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Heads of Whistler, Sydney business chambers talk shop

Chamber leaders discuss customer service, expanding working holiday visa program



Roughly 12,500 kilometres separate Whistler from Australia's largest city, the teeming metropolis of Sydney.

But, as Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin learned on a recent trip to the coastal hub, that physical distance belies the close relationship the two communities share.

"I was served down there a number of times by folks who, only 30 or 60 days previously, were here in Whistler," Litwin said. "It just kept happening again and again."

While Litwin was in Australia on vacation, he managed to fit in some time for business as well, brokering a meeting with former politician and current executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber, Patricia Forsythe.

"I think we have some shared issues that I wanted to chat a little bit about, and I also wanted to thank (Forsythe) face-to-face for about half of Whistler's workforce," Litwin said with a laugh.

At the top of the agenda was the bilateral youth mobility agreement, the working holiday visa program, that pumps thousands of young workers into both countries' respective labour streams. According to the most recent available data, 7,705 Canadians were granted holiday visas by the Australian government in the year ending June 30, 2015. A similar number of Australians, 7,780, were granted work visas in 2015, confirmed Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

"Young people in Australia and young people in Canada I think have similar outlooks and similar goals to see other places and it's a very important element in underpinning local economies as well," Forsythe said.

Given both Australia and Whistler's reliance on working holiday visas — the Chamber estimates the program provides between 20 and 30 per cent of the resort's workforce — Litwin is banking on joining forces with the Sydney chamber to advocate for its expansion.

"The opportunity I see with some of these Australian chamber networks — and to be clear, they are massive and they are powerful — is we get to now share an international story around how well a program is working for two countries," he said. "Now, how do we expand it and how do we amplify the opportunity?"

The importance of the program is all the more essential, Litwin said, given changes under the last Conservative government to Canada's temporary foreign worker stream, limiting the number of foreigners businesses can employ. A consistently controversial issue locally, Ottawa announced last week it would review the program following months of lobbying from Whistler businesses. A labour-market study conducted by the Chamber last summer found that 26 per cent of responding businesses employ temporary foreign workers.

But recent changes to Canada's visa application process paint a less rosy picture. Visas are no longer allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, with applicants now placed into a "pool" of candidates that some have claimed is overly competitive.

"The Canadian Working Holiday application process is now so competitive that receiving an invitation after 12 months on the waiting list still won't guarantee that the applicant will obtain a working holiday visa," Vicki Kenny, founder of employment firm International Working Holidays, told New Zealand news site Scoop last month.

Others have also complained about the overly complicated online application process.

"It took us a fair amount of day-in, day-out investigation on exactly how the information flows before we were able to start giving advice to clients," Whistler Immigration director Paul Girodo told Pique previously. "So if it takes us, who deal with this day in and day out, some time to make sure we know exactly how the information flows and where the issues are, how's somebody who's done it once or twice in their life going to do it?"

The Chamber's revamped customer service training initiative, the Whistler Experience program developed in partnership with the University of Victoria, also piqued Forsythe's interest in an age where cities across the globe are fighting tooth and nail for coveted tourist dollars.

"I was very interested in the program that the Whistler Chamber has commenced, which struck me as a positive contribution to the local community and one that members of the chamber would get significant value from," said Forsythe, who encouraged Litwin to submit the program for award consideration at the 2017 World Chambers Congress in Sydney.

"I might be having some conversations with the New South Wales Chamber, and I understand they'll be quite interested to learn more about how we're tackling customer service at a community level," added Litwin.

Meanwhile, the Whistler Chamber is hosting a Power Lunch called "The Millennial Movement — Key Trends Shaking up Travel and Tourism" on March 16 from noon to 1:30 p.m at the Westin.

Danielle Kristmanson of Origin Design and Communications will be the guest speaker.

Kristmanson will discuss the growing impact millennials have on the consumer mindset, and how businesses can adapt to stay relevant in the future.