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‘It’s time to attack’

Concerted, co-ordinated marketing campaigns to focus on Whistler value

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Fairmont Chateau Whistler general manager Paul Tormey has just three pieces of advice for a resort looking to climb out of its current economic slump – "market, market, and market."

Tormey was one of the presenters at the Aug. 17 Tourism Whistler Member Session on Value Strategy held at the Telus Conference Centre. The meeting was well attended by local business owners and representatives from the municipality, Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations.

The meeting looked at current Tourism Whistler research on visitor and customer perception of value, a price comparison with Whistler’s key competitors, and common marketing strategies for the future.

"My level of disappointment, that is shared by everyone, is the volume of business," said Tormey. "I think our resort has been on the receiving end of many difficult world events, whether it’s 9/11, mad cow, SARS, wars, currency exchange rates, weather, pick whatever one you want.

"The rest of the world is going through those things too, we’re not alone, and I think we need to collect our efforts, resources, and passion to once again show we’re the best. We need to start acting like the best, price ourselves appropriately for the market we want to attract, and market, market, and market ourselves."

Tormey pointed to Tourism Whistler’s "Always Real" campaign, which is also being embraced by Whistler-Blackcomb.

"I believe the plan’s in place and the majority of collateral and marketing pieces are good, and that Tourism Whistler has done an excellent job in assembling research, a tremendous job on creative, and a tremendous job in identifying markets we should attack… now it’s time to attack. We’re not spending enough money or enough resources marketing, we’re not aggressive enough, or marketing often enough… it’s relatively easy to spend your way into being more competitive, but we have to start."

The research compiled by Tourism Whistler is mainly based on surveys of customers that were taken in summer, winter and online. The research identified strengths and weaknesses for the resort, as well as the perception of Whistler.

According to Ian Dunn, who presented Tourism Whistler’s research, the survey looked at the value equation "price, plus product, plus service."

Between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of visitors surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with the Whistler product, including accommodation, restaurants and mountains. The only product area where there was less satisfaction was in the variety of retail stores.

In terms of service, most respondents said the service was good and a majority of repeat visitors said the quality of service was improving. However, according to Dunn, there was a vocal minority among respondents that listed service as one of the reasons they would not return to Whistler.

"It’s only a small number, maybe 10 per cent, but they said service was among the reasons that they would not return to Whistler," said Dunn.

In terms of price, Dunn said the perception is that Whistler is too expensive. There is also a perception that Whistler is not a good place for families and that the resort is not easily accessible.

To determine whether the perception was based on reality, Tourism Whistler compared Whistler prices to other resorts. While the results of the comparison were inconclusive, the comparison showed that there was only $50 difference between a seven-day package deal for Whistler and a similar package at Sun Peaks.

"The comparison in inconclusive because it depended on where people were coming from, what time of year they booked their trip, what resorts you compare Whistler too – and generally we found that Whistler is less expensive than Vail and Aspen, but more expensive than Sun Peaks, Heavenly, Tahoe or Banff," said Dunn.

"When it comes to price there are areas we could improve on, and areas we’re already doing quite well."

Tormey believes that Whistler does offer good value, but the challenge is getting that message across through marketing and changing the perception in the market that Whistler is a resort for the rich and famous.

"Whistler has always been a great value, but we’ve got our perception out of whack somehow," he said. "Yes, lots of rich and famous people come here because they don’t get bothered like they do in Aspen and Vail, but there’s always a hotel, always a condo, always a restaurant and always an option that’s priced attractively to different levels of customers.

"Our job is making that public. We’re making it public now in different ways, and it’s already paying dividends. But we need to do it better."

According to Stuart Rempel, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Whistler-Blackcomb, and one of the presenters at the meeting, the issue of value is best tackled as a resort.

"Whistler-Blackcomb is offering a book-buy program where if you book by certain dates you get a free ski or snowboard lesson. We’ll be offering for 11 weeks this year five ski school and snowboard school programs for 50 per cent off. Basically, we’re using our products like ski school to provide… a better value overall," he said. "We’re also providing discounts on lift tickets, no matter what time of year it is, for people who commit early."

The need for strong value packages was driven home last winter when a January rainfall and warm spell melted the snow everywhere but the upper alpine.

"The (packages) we sold before the season kept the guests coming regardless of the weather – they came and they actually had a good time," Rempel said.

While Whistler businesses are working together more to create better value for guests, there is still more work to be done. Rempel says the first challenge is getting people here, but afterwards all of Whistler needs to work to ensure that they have a good experience, and leave with a good feeling.

"Part of that strategy is to extend co-operation between Tourism Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb, major hotels, tour operators, etcetera," he said. "We’ve already started in a way, but we want to extend that into the resort.

"I would say that there is optimism in this resort, that we’re not just going to sit around and accept our fate based on the value of the dollar changing – we have the power and ability, collectively as a resort, to do something about it."

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