Amid the ongoing crises in Egypt, Syria, Spain, Greece and any number of other places in the world, Whistler — once again — is sitting pretty. We have been blessed with early-season snow (a base of 180 cm or 71 inches as of Wednesday morning), the foundation of the winter economy, while many other ski areas are thirsting for the white stuff.
Vail had an 18-inch base and two per cent of its terrain was open Wednesday. That was typical of Colorado ski areas this week. California ski areas are a little better off.
This is the second winter in a row that Whistler has started the season as a "have snow" ski resort while many other ski areas in North America have not. Two years in a row doesn't constitute a pattern or a trend for weather forecasters, but it does in the minds of skiers. And anecdotal evidence suggests skiers and snowboarders are starting to fill Whistler hotel rooms, drawn by the snow that Whistler has and other ski areas are missing.
This is all positive for Whistler this winter. A good start to the season is important because many people make their minds up early; they decide whether a ski area is having a good winter or not and they turn their minds to skiing and snowboarding, or else they spend the winter anticipating spring and other activities. Numerous ski areas have found that conditions may be ideal in February but if there hasn't been any snow in December and January many people have made the mental shift past winter activities.
The question for Whistler is: is this going to be the new reality? Are we going to make long-term decisions based on the assumption that Whistler is going to have lots of snow early in the season while other ski areas do not? It sounds silly but a lot of our practices are based on assumptions and/or anecdotal evidence. Recall that years ago there was lots of talk and speculation about the "need" for another access lift on the south or west side of Whistler Mountain. The vast amount of terrain on that side of the mountain probably helped fuel the assumption. But when an analysis of the data — i.e. the hotel beds — was done it became clear the new access lift had to be out of the village. The Fitzsimmons Express and Garbanzo Express chairs are where they are because the village is where the bulk of visitors stay. It is obvious now but it wasn't until someone actually crunched the numbers.
So it is encouraging that the municipality, through the Economic Partnership Initiative, is spending $75,000 on a detailed assessment of economic activity across the Whistler economy. We don't understand our own economy as well as we should.
Most people are familiar with the data that is currently available: skier visits, room nights, occupancy levels, RevPAR, guest satisfaction surveys and so on. These data, and information collected for the Whistler2020 monitoring report, are helpful, but they don't tell the whole story.
The new study will include value added revenues, tax revenues and employment levels of nine specific sectors in the Whistler economy, including retail trade, accommodation, food & beverage, construction etc.
Getting information about tax revenues, by sector, from senior levels of government should be automatic. The fact that it isn't says an awful lot about Canadian tax systems. The consultants doing the study may be challenged to get Victoria and Ottawa to turn over that information in a timely manner. If the data does become available it would paint a much clearer picture of spending in Whistler. It would also put Whistler on a level playing field with many American towns that levy their own sales tax and can track spending by sector on a monthly basis.
Among the other things currently not quantified that would be valuable to know is some measure of the impact of day-trippers to Whistler.
A second "Benchmarking Addendum" study "will identify key economic trends, investments and economic planning initiatives currently or recently undertaken at select benchmark North American and European ski resort destinations..." The consultants will be asked to provide "competitive commentary on the initiatives as well as a brief review of the appropriateness of these initiatives for consideration within the Whistler context."
Knowing what other resorts are doing to stay competitive is as important as understanding the economic realities. The world around us has changed substantially in the last five years. The data we collect hasn't. The EPI study should go a long way toward providing more and better data for making decisions. It should also provide a snapshot of what our competitors are doing.
The only negative is that the final report will, like some other critical data, not be made public. The report is to be presented to the EPI committee. It will not be presented to council and there won't be any community open houses. The report will have more credibility, and should create greater understanding, if the results are available to all.