At this time of year we usually afford ourselves a nostalgic look in the mirror at what has transpired in the previous 12 months. And a return to years past – such as 2006 or 2007 – seems to be a popular sentiment among lots of business people in Whistler.
But as Peter Yesawich said (and I have repeated ad infinitum) the tourism industry is not going to return to the way things were before the Great Recession.
During his October presentation in Whistler Yesawich, a tourism industry analyst, outlined a number of ways consumer behavior has changed in the last few years, much of it driven by Internet technology. Price is very often the prime motivator in consumer decisions today, whether it is purchasing a week’s vacation or a washing machine. The Internet provides plenty of choices, plenty of ways to compare prices and now, ways to harness the purchasing power of large groups of people to drive prices down further. Rarely does anyone have to pay full price for anything anymore.
The impact these changes have had on the tourism industry was reinforced recently in interviews the Denver-bas ed Mountain Travel Research Program did with three resort property experts. Asked what changes in consumer behavior are here to stay, Scott Bunce of EpicenterSpark Hospitality International said: “Consumers are now driven by value: they want to stretch their vacation dollars as far as they can. To do this, people are using social media to find the best deals, shortening their trips and using the Internet as their primary search and booking tool, all trends that I think will be here for the long haul.”
Yesawich, and others, have discussed what the new emphasis on price and value has done to quaint notions like (brand) loyalty: good for dogs, not so important to consumers anymore.
“It’s almost a badge of honor to find a bargain,” Tourism Whistler President and CEO Barrett Fisher told members earlier this month.
That approach, combined with search engines, has brought another profound new reality to the tourism industry: last minute bookings. The response by many hotels, airlines, resorts and cruise ship operators with empty beds and seats to fill has been last minute “flash” or “fire” sales.
Combined, these things have changed the tourism industry, and con sumer behavior, in a very short time – basically since the recession started in 2008.
But while many of us in Whistler were concentrating on preparations for the Olympics during the recession, much more than tourism was changing. The economy, obviously, stagnated. But there have been more significant changes than just people and businesses having less money. Some examples:
- Exports of B.C. softwood lumber were worth $7 billion in 2004. They have declined steadily since then, to about $2.4 billion in 2009.
- Coal has surpassed softwood lumber as B.C.’s top export over the last few years.
- Housing starts across Canada grew steadily through the latter half of the 2000s, peaking at 228,000 in 2007. Since then they have declined, to 149,000 in 2009. In B.C., housing starts followed the national trend, peaking at 39,000 in 2007 and dropping to 16,000 in 2009.
- The dollar value of Canadian exports and imports climbed steadily in the four years leading up to 2008, then declined dramatically in 2009. Total Canadian exports in 2008: $490 billion; in 2009: $369 billion. To the U.S.: $370 billion in 2008; $271 billion in 2009.
- Canada’s unemployment rate declined steadily from 2002 (7.7 per cent) to 2007 (six per cent). In 2008 it was 6.1 per cent; in 2009 8.3 per cent.
- From 1948 to 2010 the unemployment rate in the United States averaged 5.7 per cent, reaching a historical high of 10.8 per cent in November of 1982. In November 2010 it was 9.8 per cent. In the Pacific region last month it was 11.6 per cent. In California it was 12.4 per cent.
- From 2000 to 2007 U.S. industrial output climbed steadily, while at the same time industrial employment shrank by about 3 million workers. Manufacturing jobs fell again following the collapse of the American automobile industry in 2008-09.
But you don’t have to rely on Statistics Canada and the U.S. Census Bureau for numbers to realize we’ve gone through a period of enormous change in the last three years, and those changes will have an impact on Whistler for the foreseeable future. For instance…
International travel, whether by car or airplane, is much more cumbersome than it used to be, particularly when it comes to crossing a border. “Security” trumps everything at airports and border crossings, more so today even than in the months after 9/11. The authority and the tools that border agents have are greater than ever before, and the experience of crossing a border is more unpleasant than ever before.
The populations of virtually all Western nations is aging. People have more options for leisure time than ever before. Cultural and generational shifts mean a smaller percentage of Canadians have a history or connection with mountain recreation. There are fewer federal and provincial dollars for to urism marketing and promotion following the Olympics and the recession. The U.S., Canadian and Australian dollars are all close to par. The buying power of the euro and the British pound has declined against the Canadian dollar, making vacations in Canada more expensive for Europeans.
We may look back longingly at years past but to spend any time wondering when those days will return is to wallow in fantasy.
By Bob Barnett
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