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Whistler seeing positive start to winter

Blog by Nick Swinburne | December 3rd, 2010

With the U.S. Thanksgiving Weekend, large quantities of snow and the opening of Blackcomb, the first post-Olympic winter season truly got underway in Whistler last weekend. Despite continued concern about the economy and a tendency for guests to book at the last minute, visitor numbers were generally positive.

Tourism Whistler won't have any numbers for several weeks, but according to Breton Murphy, the senior manager of communications, the anecdotal evidence so far suggests that it was a good start.

"In terms of feedback, anecdotally, definitely the early snow and the World Cup (bobsleigh and skeleton) contributed to some visitation," he said.

Call volumes to Whistler.com are down, Murphy says, but it's difficult to compare to last year when they were receiving numerous calls related to the Olympics. This year he says calls are generally from people who want to visit Whistler, and the number of sales per call is higher.

Jim Douglas, general manager for the Pan Pacific hotels, said the numbers were encouraging.

"I don't know if it was better than we expected, but from a guest relations standpoint it was pretty spectacular and our guests had an amazing time," he said.

Douglas said they were close to full on Saturday and through Friday and Saturday they were at roughly 85 per cent occupancy - a little better than the last few U.S. Thanksgiving long weekends.

However, guests only stayed for an average of two nights instead of three or four, shorter than in the past - something Douglas says shows that the economy is still struggling.

Going forward, Douglas says they are cautiously optimistic.

"We're encouraged with how we're looking for Christmas week and we have some business out of Australia - although we continue to be concerned with the U.S. market. To that end we're thrilled with the some of the recent marketing by Tourism Whistler and the big push in the U.S. - like the big TV ad campaign that was in the San Francisco Bay area.

Douglas also gave high marks to Whistler Blackcomb. While there was only limited terrain he said the skiing experience impressed a lot of guests all the same.

"I went up and did a sight tour of the mountains with VIPS on Sunday, and after four years in Whistler I continue to be encouraged and amazed by the quality of workmanship at Whistler Blackcomb," he said. "The guest service was impeccable. They had people brushing snow off the benches of the gondola, they were friendly and said hi to everyone, the food was good. If the resort continues to focus on those things, and focus on the road and transportation connectivity, it's going to be very good. Nothing can replace people going home and being ecstatic about their stay."

At the Hilton Resort and Spa, General Manager Stephen Webb said it was a good weekend, and the future also looks positive.

"It was a good Thanksgiving," he said. "Business was up significantly over last year. It was good to see so many U.S. licence plates in the parking lot, and we hope that's a sign of good things to come for the rest of the winter.

"December is certainly moving well for us now with the snow, and we expect the rest of the winter to follow along."

For the Aava Whistler Hotel, the new kid on the block after opening in November 2009, this is their first non-Olympic winter.

"It was pretty good," said general manager Colin Hedderson. "Definitely it shook everybody back into the high season, because it was a quiet November otherwise. With the snow and Blackcomb opening and Americans coming back, it was really good to see. Saturday night we were 92 per cent occupied, which really tuned up the staff and got all the juices going."

Hedderson says they've worked hard to get their name out there, partnering with events like Crankworx and Cornucopia. They are also a presenting partner of the Whistler Film Festival.

"We were quite aggressive with our rates last year to try and gain a little market share, and we made good strides as a participant in village events," he said. "We tried to get our name involved with any action going on in the village, and we're definitely starting to see some customer loyalty and return visits."

Many guests this weekend were from the Lower Mainland, but Hedderson also noted a large number of American plates in the parking areas, as well as the good-sized crowds in the village.

Looking ahead, Hedderson says Christmas is looking strong and interest is picking up in general.

"The early opening was positive, this weekend was really positive as well. With more snow we'll see more regional traffic up the highway for the weekends which we can really build on," he said.

Tourism Whistler's pace reports suggest that overall the winter occupancy will be down 2.7 per cent compared to last year - which he says will be hard to top with about 95 per cent occupancy for the Olympic period and strong bookings through all of February. However, Murphy says the recent numbers suggest that the resort will be up around three per cent compared to the winter of 2008-09 - a tough winter overall with the financial crisis and Olympic aversion effect.

Christmas is looking good. Bookings suggest visitor numbers will be up eight per cent over the same period last year. It's particularly strong after Christmas with the greatest demand between Dec. 27 and Dec. 31.

That's good news, but Murphy says Whistler also has a number of challenges going forward. One of them is the fact that pace reports can only provide information about bookings a few weeks out, while people are continuing to book at the last minute.

As well, the tourism industry as a whole is facing challenges. Not even the Olympics can change that.

"A lot is in our favour right now, like the great early snow, plus we know the awareness of Whistler has increased significantly in key markets because of the Games," he said. "We saw that immediately after the Games in our research of overseas market and our summer surveys showed that visitors were positively influenced by the Games, both in their awareness of Whistler and their desire to be here - and last summer was our third-busiest summer ever.

"Between the early snow, the Nordic trails opening up, the World Cup bringing some awareness and showcasing how beautiful it is, and with the Whistler Film Festival right around the corner, there are some great opportunities to leverage - but always in the context of a challenging economy, a strong Canadian dollar, issues with flights - which is a challenge because air travel costs are higher than last year.

"Those factors are out of our control, but we can focus on giving compelling reasons for people to come this winter season."