In the weeks and months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Canadian ski industry wondered what to expect of the 2001-2002 season. Would the airline industry continue to downsize? Would the Americans and Europeans stay at home? Would the recession get worse, and if so, would people stay away?
With most resorts in Western Canada closing in April and May, ski operators are breathing a collective sigh of relief. For many, it was their best season in years.
"I wont have the final figures until May, but I think well likely have over 8 million skier visits this year," says Jimmy Spencer, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. The CWSAA is the representative body for ski areas and heli- and snowcat operation in British Columbia, Yukon Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
While he will have to wait until Whistler-Blackcombs operations on Whistler Mountain close on June 9 to make an accurate reporting of skier visits, Spencer is optimistic that western resorts are on track to break 8 million skier visits, if they havent already.
"Most of the operations Ive spoken to are saying that their number of visits are up 5 per cent or even 10 per cent, so theres a very good chance that well pass the 8 million mark," he says. "Were well ahead of the game compared to last year."
Meagre snowfalls last year were rough on a lot of resorts in Alberta and the Interior of B.C., and as a result the region posted just 7.6 million skier visits. The year before was a record season for western resorts with 8.2 million visitors. More than a quarter of those skier visits were logged at Whistler-Blackcomb.
While the season did get off to a slow start after the terrorist attacks and the collapse of Canada 3000, Spencer says the resorts compensated by stepping up their marketing campaigns to focus on the "rubber tire" traffic people who live within driving distance of mountain resorts.
"We had a few things working in our favour this year. One was the snow, because of unbelievable early season snow conditions, and great snow conditions through the season," says Spencer.
Big White and Silver Star had enough snow on the ground to start operations in October.
"Because everybody was worried about what might happen, the marketing departments really turned up the heat for the rubber tire traffic with promotions and advertising.
"There are no hard numbers but we did get a lot of traffic over the boarder this winter, and the international travel picked up as well. But the marketing guys really focused on local markets, the rubber tire crowd, and that went quite well."
Skier visits to Whistler-Blackcomb wont be revealed until Intrawest releases its annual report in the fall, but according to Christopher Nicolson, the public relations and communications manager for the mountains, it has turned into a great year.
"Its been fantastic, to sum it up with a single word," says Nicolson. "The first couple of months, November and December, were okay, but things picked up in the new year. March in particular was amazing, and the beginning of April was good as well.
"Its definitely beyond our expectations. There was a period of uncertainty where we didnt know what the consumers were going to do."
Like Spencer, Nicolson credits the above average snowfall and the efforts of the marketing department for their success this season.
"One aspect is how well Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler, and the hotels all pooled together this year, and an unprecedented co-operation in our marketing efforts and promotions," he says. "We pulled it together this season."
Another aspect is the success of the travel tools on the Whistler-Blackcomb Web site. "Internet travel and bookings certainly increased for Whistler-Blackcomb.com," Nicolson says. "People are booking whole trips, travel, accommodation, rentals, ski school. It makes it easier to get here, and people really appreciate that."
The U.S. market has continued to be strong for the mountains, and in the last two months visitor numbers have increased from the United Kingdom, Australia, South America and Asia. Regional visits, including Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, have also increased in response to marketing and promotions.
Most resorts will send their skier numbers to the CSWAA in early May, and Spencer hopes to issue a report on skier numbers before June.