Last month, the World Health Organization officially declared an end to the global public health emergency sparked by COVID-19. It felt like a formality for a population that has long since abandoned the imposing public health policies put in place in 2020.
Among Whistler’s business community, “overall, there is a general excitement for the summer and a return to a somewhat normal summer season, certainly when you think about previous years,” said Louise Walker, executive director with the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. “We are in the second year running with no restrictions, so that is good.”
With that in mind, many would expect businesses to finally be able to plan their summer operations with confidence. But even without the uncertainty of border closures or gathering limits, Whistler employers are still struggling to predict exactly what the coming months will look like, Walker added.
“I’d say there are some unknowns out there, especially around the economy and the impact of infrastructure upgrades, and some businesses are still facing labour challenges,” she said.
Adding to that list of stressors are questions surrounding just how busy a summer Whistler should expect in terms of visitors. As Pique reported last week, Whistler’s tourism outlook for the coming summer is not quite as strong as it was ahead of the 2022-23 winter season, with Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher describing a “softening” in the resort’s accommodation booking pace this spring.
Based on Tourism Whistler’s data, Whistler is not on track to break the visitation records it set in the years leading up to the pandemic. Instead, officials anticipate similar visitation levels to last summer.
The good news for local business owners? According to an economic update provided by Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) representatives at a recent Whistler Chamber event, “even though economic growth is slowing down—this is overall for Canada—because employment still continues to grow, we’re not expecting a recession,” Walker relayed. “It’s more just a slowing down. The balance of visitors coming to Whistler is more important than ever, so that’s an amount of visitors our businesses and communities can manage.”
Striking the right balance is all the more important as the cost of doing business in B.C. rises, from property and employer health taxes to inflated supply prices and paying back pandemic loans. That also includes the province’s 2023 minimum wage increase, to $16.75 per hour as of June 1, up from $15.65.
A recent report from the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade claims businesses in B.C. will shoulder an additional $6.5 billion in costs between 2022 and 2024, while the BC Chamber of Commerce’s latest Collective Perspective survey found costs have worsened for nearly nine out of 10 B.C. businesses this year.
“We all want to make sure that we’re paying our team a livable wage,” said Walker. “We’ve also got to make sure that we can [operate] a viable business where that’s not just passed on to the customer.”
When it comes to labour, just how challenging the resort’s long-standing employee shortage is this spring remains to be seen. The Whistler Chamber is preparing to launch a survey measuring the staffing challenges facing its members, Walker said, but in the meantime, “anecdotally, what we’re hearing is businesses just aren’t able to offer all the services that they used to, or the owners perhaps might be stepping into roles.”
As temporary foreign workers and working holiday visa holders continue flowing into the resort, it does appear Whistler’s labour crunch has improved slightly, “but there is still that challenge,” she said. “We’re not back to where we were five years ago, and that is directly linked to housing unaffordability. There’s no shortage of people that want to come and work in Whistler, it’s making it work that’s the challenge.”
To that end, as the organization embarks on developing its strategic plan this year, the Chamber is also investigating what its role in addressing Whistler’s housing crisis could look like. For example, “are there new opportunities that could be explored, like employer-funded options? We’re just looking at what some of the different options are just now,” said Walker.
Despite those persistent challenges, “I think unlike previous years, businesses have learned to be more resilient and agile to changing conditions,” Walker added. “Everyone’s staying focused on a successful summer of operations and supporting a team and really delivering that great guest experience that we’re known for. So there’s lots of optimism.”