An Eastbournian Abroad with Ashley McMillan: Economic influences in the ‘bubble’

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So another week, more snow and many, many happy faces. Occasionally it does feel a lot like Groundhog Day.

There are many pluses to living in a resort town, such as everyone in town is generally super ‘stoked’ (‘powder hound’ colloquialism) just to be here. Even the work forces earning their minimum wages and washing dishes are just counting down the hours until they can get back up the slopes again. It’s really easy to work with and relate to guests around the hotels and stores as they’re here for the same reason we are. Just watch someone in a hotel, for example, engage a visitor about their day on the hill and see who has the biggest smile – difficult to tell! Living around Whistler, you will often hear the term ‘living in a bubble’. It’s a little unfair in my opinion, but it is generally felt that living here is not quite living in the ‘real’ world as we’re often unaffected by much that goes on elsewhere… or are we?

T’is true that living in a resort town, where there’s always a party atmosphere, everyone is always looking forward to yet another day, there are many great dining options, awesome skiing and boarding terrain that would take the average individual literally weeks and months to cover and activities in abundance, it’s often hard to imagine much wrong with this picture. However, as much as our surroundings and natural beauty have and will continue to draw everyone to these parts, the economy has much to do with our ongoing success and we’re only as good as the visitors who come here.

So how has the local Whistler market changed? Well, for starters, most (if not all) hotel rooms and suites can be found substantially marked down on their prices from this time a year or two back. Everyone knew that last year, being the Olympic year, would be a ‘stand out year’ and accepted what they could take from it, but I think it’s fair to say that most thought or hoped that some of the ‘stay away’ aversion we saw before and after the actual Olympics (many people thought that prices would be too dear or there would be no hotel rooms available..), that this would have flipped this year and everyone would have felt the benefits already – probably not so if truth be told. The thinking was that the indulgent marketing that the world shamelessly shone upon us with its glare throughout the period of celebration across the globe, would translate into a higher booking return this year as everyone’s interest or even awareness of Whistler was peaked.

I think it’s also fair to say that perhaps the state of the world’s economy hadn’t really hit us that hard way back early last winter when this thinking and forecasting ahead was going on. Sure, markets were down and the worlds banking sector had collapsed, but I think it’s now that we’re truly seeing the prudence of those travelling – or not as the case may be. Those with money will still travel. Those who are determined hard core ski enthusiasts will also probably still come. However, often the pricing and job security is the difference now between some locals, say within a 3-4 hour encatchment zone, travelling more than once to our resort each year.

People will also consider the benefits of perhaps saving a few bucks or pennies by going to a more local ski resort. Sure, it may not be as good, big, challenging or quite as much fun. It is cheaper though and it is still allowing most to ski or board rather than not going anywhere at all.

More recent problems with Canada making it extremely difficult for very affluent (of which there are many) Mexicans travelling to gain entry to our borders hasn’t helped at all either. The Mexican market is big business and I think that people are still lobbying the government hard to rethink how they could perhaps review the travel visas’ for this market segment. We know they’re all still trying to travel and god love them, they love their ski trips, but how much of this valued market have we already lost? When these guys come, they drop a lot of coin all around the resort – everyone benefits from the private ski instructors to the restauranteurs and hoteliers. We know they’re travelling alright, but the word is that they’re travelling a little closer to home, like to the ski resorts dotted around Colorado in the States, such as Vail, Beaver Creek, etc. They haven’t imposed such hardy visa restrictions for fears of losing immigrants across their borders as we have here as their northern cousins. What would you do? Fight to get to Whistler and hope that you’re successful with the lottery that is your visa? Or simply head to an easier to reach ski resort?

It’s actually quite interesting to see how the various world markets and affluency move around the globe as the various management, marketers and money men point themselves at the potential travellers as they pit their dollars and bet on who will come and needs just that extra little bit of encouragement. It’s plain to see that there are many, many people out there from all around the world that enjoy their downtime from work or ‘life’ and love nothing more than to spend time away in the mountains, by themselves, with friends or loved ones and are happy to pay to do so.

What I can tell you though, is that it’s going to take a conjoined effort from everyone around Whistler to draw these crowds in and have them keep coming back. Restaurants need to understand that sometimes their prices are a little too rich when people have to eat out 2 or maybe 3 times a day. Whistler Blackcomb finally took the initiative late in the season (read – to late!) to discount their lift ticket prices, but it all helps. It should all fall down to the hoteliers to constantly soak up the cost of attracting guests to Whistler!

Onto slightly ‘lighter’ matters happening now – This weekend (Saturday 26th at 8.30pm to be precise), Whistler will celebrate ‘Earth Hour’. This is now a regularly scheduled event on our calendar and involves all local municipality and stores, restaurants, etc powering down and turning off all non-essential lighting. With this in mind, to show Whistler’s support for this cause, there will be a free concert in the newly evolved ‘Celebration Plaza’ (where the medals ceremony was previously held). It will be held in the dark, apart from certain lighting that will be powered by pedal bike powered generators – How very green, eh!

Now if only we could power the hotels and mountain lifts by pedal power... mmm?