Whistler Blackcomb, the site of the alpine skiing events for the 2010 Winter Games, faces a challenging winter ahead because of a high Canadian dollar and a decline in visitors to the town of Whistler, B.C. And now it's got something else going against it: a public-relations headache known as "the Cypress problem."
The Olympics brought Whistler tremendous television exposure. But those images of the mountains, which enjoyed their second snowiest winter ever, are getting mixed up in tourists' minds with pictures of the winter rainstorms and lack of snow at Cypress Mountain, two hours south of Whistler, near downtown Vancouver. Cypress was home to freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
"It's something we absolutely have to counter," said Arlene Schieven, vice-president of marketing at Tourism Whistler.
It is a less-than-ideal situation for Fortress which aims to capitalize on the Olympics glow in a planned initial public offering of the ski resort. The strategy is to recoup some money it has lost on its disastrous $2.8-billion takeover in 2006 of Intrawest ULC, Whistler's parent company.
The Whistler-Cypress confusion is particularly prevalent in overseas markets, which have become more important to Whistler Blackcomb as visitors from the United States become more difficult to attract because of the exchange rate. Guests from British Columbia and Washington State have underpinned revenue in the past several years, but growth has been elusive - and drawing overseas visitors is tougher than in the past because of the recession and restrained discretionary spending.
Tourism Whistler is forecasting that tourist traffic, as measured by paid room nights, will be merely average this winter.
Paid nights are expected to fall 3 per cent compared with last winter, which saw most hotels packed every evening during the 17 days of the Games. However, it's still an improvement over the recession season of 2008-09 and better than the difficult years after 9/11, when a rising Canadian dollar, weak U.S. economy and SARS all hurt the resort.
Whistler's busiest winter ever was a decade ago, in 2000-01, when the Canadian dollar was at a nadir and U.S. visitors peaked. Forecast room nights are down 10 per cent from that level.
A spokesperson for Whistler Blackcomb said no executives were able to comment about the state of the ski resort's business.
On Tuesday, The Globe and Mail reported Fortress Group couldn't find a buyer for the ski resort and is now leaning toward an IPO. A filing with regulators in preparation for a share sale is expected soon.
There has long been skepticism about any boost the Olympics exposure might provide Whistler, even at Intrawest itself. "I don't know if it [the benefit]will ever be measured in dollars," Intrawest CEO Bill Jensen said at a ski conference last year. "The jury is out on whether we will experience … a longer-term sustained bump."
Olympics don't always pay off for hosts but it did provide a jolt for Utah, a state whose excellent but lesser-known ski areas saw a 20-per-cent jump in visits after the 2002 Salt Lake City games.
Mark Herron, general manager of the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler and head of a local hotels association, said some hotels see a better winter ahead, while others see declines. He called it "encouraging but mixed."
"We still really don't know what the Olympics effect is going to do but we're all positive Whistler's going to be in the forefront of guests' minds because we had the biggest show on Earth," Mr. Herron said.
Whistler's advantage remains its status as the No. 1 resort in North America, said Robin Nasmith, president of Skican Ltd., a Toronto tour operator. But the challenges, and competition, are significant.
The high price of a ski ticket at Whistler Blackcomb is a deterrent. A one-day ticket, without any deal, costs $93 for an adult. Families, said Mr. Nasmith, are turning to resorts elsewhere, such as the B.C. Interior, or to the United States, where resorts compete aggressively on price and are drawing more Eastern Canadian skiers, lured south by the strong Canadian dollar and improved flight connections.
The recent introduction of the harmonized sales tax in B.C. is another negative, making many things more expensive, Mr. Nasmith added.
"It's a tough situation for Whistler," he said.