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Weather, war, and economic warts combine to make this one of Whistler's most challenging seasons recently

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There is no doubt that Whistler has faced one of its most challenging times over the last several months.

First there was practically no snow at the beginning of the season. Then there were snowstorms followed by more on-again off-again ski conditions until March.

Add to that the on-going soft U.S. economy, the threat of war and finally the outbreak of war in Iraq March 19, SARS, and woes in the airline industry and it’s surprising there is anyone smiling in the resort at all.

"Undoubtedly this has been an exceptionally challenging year," said Barrett Fisher, vice-president marketing strategy and business development for Tourism Whistler.

"When you combine all of those things into one year we haven’t been given a lot of grace this year."

Tourism Whistler had been predicting a slow March and April for a few months and the crystal ball wasn’t wrong.

Fisher said March saw a 16 per cent decline in room nights over last year. Most of the decline came from the loss of long haul U.S. and overseas business.

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival helped out with April numbers, as did the late Easter, but overall room nights are expected to be below last year’s levels for April too.

The decline was confirmed by Slope Side Supply,

"The bottom line is sales were down 12 per cent," said Slope Side co-owner Dave Krasny, referring to toilet paper sales in the valley in March and April. Slope Side supplies most of the toilet paper used by commercial operations in the valley.

On the bright side, said Fisher, while numbers are down overall regional and local traveller numbers were up in the same period.

That reflects an on-going increase in the number of people who are choosing to drive to their destinations rather than fly.

"So the good news is our marketing efforts are working, our analysis of what the issues are has been thorough, so therefore our solutions and our proactive attitude has been successful," she said.

"But, that said, has it been enough to counter world-wide issues? No it has not been.

"But we will just continue to plug along and we will see ebbs and flows in our business as things like the economy and things like wars and things like health issues, that are out of our control, happen."

Pam Nielsen, owner/operator of Apres Accommodations said they had no cancellations.

"But booking just dropped off in March," she said.

"People who had booked still came but new bookings just weren’t there."

Whistler-Blackcomb also realized fewer than hoped for skier visits.

But it expects to just exceed the numbers seen two years ago.

"Overall our season looks like it did two years ago in terms of visits," said Stuart Rempel, vice president of sales and marketing for Whistler-Blackcomb.

"We will easily exceed two million visits again."

According to statistics form the Canadian Tourism Commission overnight travel from the U.S. to Canada decreased by 4.9 per cent over February 2002 with decreases in both automobile (-5.4 per cent) and non-automobile modes (-3.8 per cent).

In B.C. tourism business is worth $9.3 billion, making it third among B.C. industries. The U.S. contribution to that is $2.4 billion, making it easily the largest segment of our international tourist trade.

But most expect the U.S. spending figure to go down as travellers are affected by world-wide events and the soft economy. In 2001, the most recent year for which data is available, spending by Americans on foreign travel, which had been rising, fell 13 per cent to $10.4 billion.

According to Travel Industry Association’s War Impact Survey, 71 per cent of Americans are not interested in travelling overseas; 31 per cent say that it is a direct result of the war and the weak economy.

However a significant exception to that is a strong attractiveness rating for travel to Canada, seen as a safe, friendly destination.

Travellers are continuing to book trips much closer to departure dates, which also challenges many organizations and businesses as they struggle to staff appropriately.

According to the same survey of 1,200 online Americans between March 20 and 25, more than one-quarter of business travellers will be travelling less or not at all compared to last year.

There are no destination resorts which have not been affected by global issues in the last few months. But it is hoped that Whistler can draw back business and grow by focusing on offering activities, service and surroundings that capitalize on some of the emerging needs of the tourist in today’s world.

Recent research has shown that travellers are not going to stop travelling in the mid- to long-term. But many are looking for a true escape back to nature and a holiday which renews their sense of adventure and/or their desire to renew their family values.

Whistler is ideally situated to offer those things.

"This is a place to get away from it all," said Rempel.

"Mountains have always been very spiritual places and we hope this environment is conducive to that feeling."

Said Fisher: "We are a safe, green, clean mountain resort destination.

"When you travel to Whistler, unlike urban destinations, you are getting away from the traffic jams, away from the congestion, away from the day to day craziness and so it is perceived as a retreat. It is perceived as an escape. It is perceived as a safe haven.

"We do believe that people in the mid- and long-term will be looking for an authentic experience.

"I think that rather than looking for a man-made experience (travellers) are going to be looking more and more to being one with nature, to being part of a more authentic, real experience that reminds them about all of those good values that they are seeing with family."

Tourism Whistler is continuing to work with border authorities and is monitoring Friday and Sunday night crossings to pinpoint trouble spots.

And it is staying in touch with YVR as the airport draws up its summer schedule. That is key as the resort braces for the beginning of the upgrade to the Sea to Sky highway, which will result in some significant closures.

"We at Tourism Whistler very much recognize that we must take a pro-active role in ensuring that we keep our life bloodlines open when it comes to air access, border access, and highway access," said Fisher.

"We think those things are essential to take a leadership role in."

Most airlines, hit hard by the drop in global travel, have significantly scaled back flights. Air Canada is losing $3 million a day and has cut its service by 12 per cent for April and 16 per cent for May.

So what does the future hold for the resort?

Fisher said Tourism Whistler would continue to focus marketing on the regions it can grow in – that means the drive-to market.

The newly renovated Whistler Conference Centre will also help as already it has drawn bookings into 2009.

Corporate bookings are slow all over as companies scale back on spending, cut trip times and even move to video or telephone conferencing, an on-going pattern since the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001.

"What Tourism Whistler is focusing on right now is being true to who we are and focusing on our positioning, our unique points of difference, and our branding," said Fisher.

"In the short term we will still do some very tactical specific summer marketing initiatives in primarily the regional and West Coast market.

"We will continue to build Whistler as a family destination in the regional market until we get the chance to make a greater investment into the destination market for our long term strategy."