2010 Olympics give B.C. ski hills time to shine

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      Tourism Sun Peaks president Christopher Nicolson will never forget the day he learned that the Olympics were coming to B.C. He was standing among a large crowd in Whistler’s Village Square in the early morning of July 2, 2003. Nicolson, who was working for Whistler Blackcomb at the time, had his eyes glued to the big screen when International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge declared in his Belgian accent that the winning bid came from Vancouver.

      “The big joke, of course, is everybody has now nicknamed it Funcouver, which we like,” Nicolson told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “It was electric. Family was there; friends were there; colleagues were there. It was a fantastic event.”

      Nicolson had no idea at the time that he would spend several years working on a 2010 strategy for Sun Peaks, which is B.C.’s second-largest ski resort. He returned to work there in 2004 after a three-year hiatus. Since then, Nicolson said, he has helped coordinate a comprehensive effort to attract skiers and outdoor fun seekers who might want to avoid Whistler in January and February of 2010.

      Sun Peaks, which is near Kamloops, is just one of several B.C. ski resorts hoping for a big increase in business as a result of the Olympics coming to Whistler. Others include Apex Mountain Resort near Penticton, Big White Ski Resort south of Kelowna, Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon, and Mount Washington Alpine Resort in the Comox Valley. Meanwhile, according to the Whistler Question, Whistler Blackcomb’s director of human resources, Joel Chevalier, announced on October 15 that he anticipates hiring about 500 fewer staff this ski season because of “Olympic aversion” by potential visitors.

      If the Interior and Vancouver Island resorts are successful in increasing the number of skier visits, it raises the prospect of an increase in residents over the longer term. That’s because academic research has demonstrated that more tourism to mountain communities is often a precursor for greater population growth.

      Nicolson pointed out that a large block of Whistler hotel rooms will be occupied by media, Olympic coaches, teams, and delegates in January and February. This has put them off limits for international tour operators. Nicolson also said that up to a third of skiers will be seeking alternate destinations this winter. “They are intending to ski, but they want to find somewhere that is not impacted by the Games,” he said.

      Nicolson is working with Whistler officials to divert some international visitors to Sun Peaks, which includes three mountains. The guests will still come to B.C., and Whistler is less likely to suffer a loss of reputation for failing to provide sufficient accommodation during the Games.

      “We’ve got a relationship with the tour operator and the opportunity to say, ”˜Hey, if you can’t get into Whistler, you can come to Sun Peaks,’ ” Nicolson said. “So that has been the international strategy.”

      Peter Williams, director of the SFU Centre for Tourism Policy and Research, told the Straight by phone that one of the benefits of hosting the Winter Olympics has been greater cooperation between different groups that share an interest in making the event a success. He added that this will likely make the B.C. tourism sector more competitive internationally.

      “The urgency of pulling off the Games is pulling all sorts of tourism organizations and volunteer groups into contact with one another,” Williams said. “In that process of having to work together to get the Games off the ground, there is a whole bunch of new linkages, alliances, and partnerships that will happen.”

      Nicolson acknowledged that a different strategy is necessary to appeal to people living in big cities in this region, like Vancouver and Seattle. He said many of these potential guests worry about the “hassle factor” of visiting Whistler in January and February because of all the security and fears about road restrictions on the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

      In the end, he stated, the amount of snow will have the biggest impact on the number of domestic visitors to Sun Peaks over the season. Nicolson noted that the number of bookings so far indicate that the resort will be busier than last year. “If we have a very strong snow, we stand in a good position to set a record,” he said.

      Meanwhile, the senior vice president of Big White and Silver Star resorts, Michael J. Ballingall, was gushing with enthusiasm during a recent phone interview with the Straight. He said that at the recent Vancouver Ski Show, many skiers who normally go to Whistler said they were looking for a new destination. He added that he has noticed a 20-percent increase in reservations from Metro Vancouver residents for this winter season.

      “They’re booking for a shorter window,” Ballingall said. “Normally, they only came at Christmas and spring break in big numbers. Now, we’re starting to see them on extended weekends. So instead of an average being a five-day booking, it’s 3.4 days on the average. We seem to be hitting the right marketplace because they don’t seem to be just buying the luxury accommodation.”

      Although the average sale per booking is down, the number of visits is increasing, which is good news for both Big White and Silver Star. “It’s not just the Range Rover crowd that’s turning up here,” Ballingall said. “We’re also seeing the very traditional family customer—mom, dad, two kids, and an SUV full of Costco groceries—driving up to the condo with the outdoor hot tub and plunking themselves here. That’s not surprising to us. We thought this would be the case.”

      One of the advantages of Big White is its altitude. “Our village is at the same elevation as the top of the gondola at Whistler,” Ballingall said. “So you’re always in the snow. It never rains. All the activities are within walking distance.”

      Meanwhile, staff at two other B.C. resorts are anticipating that the lure of Olympic athletes will bring more skiers and snowboarder to their slopes. No, we’re not talking about Whistler Blackcomb and Cypress Mountain, which are hosting Olympic events. These resorts are at Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington and Apex, which are going to be practice sites for several international competitors in the run-up to the Games.

      The director of public relations at Mount Washington, Brent Curtain, told the Straight by phone that up to 24 teams will be using his facility as a preparation centre. Some will be there up until their event begins at the Olympics. “It’s a great opportunity for islanders to check out these world-class athletes,” he said. “All they need to do is show up at Mount Washington and check them out.”

      There could be 400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes visiting Mount Washington this winter, according to Curtain. He said that the mountain is large enough that it will barely make a dent on public access. He chuckled as he described how much attention the Swedish Nordic team gets in its home country. Curtain compared them to Canadian hockey players, which means the media will follow them all the way to the Comox Valley. He also said that the German biathlon team also gets a lot of coverage back home. “International media will be here,” he predicted.

      Mount Washington’s vertical drop isn’t large enough to attract downhill teams. But he does expect to see ski-cross and freestyle-skiing competitors in the resort.

      Based on the number of bookings so far, Curtain said that staff are expecting a strong season. He noted that this is an El Niño year, which causes a warming of waters near the equator in the Pacific Ocean and unusual weather. He suggested that whenever this phenomenon occurs, there is usually heavier snow in his area. “For us, an El Niño season averages anywhere from 10 to 12 metres of snow,” he said.

      It will be a great chance to catch world-class athletes in training when up to 24 Olympic teams use Mount Washington as a practice site before the big event.

      Apex Mountain Resort general manager James Shalman told the Straight by phone that the Canadian freestyle aerial team arrived at his facility in the last weekend of October. They were attracted by the World Cup mogul course and the World Cup aerial site. “We have eight international teams coming up to train for aerials and we have two international teams coming for moguls,” he said.

      In addition, Shalman noted, he was recently contacted by the French alpine snowboard team, which wants to train for two weeks at Apex before the 2010 Games. “The big thing we don’t have is the crowds,” he said. “We have such vast terrain and a very efficient lift system that we don’t get lift lines.”

      Meanwhile, at the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in the Purcell Mountains near Golden, media-relations manager Jordan Petrovics isn’t expecting as big a boost from the Olympics as the resorts closer to Vancouver. For him, the primary market is Calgary. “We’re not up substantially, but our bookings are up a little bit,” he told the Straight by phone. “We’re anticipating people getting excited about the Games and wanting to go out and ski. That, in general, is positive for everybody.”

      Kicking Horse is also supporting a local ski-cross athlete named Dave Duncan, who hopes to compete in the 2010 Games. If he succeeds, this will bring more attention to the resort. Petrovics pointed out that ski-cross athletes aren’t selected until very close to the 2010 Games.

      “They’re looking for the guys who are totally peaking right when the Games are going,” he said.

      Like Petrovics, Ballingall at Big White and Silver Star is counting on people wanting to ski and snowboard after they see world-class athletes competing. So to add a dose of realism, Ballingall said his company will be handing out medals at his facility over the same period that Whistler and Cypress are hosting Olympic events. “People will be able to ski for their country,” he quipped.

      He predicted that over the longer term, the Olympics will cause a great deal more participation in winter sports across Canada. Ballingall knows of kids who were on the slopes between the ages of four and seven during the Calgary Olympics in 1988 who went on to become national team members in their 20s. “There are kids that talk to us about Lillehammer,” he said. “There are kids who talk to us about Salt Lake City.”

      Ballingall also said that several kids who visited Big White years ago have since returned to join the resort as employees. “We’ve seen this pattern for the past two or three years,” he noted.

      One aspect of the Games that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention is the issue of “amenity migrants”.

      The Okanagan region and Comox Valley are two of the fastest-growing areas in the province. According to SFU’s Williams, people are moving to these regions because they offer healthy lifestyles and safe environments.

      “What you have happening in the Silver Star–Big White area is the combination of the lure of the mountains but also the lure of the vineyards,” Williams commented. “And there is something about that rural ideal that’s tied to the Okanagan that is making people want to move there. It’s a pretty significant trend.”

      In the 1997 book Mountains of the World: A Global Priority, Williams and coauthors Martin F. Price and Laurence A. G. Moss wrote a chapter explaining why people are migrating to mountainous areas around the world. They pointed out that this movement is different from most migrations of previous centuries, which was done to seek refuge or in search of resources. Often, amenity migrants settle in places that they’ve previously visited as tourists.

      “Although the season for tourism is very short in many mountain areas, this very diverse industry has had, and continues to have, major long-term impacts on mountain peoples and their environments,” they wrote.

      Williams said he thinks the Olympics will showcase B.C. to the world, and there will be some who normally ski at Whistler who will try Interior resorts. However, he suggested that a lot of these skiers will remain loyal to their traditional destinations.

      In the meantime, the global economic slowdown isn’t helping the tourism sector, according to Helmut Pastrick, chief economist of Central 1 Credit Union. He told the Straight in a phone interview that there will be a huge increase in tourist traffic in February because of the Olympics. This could potentially begin in January with the arrival of international media, coaches, and athletes. However, Pastrick also said that tourism has been on a downtrend for the past few years.

      The greatest number of international tourists come from the United States. It recently experienced its greatest economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

      “For B.C., that’s about 80 percent of our international visitors, and that’s been tailing off for the past several years for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the lower U.S. dollar [and] higher energy prices—at least for most of that time period,” Pastrick said.

      At Sun Peaks, Nicolson said, the true benefit of the Games will be seen in future years. He said this doesn’t just apply to the skiing business, but also to conferences and conventions.

      “What the Olympics does is put British Columbia on an international stage,” he said, “and whether we’re showcasing ski product, whether we’re showcasing opportunities in the summertime, it will bump us to a new level very much as Expo 86 did.”