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Whistler has U.S. resorts shaking in their ski boots

Whistler/Blackcomb was so successful last season that it already has U.S. resort executives shaking in their ski boots for the 1999-2000 season.

Last season, Whistler/Blackcomb became the first resort in North America to break the 2 million barrier in skier and boarder visits. Next season it’s expected to be just as successful – perhaps at the expense of its neighbors south of the border.

While the U.S. ski industry suffered a 3.7 percent decline to 52.1 million skier visits last season, Whistler and other resorts in British Columbia alone posted an 18.5 percent gain, according to Michael Berry, president of the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association.

Canada, with 17.2 million skier visits last season, racks up only a fraction of those recorded by U.S. resorts. But it’s the growth of the industry in Canada that has U.S. executives squirming in their ski suits.

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Pat O’Donnell knows full well the potential of Whistler Mountain, a resort he ran from 1991-94.

Whistler/Blackcomb, now joined under the ownership of Intrawest Corp., is on an unbelievable roll, O’Donnell said. People are curious about the Canadian giant that keeps getting great marks in ski publications, he noted.

Now that the Canadian dollar is so weak, people are cashing in on the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity.

Whistler/Blackcomb used the favorable exchange rate as part of its advertising campaign last season. You better believe it will be the focus of its campaign this season, O’Donnell said.

That’s the frustrating part for U.S. ski industry executives. There’s virtually nothing they can do to dent that part of Whistler’s appeal, said NSAA’s Berry. Right off the bat, travelers from abroad know they can stretch their vacation dollars by at least 25 percent there.

U.S. resorts saw fewer international guests last season, particularly from the United Kingdom, said Berry. Much of the loss can be attributed to the economic attractiveness of Whistler, he said.

But the favorable exchange rate is only one ingredient in Whistler’s success. Resort spokeswoman Connie Rabold credited a growing reputation and a “fabulous snow year” for helping immensely last season.

Whistler was voted the top resort in North America for the seventh consecutive season last year by Snow Country magazine. Maybe U.S. ski area operators rejoiced when the magazine went out of business this year.

Snow, like favorable ratings, is something Whistler often receives in abundance, but last season was nothing short of astounding. Whistler/Blackcomb received 633 inches – or 53 feet – from November through the end of the season on April 19. Nearly 15 feet fell in February alone.

And, there’s enough terrain to last a while on a powder day. The ski mountains combine for about 7,000 acres. With the addition of two high-speed quad chairlifts for next season, Whistler/Blackcomb will have 15 in its inventory. Its uphill lift capacity will be 59,000 skiers and riders per hour.

To put that in perspective, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four local ski areas combine to provide about 4,750 acres of terrain and an uphill lift capacity of 48,275 skiers per hour.

With Whistler/Blackcomb’s massive infrastructure, the ski area doubled its skier visits in 11 years. But it’s not only the growth there that concerns Aspen Skiing Co.’s O’Donnell. Intrawest now owns 10 other ski resorts, many of them in the United States, including Colorado favorite Copper Mountain.

The parent firm is building a tremendous data base of Whistler customers and targeting them in marketing programs for its other ski areas. So Whistler’s success benefits not only Whistler, but eventually some of its affiliates as well.


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