Maui is a lot like B.C., only considerably warmer. Both regions are blessed with spectacular scenery and an environment focused on outdoor recreation and adventure. And the problems the Hawaiian island faces are remarkably similar to B.C.’s, and specifically Whistler’s. A constant struggle to get and keep hospitality workers, a lack of affordable housing, and a high cost of living are covered just as much in their newspapers as in ours.
Hawaii’s tourism authority can tell you that Canadians, and in particular, British Columbians, love Maui. They can tell you that Canadian travel to Hawaii increased 9.1 per cent in October, 2005 over the same month in 2004 the largest sector of increase. And that Canadians spent $161.2 million in Maui in 2005. They can tell you that Canadians spend an average of $137 per day in Hawaii and $1,814 per trip. They know how many visitors arrive by air and how many by sea, how long they stay and where they stay. They can tell you picayune details like the percentage of female travellers that rank express check-in in a hotel as more important (99 per cent) than security measures (88 per cent). They know how many people travel in groups and in what size of groups, how many are visiting for the first time and how many are coming back for a second, third, or the likeliest of all, their fourth trip.
But the most important piece of information? Hawaii’s tourism authority shares these statistics. With anyone. All of it is on their website, available to anyone who can boot up a computer. No shushing from communications hacks about having to send positive messages or referring to occupancy rates as room nights. There it is, the good and the bad, in their annual visitor research report.
Now. Try asking similar questions of Whistler, either through its marketing arm, Tourism Whistler, or the municipality. Dollars to donuts you will be referred from one to the other and they will cc each other about what you are asking. You want to know about occupancy rates? Sorry, we don’t release those numbers, only percentages, says Tourism Whistler. Those numbers can be found in the municipality’s community monitoring reports. But the most recent report posted on the muni’s site is for 2003-04. Try asking how much hotels contribute to the local economy? Sorry, can’t do. Yes, they know where visitors come from, but how long do they stay here, how much they spend, whether it’s their first time or fourth time. Nada. No data.
At a recent Women of Whistler meeting, a women’s business network that meets once a month to knosh and commiserate, one aspiring business owner got up to remark how difficult it is to start up a business in Whistler because there is no data available to back up a business plan to take to a bank. No kidding.
Not keeping data and not sharing statistics not only restricts growth, but contributes to the circling the wagons mentality that pervades Whistler’s top business echelon. And unfortunately that mentality has insinuated itself down through all business levels. Trying to pull together a story this week about how hoteliers and retailers fared in acquiring staff for the winter season I consistently was met with cautions about sending “positive messages” and caveats about what was on and off the record. Fortunately some were willing to talk.
A better approach to marketing Whistler from within would be to cultivate an open communications approach: in that statistics should not only be kept but available. If numbers are down rather than pretending they don’t exist, spin it into a positive message by providing a plan of how things will improve. Maybe that’s the issue. Maybe there is no plan.
Contrary to what many may think, Whistler is not a bubble in which we can all float along, thinking that what others can’t see or hear will protect the status quo. Neither should it be an island unto itself, peevishly hiding numbers when its bread and butter is based on numbers: who’s arriving, who’s checking out, who stayed and who left in a huff. Whistler could learn a lot from how other islands attract visitors and businesses, how they get them to stay and return again and again and again.