do we keep the boomers coming, as their knees go, as their lenses change shape so the flat light freaks them out, as they retire and become more price-sensitive?