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Whistler uses its edge to steal skiers from Aspen

One of the giants in the North American ski scene is cashing in on its competitive edge this season and stealing business from other industry heavyweights, like Aspen.

Whistler-Blackcomb officials aim to parlay the Canadian currency exchange rate into a record number of customers this season. And so far, it appears to be working.

Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company, Intrawest, is reporting a 26 percent increase in skier and snowboarder visits so far this season. That statistic is particularly impressive because the resort logged a record number of visitors last season.

For 1998-99, Whistler-Blackcomb anticipates topping 2 million skier and rider visits. The resort in British Columbia is so popular that it regularly beats Vail in reader surveys of major ski publications.

That success isn’t going unnoticed by Aspen Skiing Co. executives like President and CEO Pat O’Donnell, who held the same positions at Whistler-Blackcomb from 1990 to 1994.

O’Donnell said his old company is on top for three primary reasons: a great product; favorable prices due to the exchange rate; and the high rankings. “A lot of people want to go up and try Number One,” he said.

Maybe even more important is the stretch of the dollar and other currencies in Canada. The U.S. dollar fetched $1.58 in Canada at one point last week.

O’Donnell said U.S. residents account for roughly 25 percent of Whistler-Blackcomb’s customers. That’s bound to go up with the exchange rate – and it’s bound to steal skiers otherwise destined for U.S. resorts, he said.

“I think it probably is affecting [domestic U.S. business],” O’Donnell said. “It would be naive to think it’s not.”

Intrawest is really pushing the value angle. Its advertisements in publications like Ski, Skiing and Mountain Sports and Living have boasted about the value of the U.S. dollar.

A lift ticket bought at the window is about $39 at Whistler-Blackcomb, compared to $63 at Aspen. The ticket at Whistler-Blackcomb buys access to about 7,100 acres of terrain.

Prices at the Canadian resort haven’t skyrocketed in answer to the weak currency, O’Donnell said. So the entire trip there is a bargain.

It’s not only Americans who have come running. Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Marketing Kitty Boone said some foreign travelers are rethinking ski vacations because of the weak Canadian dollar.

“It has cut into our business,” Boone said.

The Australian market has been particularly responsive to Whistler-Blackcomb’s value appeal. The Australian economy has been weakened by the economic turmoil in Asia. So some travelers who might have considered Aspen are instead going north of the border, according to Boone.

O’Donnell expressed concerns that competitors like Whistler-Blackcomb might become even more attractive to Aspen’s traditional guests if airline service here isn’t improved.

“When we mishandle them, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” O’Donnell said, noting that more people complain to the Skico about air access than any other off-mountain service.

“They’re not calling to say they’re disappointed. They say they’re not coming back,” O’Donnell said.

Aspen and Snowmass cannot afford to lose customers to places like Whistler-Blackcomb because it costs so much to cultivate new business, he said. It costs about seven times more marketing dollars to draw a new customer than it does to keep an existing one, according to O’Donnell.

“When you do get people to come over you don’t want to foul it up,” said O’Donnell.


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