WRA fee hike explained Whistler well behind Vail in marketing bucks By Chris Woodall The 8 per cent assessment fee increase for 4,200 members of the Whistler Resort Association may raise some hackles, but the $5.1 million the WRA will have in its marketing budget still pales against the $21 million to be spent by arch-rival Vail, says David Thomson, WRA president. The WRA also wants to add to its marketing funds by hitting up the municipality for a larger portion of the hotel tax it collects, Thomson says. He feels it's only fair that municipal council help out. "I couldn't go to the municipality and ask for a contribution if I didn't go to our members and ask for an increased contribution," Thomson explains. The extra money is needed to cement foreign marketing ventures, Thomson says, noting there has been a historic problem for the WRA to define to members what it does and where it does it. "To our critics, I 'd say I've been in this business for 25 years. I know the conditions are right for Whistler (to increase its marketing efforts) and that we are a hot product in many markets," Thomson says. "If we don't take it (opportunities to increase business in Britain, for example), Vail just might," Thomson says. The increase in fees is the first rate hike since a 3.5 per cent fee rise in 1993. Whistler’s marketing dollars look better against Vail's enormous pot of marketing bucks when the co-op efforts of the WRA with federal and provincial governments, foreign tour wholesalers, and various airlines are taken into account — avenues not open to Vail or other American ski resorts. "I've always believed we can be a bit of a guerrilla fighter to get our fair share" of the skier visit, Thomson says. While Vail, for example, has its own marketing staff stationed in Europe, the WRA counts on wholesale tour operators, airline staff and the foreign offices of B.C. and federal government tourism departments to help sell the Whistler story. Those co-op efforts multiply into big clout, dollar-wise. When the five winter season marketing co-op groups are taken together — two covering the U.S. and one each in Japan, Germany and the UK — $155,000 spent by the WRA grows to $4.5 million in total marketing to encourage skier visits. There are also five marketing co-op programs promoting the summer months: a regional program, general U.S., California, an open skies air carrier co-op, and a Whistler golf co-op. For $102,000 of the WRA's money, it develops a $2.9 million marketing punch. How much of its money is spent in which country depends on the age of the marketing push in that country and a balancing act between a number of factors related to the visitor: number of days spent in Whistler, versus amount of money spent while here, versus total number of visitors from each country. Britons stay in Whistler longer, for example, but they are not the high rollers that Brazilians are, but more Brits come here. "There are trade-offs and that affects the amount of effort to market them," Thomson says. Thomson acknowledges that the number of rooms coming into the inventory has many retailers and hoteliers squirming. "Except for resorts like Las Vegas, we are in a very unusual situation," Thomson says of the construction boom. "People are impatient to see the rooms filled." Between 1995 and what's due in 1997, Whistler's room inventory will increase 50 per cent. Whistler hotels would have to experience a 26 per cent increase in business every year until 1999 in order to fill all the rooms slated to be created by the end of this year, WRA statistics say. "The biggest impact will be in retail," Thomson says. "They are feeling it a little bit now." When summer hits, the WRA expects the effects of a large number of retailers fighting for tourist dollars to "boomerang" back on the WRA in the form of complaints and calls to do more to bring additional visitors, Thomson says. One way to fill hotel rooms faster would be to lower room rates, a traditional solution, Thomson says. "Whistler has been in a good position in being able to keep prices up. Banff has traditionally been a lower cost operator and Vail-Aspen has been higher than us." But if Whistler discounted its rooms too much it might become known as a "cheap vacation," chasing away any prestige the resort has, Thomson says. Courting charter airlines is part of that game. "If we get too many charters coming to Whistler, we don't want that situation because it would drive prices down," Thomson says. Vail, however, is keen to get a charter to go direct to Denver, Colorado, because the mountain city has so few direct international flights. The Whistler Mountain merger with Intrawest will have some effects on how the WRA operates, Thomson says. "It will cause us to work closer together, to develop a foreign impression that there is a seamless relationship between the WRA and the mountains," Thomson says. One outcome of this is a change in turf. Traditionally, the mountains have been responsible for marketing Whistler to Vancouver, while the WRA takes on the world. Thomson hopes Intrawest will add the Seattle area to its Lower Mainland marketing efforts, freeing WRA marketing time and money for the rest of the globe. Making Whistler a better destination will help, too. "We have fundamental holes in our product," Thomson says, pointing to our infamous rainy weather. "We need an improvement in our alternate activities." Among the "alternatives" Thomson suggests are a virtual reality park, a bigger and perhaps interactive museum similar to Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame or its Ontario Science Centre, and the long-promised Larco bowling alley. There is more to life than skiing and snowboarding, and Thomson warns that Vail is already leaping ahead on that by building a midstation area for tobogganing, sledding, an outdoor skating rink, family restaurants... and free gondola rides to get people there. "Visitors want more from their winter vacation than just downhill skiing," Thomson says. "With one mountain corporation that may happen for Whistler." No matter what the bells and whistles offered elsewhere, Whistler will always be popular. "One thing I love about marketing Whistler, summer or winter, we have a fabulous product," Thomson enthuses. "That's why we'll never get cut out (of travel plans). Skiers will always want to ski a premium product."