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Pique n' your interest

Wake up and smell the demographics

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Money is killing this town.

I don’t mean in the spiritual sense, although you could make a pretty good case for that as well.

I’m talking about our local tourism economy, which is still down in the dumps these days. In our blind pursuit of the big bucks, customers with fat wallets, we’re letting the nickels and dimes slip through the cracks.

That’s a problem. Talk to most independent shop owners in Whistler and they’ll tell you that times are tough, that it’s a constant struggle to pay their high commercial rents and property taxes, and to keep their valued employees on the payroll. They can’t afford a resort that’s half-empty. Or half full if you happen to be an optimist.

The list of grievances is long. The post-9/11 economy is still soft and most sensible people are still watching what they spend. Highway construction is a pain in the ass, and could even be a deterrent for some visitors – we don’t really know, we can only guess. Village construction projects are an eyesore, an inconvenience and take away from the overall experience – jackhammers at 8 a.m. aren’t the kind of mountain memories we want people to go home with. At the same time our prices are still too high as a resort, and that’s driving a lot of good customers away.

But for some stupid reason this resort continues to market itself as a playground for wealthy, the miniscule half of one per cent of the market that can actually afford $3 million homes and $250 rounds of golf.

By doing so we put ourselves into competition with every other so-called exclusive resort in the world that’s stupid enough to compete for the same privileged sliver of the general population.

I agree that it’s impressive that some people can afford to blow $3 million on a glorified ski lodge, but is it good for Whistler in the long run if those people only spend a few weeks here a year? Aside from paying property taxes and throwing down the platinum on a few gourmet meals, what kind of contribution do they make to the everyday economy of Whistler?

The fact of the matter is that there just aren’t enough wealthy people out there to fill every hotel room, every restaurant seat and every shop EVERY weekend of the year, which is what it takes for most businesses to make money. The upper middle class was a good demographic for us, but one that doesn’t seem to have as much disposable income as it used.

We’ve aimed high and missed. It seems to me that the logical thing to do know would be to point our arrows at a larger target. To make money we need to fill this place, weekend after weekend, and to do that we have to make it affordable for everyone. Lets go for quantity rather than quality.

We saw a little of that this winter when, after a painfully slow start to the season (despite lots of snow), the mountains and accommodation sector finally started to offer more sales, discounts and package deals to customers. Hotels, restaurants and shops filled up overnight, putting employees back to work and giving owners a reason to pull their heads out of the oven.

Even our golf courses have realized the benefits of offering special rates for B.C. residents – it’s better to have 50 people on the course paying $100 a head than 25 people paying $200 if everyone buy balls, tees and beverages at the pro shop.

Maybe Whistler has been told that it’s number one so many times that we started to believe our own hype, and arrogantly assumed that we were above the economic realities of the day. Maybe we thought the owners of those $3 million chalets and a ringing endorsement by Condé Nast Traveller would bail us out.

Either way we were wrong, and we’re slowly waking up to that fact.

A few years ago middle class Americans used to laugh at our prices because of the favourable exchange rate. Now that our dollar is higher those same visitors are finally realizing that it’s actually kind of expensive here. Maybe even a little overpriced. I’ve heard the word "gouging" used from time to time.

Not that I blame local businesses for milking our guests at every turn, considering the obscene rents they’re paying. Nor can you blame the commercial landlords, because they believe they’re only charging what the market will bear. Sadly it’s going to take a few Going Out of Business signs and empty storefronts to change that.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it all started when it was decided to make Whistler into an exclusive resort. But while that decision was great for real estate, it wasn’t so good for most businesses.

I’ve never seen Bill Gates rip down the bike park, grab a hot dog at Zogs, and pick up some new tubes at Evolution or Fantayk Co before heading back up the lift. I’ve never seen Steve Jobs and Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia drop into the pipe, then head to the lodge for chili and banana bread. Queen Elizabeth II has yet to go canoeing down the River of Golden Dreams. Warren Buffet has not taken an ATV or snowmobile tour, or signed on with ZipTrek or Whistler Bungee.

For too long we’ve been neglecting our best customers. Adrenaline junkies with $5,000 in gear stowed in the back of their $2,000 trucks. Families that drove less than four hours to get here. Young people who are sick of beach vacations. Older people from the city who are looking for some fresh air, a nice view and a bit of an adventure. The people that have been coming here for 30 years and remember when the town was a haven for freewheeling ski bums and hippies.

We need to stop picking their pockets if we want to keep our best customers coming back. Sales and package deals are only a patch, a temporary fix until we can get a handle on making this place affordable again.

Let’s face it. Most visitors come here for the mountains, the recreation and our reputation as a fun place to be – none of which has anything to do with boutique stores, five star hotels, and $3 million ski chalets. Move Whistler to the middle of the prairies and nobody would come here.

Deep down I know that wealthy people come here for the same reasons that everyone else does. If they stop coming to Whistler because it means rubbing elbows with people who work hard for their money, then I don’t think we want them as customers in the first place.

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