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B.C. ski resorts counting on locals to help weather COVID-19 impacts this winter

Last Updated Oct 20, 2020 at 11:55 am PDT

(iStock Photo)

B.C. ski resort operators are hoping locals will help fill a void created by COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions

Lack of international visitors will mean loss of revenue for many B.C. mountains that normally see foreigners in winter

Big White, Whistler say travel restrictions present opportunity for locals to enjoy resorts that are normally booked

WHISTLER (NEWS 1130) – Resort operators in B.C. are hoping locals will help ease the financial hit expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every winter, thousands of international travellers descend on the province’s mountains to enjoy the raw beauty and test themselves on the slopes.

But resorts are now preparing for a winter lacking in international visitors, as the Canada-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential traffic and travel into the country remains restricted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In the case of Big White, Michael Ballingall, the resort’s vice president of sales and marketing, says more than $4-million worth of bookings have been cancelled from Australia alone.

“With the borders closed and the prediction that the borders are going to remain closed and paid deposits now due, those people cancelled,” he explains.

The massive loss in potential revenue is hard to digest, Ballingall admits, but he also says there may be a silver lining out of all of this for locals.

Past seasons at Big White have been busy, he says, presenting a challenge for many British Columbians who have been unable to spend the holidays at a local resort due to demand.

Supporting local

Ballingall believes the lack of international visitors will present an opportunity.

“The internationals — Australians, Europeans, New Zealanders, Americans — usually book out accommodation in May, June, and July of any given year. Now, the locals can literally have the pickings of the best accommodation on the mountain,” he tells NEWS 1130. “We’re relying on Canadians to come to the resort and to experience a product that has grown in international reputation that they can play on at discounted prices.”

Ballingall notes the current situation has even pushed people who, normally, may not have been into winter sports to try something new.

“We are seeing a lot of people that have gone south or gone to the sun coming back into the sport for many, many times,” he says, adding he’s heard of some people planning to take driving lessons to be able to navigate through the snow.

Marc Riddell with Vail Resorts, which operates Whistler Blackcomb, is also hopeful locals will take advantage of the extra space on the mountain.

“Look, there are things that we can control and there are things we can’t control. The local market, obviously, will still be there and still be ready and able to come up and enjoy the winter,” Riddell says.

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As with most things this year, Riddell admits the upcoming ski season will be unlike any we’ve seen before.

However, keeping safety top of mind, he says the experience will remain the same: when you’re on the slopes, you’re on the slopes.

“It’s just going to be different in terms of the approach and how you get up the mountain, and how you utilize our on-mountain facilities,” he explains.

Whistler Blackcomb will not be completely immune to the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some losses expected. However, Riddell believes the business structure behind this resort will help it keep its head above water.

“The key component is that we are a network of resorts. We have 37 resorts around the world — 34 in North America. We use that network to be able to weather through weather variability and economic variability,” he says.

Riddell says as of close to a month ago, Vail had already sold more than 850,000 Epic passes, showing the demand is there.

Looking for normalcy

He believes people are looking for some sort of normalcy, “or as normal as you can get in this time.”

“We can’t control the border closures, and that’s going to have a significant impact on American guests who would generally drive over from Washington state and come up,” Riddell says.

“What we can control is the experience, we can control the safety element of how you come and interact with the mountain, and those are the things we’re going to be focussed on this winter. For us, it’s about opening and staying open for the remainder of the season, because it’s the right thing for our communities and certainly for our employees.”

Meanwhile, Ballingall says Big White is working to ensure COVID-19 protocols are the best they can be.

The resort has even come up with a new catchphrase with the hopes of enticing locals to visit.

“Bring your bubble to our bubble,” Ballingall says, adding while the experience at B.C. resorts will be different this year, he’s hopeful it’ll still be memorable.

“We’re very optimistic that it’s going to be a good year,” he says. Now, it’s up to Mother Nature to make sure she holds up her end of the bargain.