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Accommodation sector on edge before Olympic season

Tourism Whistler board chair gets candid with council



There's an undercurrent of tension and worry in Whistler's accommodation sector on the eve of the 2009-2010 winter season.

"We're getting very nervous," Roger Soane, the general manger of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, told council this week, speaking candidly as the chair of the board for Tourism Whistler.

The nerves come on the heels of the early booking pace reports, which don't look promising. That pace is off 20 per cent from last year (not including February, the Olympic month) and 30 per cent off of two years ago.

Whistler appears to be affected not only by the economic downturn but also Olympic aversion - a perception among potential visitors that Whistler is too busy, too expensive, and too chaotic in the Olympic season.

In short, even with the bright spot of the summer's business, said Soane: "It's been a horrendous year and it continues to be that way."

Historically by mid-November Whistler would have the majority of business on the books and secured.

"That's not the case this year," said Soane.

Before the afternoon meeting local media were asked by Tourism Whistler not to attend in order to facilitate open and frank discussions between council and the Tourism Whistler board. It was, however, a public meeting.

Tourism Whistler broke down the forecast for the season month by month.

While there is an obvious 21 per cent forecasted spike in February over last year, every other month is down by a handful of percentage points, save December. The Christmas month is forecast to be 12 per cent down over last year.

The brunt of the decline is from international guests.

"The biggest challenge... is that people are shopping and they're waiting until the last minute," said Soane.

He highlighted issues affecting their decisions, such as the new excess baggage charge from British Airways - 60 pounds to bring skis each way on the plane.

To combat that Soane said the Fairmont is looking at storing skis for people for a year to avoid the charge and to entice them back the following year.

There is also threat of a strike at British Airways over Christmas.

"That is making a lot of people very nervous about booking a flight with British Airways," said Soane.

The Australian market was also targeted as a key this season but, despite efforts to get Australians here, there has been little uptake.

"We've had very little pick up from the Australian market," he said.

With that in mind, Tourism Whistler will be focused on driving the regional market to the resort.

Mayor Ken Melamed recognized the challenging time but also pointed out that even though Whistler is down, it's still outperforming its competitors.

And while that offers "cold comfort" he said to resort businesses, it suggests that Whistler is staying on top of what can only be described as a challenging situation.

It's not all doom and gloom, with plans to "harvest the afterglow" of the Olympics and reap the benefits of hosting the world's media in February.

Council asked several questions about Tourism Whistler's efforts to entice ethnic minorities to the slopes, increase cultural tourism and capitalize on social media - all of which are on the organization's radar screen.

Another critical point raised at the meeting was the ongoing funding of the organization in the wake of several changes at the provincial level.

As the province moves to a harmonized sales tax (HST), the two per cent hotel tax will disappear. The tourism industry is lobbying government to make sure that funding stays in place.

Soane also said he was very concerned with Tourism British Columbia being swallowed by the provincial government, given that TBC funds Tourism Whistler to the tune of $500,000.

"These fundings are all in jeopardy," said Soane, adding that that could create a serious challenge for Tourism Whistler in the future.