Call it the Hamilton connection and if all goes well, a new charter flight from Hamilton to Kelowna could bring an ongoing stream of tourists to the Okanagan Valley.
Big White Ski Resort has joined forces with four other ski resorts in B.C., as well as a Canadian travel company called NewLeaf, in an attempt to bring more ski tourists to the Okanagan in a partnership the resort says could benefit the entire region’s tourism operators.
Big White, Silver Star, Apex, Sun Peaks and Revelstoke Mountain Resort are offering week-long spring break packages on a 150 seat charter out of Hamilton, ON, that at this point is a one-time charter flight with a chance to grow into more.
“The biggest problem we are having is the price of air during holiday periods has skyrocketed so high on the scheduled carriers that our packaging became unaffordable,” said Michael Ballingall, Big White’s senior vice president. “So if we wanted to grow our business we needed to find a way to get people here at a reasonable cost.”
The five ski resorts are offering lift passes, accommodation, flights and ground transportation for seven nights during spring break for about $1,200 in an attempt to bring Ontario residents to the Okanagan. The package has been available for less than two weeks and already one-third of the seats are sold.
“There is something for everyone that gets on this plane,” said Ballingalll, alluding to the different ski resorts available for the consumer. “This bodes for well for skiing and we think it will bodes well for other tourism industries like golf and wine. Once this clears the way and we show the airplane is easy to book, it opens up a whole new market for us. There a lot of people that can easily access Hamilton that would think twice about driving all the way to Toronto. It’s an untapped market.”
Ballingall said the price of airfare from Toronto to Kelowna was pricing Big White out of the ability to offer ski packages at rates that tourists would jump at, saying it was more expensive to fly to Kelowna and access Big White than many of the other major ski resorts in North America.
“The market conditions forced us to look into this,” he said. “When we looked at this we found we were one of the most expensive city’s to service from Toronto. It was cheaper to go to Salt Lake City or Whistler or Calgary than come to Kelowna so that concerned us. If we wanted to win our market share we had to do something different.”
The resorts partnered with NewLeaf to provide the travel packages and Kelowna-based Flair Airlines, an air charter service with five Boeing 737 jets in its fleet.
Ballingall, who is also the chair of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association says in just nine days of offering the packages sales have been brisk and the program is a success. He says they hope to offer more charters around the holidays and expand it to include other sectors of the tourism industry.
“Skiing will test this out but it it works for skiing why wouldn’t it work for wine or golf or mountain biking,” he said. “This is about getting better air service into the Okanagan Valley.”