B.C. skiers get lift

Hills work together to prevent holiday carve-up

When David Lynn, president and CEO of Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA), heard in 2011 that the B.C. government's newly announced Family Day was to fall on the third week of February, the news sent a cold chill up his spine.

"A lot of ski resorts sell out on the third weekend in February because it's President's Day weekend, and it's also Family Day in several other provinces across Canada, including Alberta."

To Lynn and others in the industry, the addition of another holiday on an already busy weekend meant that B.C. skiers wanting to enjoy fresh powder and hot tubs would have to compete with U.S. and Alberta skiers for hotel rooms, rental condos and marshmallow-topped mugs of hot cocoa.

Lynn also foresaw a missed chance for other businesses such as restaurants and retail stores, which he anticipated would be unable to capitalize on an additional holiday weekend.

He knew how competitive the B.C. ski industry is, and he suspected overcrowding would threaten resorts' ability to make good on increased business brought in by Family Day. "It would have been a lost opportunity, economically," he said.

Lynn also knew that more than six million skiers visited B.C. resorts in the 2011-12 season, and that ski resorts in Western Canada typically generate approximately $800 million in direct revenue each year, to say nothing of the manifold indirect revenue for après-ski businesses supported by everyone from goggle-toting tipplers to toddlers in pint-sized parkas.

To better understand the scope of the dollar figure impact of Family Day in specific, Lynn decided to administer a survey of the association's member resorts. The results confirmed his suspicions.

"The estimated incremental revenue was $8 million," he said. In other words, Family Day would generate $8 million in revenue over and above the amount typically made during the same period absent any special holiday event. But only if it didn't have to compete with other holidays.

Michael Sherwood, general manager at Silver Star Ski Resort Ltd., shared Lynn's disappointment. "When we found out about the day, it caused us some concern." Like other resort managers, Sherwood works closely with Lynn and the CWSAA, and the news got Silver Star administration talking.

They weren't the only ones. Other big resorts such as Whistler/Blackcomb, Big White and Sun Peaks voiced their fear that the date was already too crowded.

Like the CWSAA, who maintains a good relationship with the Ministry of Tourism, many of them, through their own contacts with the provincial government, started to grumble.

Lynn could see that the CWSAA needed to bring the industry's concerns to the B.C. government in a formal format. So he compiled a business case that recommended the date be changed to the second week in February and that included a Family Day promotion supported by each of the CWSAA's member resorts, offering a 50% discount on all lift tickets.

The proposal was presented to the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, and the minister responsible saw the writing in the snow. The date for Family Day was soon changed to February 11.

"I think it's going to be a pretty dynamic shift," said Sherwood. "It might take three years to build the weekend into something that's well known, but it's very promising."

To help with publicizing the event, Silver Star sought the marketing services of Scott Henderson, managing director of dHz Media.

Silver Star also added value components to their products, choosing not to increase rates, and adding inexpensive lift pass upgrade options for other resort activities such as ice skating and sledding.

Silver Star hasn't been the only one to ramp up its marketing activities. Henderson has seen a spike in business leading into February, mostly from the tourism industry looking to promote Family Day activities at their businesses.

"It's made me busier as well," he said. "It comes at a time when [the industry] is normally not so busy."

He's helping a number of resorts position themselves as the go-to location for Family Day, and his marketing efforts have received a lot of interest. "It shows how professional and innovative they are," he said.

In the same breath he applauds the B.C. government for its willingness to listen to the needs and advice of industry. "That doesn't always happen."•

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