While Whistler's businesses are struggling to get through the challenges of the current winter, namely a low snow pack and the global recession, there is another crisis waiting in the wings regardless of what happens to the economy - the trend towards lower visitor numbers before and after an Olympic Games.
While the Olympics do have a proven ability in the long term to increase travel to mountain resort destinations, they are also accompanied by short-term slumps in visitor numbers before and after the Games. Annual visitor declines of between one and five per cent have also been reported for summer Games host cities, which is less severe than for winter hosts.
For example, Utah Tourism claims skier visits in the 2001-02 season were down by almost nine per cent - less than expected given the added challenges of the 2001 recession and the drop in travel following the September 2001 terror attacks. In Park City, which hosted some of the 2002 Olympic events, skier numbers were down 15 to 20 per cent for the season.
There are a number of reasons why tourism drops to a host city before and after the Games, most of which are based on visitors having the wrong information. Some visitors are under the impression that it's a bad time to visit because the venues are under construction, that access to attractions will be limited, that prices are higher, or that there won't be any rooms available.
Tourism Whistler, working with partners at Tourism B.C., Tourism Vancouver and the Canadian Tourism Commission, is in the process of preparing a strategy for 2010 that addresses all the misconceptions and lets the world know that Vancouver and Whistler are open for businesses as usual.
"There are a number of (different strategies), because we've put together a marketing framework with our resort partners to make sure we're all using the same message, and looking at who has what tools to reach the audience," said Arlene Schieven, vice president of marketing for Tourism Whistler.
"If we look at our own internal plans for, and campaigns for, 2010, which we're working on at the moment, there are still gaps in the information we're looking to have, like transportation and travel, parking, how feasibly the regional market can come up (during the Games) and at what times. Before we'll determine a final plan we have to make sure we have all those answers."
The weeks before, during and after the Olympics are expected to be busy in terms of room nights, although skier visits are expected to decline. Most of Whistler Mountain and all of Blackcomb will be open to the public right through the Games, and will be compensated for a drop in skier visits by the Vancouver Organizing Committee.
However, the months before and after the Games will be the most challenging, says Schieven, which is why Tourism Whistler and partners are working on a coordinated campaign.
"Very little (of the plan) involves the Games time itself" she said. "People have tickets and they're coming, the hotels will be busy. We're not marketing to get people here during the Olympics, although we do plan to take advantage of the fact that a lot of people will be here and provide visitor services to make sure everyone has a great time.
"Our real focus, though, is on pre- and post-Games, and minimizing the aversion factor."
So far that means communicating with tour operators around the world to ensure that they understand that the resort is open before and after the Games, that venue construction is complete, and that the prices in place will likely be similar to this season.
"We also have programs for visitors in the resort now to let them know they can come back next year, and that addresses the perception that we're closed, or that it will be more expensive to come here," said Schieven.
Some methods of communication include contacting visitors in their database, e-mail newsletters, loyalty programs, postcard campaigns in local hotels, and advertising campaigns in both regional and destination markets.
The message for the campaign is still being decided, while Tourism Whistler works on marketing campaigns and programs for summer of 2009. The winter of 2010 is their next priority.
Whether Tourism Whistler can buck the aversion trend for Olympic hosts has yet to be seen. "We will do our best, at least, to minimize it," Schieven said. "Some things we won't be able to change, but absolutely we are going to do everything we can to address the misconceptions, and look at pockets of opportunity that we can fill. It will be part of our communications in every area of our organization."
There is also concern that businesses themselves do not have as much information as they should discussing 2010 with their customers, something the Whistler Chamber of Commerce has been working to remedy for several years. In addition to member communications, the Spirit Pass program for the last two seasons has included an Olympic update for almost 5,000 workers.
Lauren Wornig, who co-owns Skitch with her partner Dave Davenport, says she has already corrected several regular visitors that weren't planning on coming next year.
"We've heard a few times now from people that they're surprised the mountain is open, or that don't know that Blackcomb and Whistler are open for skiing next year," she said. "Some customers come here every year for the same week, and they're not coming next year because they think it will be too expensive, or that it's going to be too busy. And this is for January, we're not talking about the two weeks of the Olympics."
Wornig says most customers are surprised to learn how normal everything will be for most of 2010.
"I can only do my best to convince them," she said.
For their part, Whistler Blackcomb has a Q&A section on its website at www.whistlerblackcomb.com/Olympics/ with answers to questions like "Is there construction in the village before the Games?" and "Can I travel to Whistler for a ski holiday during the 2009-2010 season?"
They are also working hard to get the message out to their customers, and even leveraging the Games to enhance the visitor experience.
"The message we're working on getting out is that we're 90 per cent open, 90 per cent of our terrain is open before, during and after the Games," said Tabetha Boot, public relations supervisor at Whistler Blackcomb. "We're definitely not closed during the Games, which is one of the biggest misconceptions we're trying to mitigate, as well as the misconception that there's too much construction. One of our top-line messages is that our venues were done two years before the Games, the first time that has happened for a Winter Games... and that you can ski the same race courses the men and women will ski on in 2010."
The Whistler Blackcomb website and other promotional materials also have information about the different on-mountain venues, and Boot says the response has been positive.
"Right now we're pushing the fact that we're open, and that people can come here before and after the Games and have a quote-unquote 'normal' Whistler experience," said Boot.