While there were definitely gasps of surprise this week when news broke that Ironman was courting Penticton to take back the triathlon, there were also many sighs of relief.
This has become one of those love/hate relationships for the resort and the people who live and vacation here. Many have grown tired of the road closures and the rather entitled manner in which the race operates; from the garbage its athletes discard along the way, to the abandonment of supplies, to the cost to taxpayers, it's an event that doesn't quite fit the Whistler mould.
Penticton, which voted unanimously to bring back Ironman at its May 7 council meeting, hosted it from 1983 to 2012.
That's not to say that the resort didn't come out in spades to support it. Thousands of volunteer hours went into making it a success and accommodation providers, retailers and the restaurant industry stepped up every year to make the participants and their supporters feel welcome and hosted.
It also brought economic benefit to Whistler. After the 2017 event, an economic study produced by the Canadian Sport Tourism Association, using its Sports Tourism Economic Assessment Model, found that it had an $11.5-million impact in Whistler, up from $8.4 million in 2013.
The study also found that the event drew nearly 12,000 unique attendees from 33 countries, and the average party size was 4.2 people. The average length of stay was 5.2 nights; and 27 per cent of athletes came on a separate trip to train prior to the race, with an average stay of 4.2 nights.
As well, $8.8 million in visitor spending was directly attributable to the event; it provided an $8.2-million boost to the provincial gross domestic product and supported $15.6 million in economic activity across the province.
The event also supported 68 Whistler-area jobs, $3.5 million in wages and salaries, and paid $3 million in taxes across the country.
In each of the years it was here until last year, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) gave Ironman $250,000 in Resort Municipality Initiative funds—in 2018 it gave $282,000, with the increase due to the fact we paid the organization in U.S. funds. This broke down to: USD$100,000 for the host city fee; US$7,500 for the volunteer director; and contributions toward the traffic management plan, traffic engineers, and race-day operations to the tune of $125,000, and there is also roughly $57,000 worth of municipal services provided partially in kind.
But if early media reports are to be believed, Whistler was getting a deal. According to the Penticton Herald, the town's tentative agreement comes with a gross cost to the city of $663,000. It includes a $299,000 cash donation—$150,000 of which is the licensing fee—plus another $110,000 worth of in-kind services, such as space rentals, permits and policing. The Herald points out that an economic study conducted in 2004 estimated the local annual economic impact of Ironman at $12.5 million.
Whistler council is being tight-lipped about the news of the race's re-location with a meeting slated for Pique's press day, May 8. It's not known whether Ironman faces a penalty if it breaks its three-year contract with the resort, which goes until 2020.
For many, the jury remains out about what Ironman has done for Whistler. I think there can be little doubt that it put the resort on the map for a whole range of athletes that might not have come here otherwise, with many of them returning for vacations.
But it is true that it was held at the height of the summer season, when in all likelihood the resort would have been close to maximum capacity.
But I, for one, urge caution if we are to usher this partner out the door with nary a "thank you" or "good luck."
There might be a day in the not-so-distant future when we would love to host a multi-day event with thousands of participants.
Many respected economists have been predicting a recession as we move into 2020-21 and not much has happened to change that outlook. Indeed, worsening tensions between China, Canada and the U.S., confusion over Brexit in Europe, and other indicators should be making us cautious—is there a travel recession coming?
There are indications that U.S. travellers are becoming more price sensitive with many citing it as the No. 1 concern when booking. Yet airfares and hotels remain expensive, including those right here in Whistler.
And competition is fierce for the travel dollar, with new sparkly destinations such as Vietnam and other exotic locations tempting the traveller.
In 2008's recession, we saw more last-minute bookings, less money spent per holiday, and fewer long-haul travellers.
Could we be facing these challenges in the next few years?
Let's make sure we keep the lights on for events, conferences and all our other visitors.