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Interior ski resorts bullish on 2010-2011 season

Skier numbers expected to rise as economy recovers



Ski resorts in the B.C. interior are expecting a good season, capitalizing on an economy that is slowly recovering as well as the exposure they received last year during the Olympics - some of it due to the Olympic aversion effect that prompted skiers and snowboarders to avoid Whistler before, during and after the Games.

Christopher Nicolson, the president of Tourism Sun Peaks, says resort visitation was up around seven per cent last year for both regional and destination markets. Most of the increase was before and during the Games, with visitor numbers levelling off in March and April.

"I don't know if we did better than we thought, but we benefited from the aversion," he told Pique on Tuesday. "From what I've learned we were probably the lead resort to benefit from that - partly because of our strategy to promote and to be supportive of the Olympics, and certainly because we did present Sun Peaks as an alternative for someone that didn't want to travel to the Lower Mainland."

Nicolson says Sun Peaks is expecting another increase in visitors this yearand anticipates numbers returning to where they were before the financial crisis hit in late 2007.

While visitors continued to ski at Sun Peaks, he said the average spend per visitor was down as guests were more budget-conscious than in the past.

In that sense, he says Whistler led the way when it came to discounting packages and aggressively courting the regional market. His resort followed suit, and came into this season with a variety of packages for every type of visitor and length of stay.

"Looking at the numbers through December and January, February, each month we're projecting growth. Obviously February and March are further away, and like most regional markets the actual market will be dictated by the snow conditions," he said.

"All the talk of La Niña has definitely motivated the marketplace. I can tell you at the ski shows in Vancouver and Seattle every second person that came up to me referenced La Niña."

The result is more early bookings, says Nicolson, as visitors make a leap of faith. "I think you'll see that optimism shared by most resorts," he said.

Nicolson attended the recent Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association conference where he says the experiences of last winter were generally shared by other ski resorts. However, he says the focus was on the future and the coming winter.

In terms of destination markets, Nicolson says Sun Peaks traditionally does well with Australia and New Zealand. However, he imagines European markets will decline as a result of the economy, higher air travel costs and the loss of charter flights into Calgary and Banff.

Nicolson says they divide their marketing budget evenly between regional and destination markets, but says the real focus is on the message.

"Our research year-in and year-out for 15 years suggests that when people come to Sun Peaks once they will return. For us the single biggest opportunity of the Olympics was the opportunity to bring newcomers to Sun Peaks, because of our high retention rates," Nicolson said.

"Our biggest challenge in the marketplace is to educate people on three things. The first is size: aside from Whistler Blackcomb we are the second largest in the province. And the next thing is we are second in quality - a number of people are surprised and don't expect the level of sophistication of the village and resort amenities, and all the activities going on.

"The last thing for the market to recognize is that Sun Peaks is the next-closest resort to Whistler out of Vancouver or Seattle."

Sun Peaks is promoting snow this year, with an early opening set for Nov. 20. They are also promoting a 10-day wine and skiing festival in January, which is a first for the resort.

For Big White and Silver Star, which are managed by the same company, the experience has been similar - although with a resident population over 150,000, those resorts are generally less dependent on destination visitors.

However, senior vice-president Michael J. Ballingall says the resorts did benefit from the aversion effect before the Games. During the Games, not so much.

"We saw reservations spike before and during the Games, but once the Games started we actually saw cancellations - people were having so much fun in Vancouver they didn't want to leave," he said.

The resorts did not allow cancellations, but gave people the opportunity to rebook their holidays for later in the season or for the coming ski season.

Coming into this season, Ballingall says it's a mixed bag. On one hand, he says the Vancouver market has been hit by the financial crisis but will likely be flat when it comes to visitor numbers. On the other, Westjet is now running direct flights from Toronto to Kelowna airport, "and we're seeing some significant growth out of there. Other than that, the U.K. is dismal, the U.S. is dismal. From Australia we're seeing a bump and we're doing better than last year."

As a private company, he says Big White and Silver Star don't do the regular projections. As well, he says there is a very healthy local market, and the number of season pass holders at both resorts has risen this year.

However, holding the attention of locals through the winter is a bit of a challenge.

"One thing you might not know is that we have 13 flights a week out of Kelowna heading to Mexico," he said. "Our pass holders might ski 20 or 30 times, and when spring break rolls around they leave for the sun."

Something else that makes Big White and Silver Star unique is the fact that much of the accommodation, food service and retail is managed by the resort rather than separate companies. Ballingall says that allows those resorts to better craft packages for guests - something he says guests have noticed.

"They know that we can look after them from airport to airport, and on our side we can easily understand any glitches with a holiday and get on it pretty quick," said Ballingall.

"We're the little boutique resort up the road, and we're a little bit different. You have to see it and experience it... and I think when you come to us you can relax more. We send ski school instructors to your condo to pick up your kids for ski school lessons, which is just one example - when you're smaller you can really do things like that. Our ski school runs carnivals every Thursday and Saturday. We have mascot races, bingo nights, Wii nights - Whistler lets the rest of the resort take care of the entertainment, but we have to be that entertainment. Your ski instructor from the day may be holding your kids' hand at the tube park or on the skating rink. It's more like a Club Med approach."

Both Nicolson and Ballingall are adamant that they're supportive of Whistler Blackcomb even though they are in competition, and believe that having a premiere ski resort in the province helps their cause.

For example, Ballingall says Whistler Blackcomb's marketing machine has paved the way for their own marketing programs. They've followed Whistler into several markets, from the U.K. to Mexico, understanding that people will come to ski Whistler but may visit their resorts on the same trip or a future trip to the province.

"We're proud to be the little brother," he said. "We never thought we could compete directly against Whistler just because of the resort's magnitude and size, but we do think we offer a different product."

Overall, he says that resorts need to work together and be supportive of one another, as the industry depends on bringing new skiers and boarders to the slopes.

"Right now growth can only come from stealing marketshare from some other place, that's the business of skiing until we can start teaching more people to ski, and more of our visible minorities to ski. The sport is not going to grow until we do that," he said. "For example, resorts are offering a Hispanic learn-to-ski program in California. In Ontario, there's a program that tries to get kids from different cultures where their parents didn't grow up skiing into the sport... and what they're finding is that the kids come back so enthusiastic that they're getting their parents to try it as well."

Ballingall believes the transition is already happening for second and third generation immigrants, although it's a slow process.

"I've been at the parking lots at Seymour, Grouse, Cypress and seen the second and third generation immigrants carrying their snowboards. Right now that's not my customer, but they will be in five years - and in 10 I hope they will be teaching their own kids to snowboard at our resort."

Opening day for Silver Star is scheduled for Nov. 27 and Big White for Dec. 4.



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