Tourism Whistler has cut rates and added incentives to businesses and organizations planning conferences like never before, but conference business continues to lag significantly as a result of the weak economy and intense competition from other conference venues.
While there have been some bright spots for the resort, like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in June, the overall trend is down.
"The FCM was definitely huge but it wasn't a banner spring for us, it was okay," said Karen Goodwin, director of sales at Tourism Whistler. "It's been a tough year for hotels and the conference centre with cancellations and attrition, and we don't want to get clouded by a couple of wins in there."
September and October are typically big months for conferences in Whistler, but September is below average and October is significantly down. Some regular conference visitors, like London Drugs and B.C. Wood's Global Buyers Mission, are returning this year - although Goodwin couldn't say if they were bringing the same numbers as past years. Environment Canada is also holding a conference here this year.
Goodwin says the Olympic aversion effect - where visitors tend to avoid an Olympic destination before a Games because they believe it will be under construction or too expensive - is likely part of the problem, but says the weak economy is the biggest obstacle.
To combat those issues Tourism Whistler has been aggressive with special offers. During one week in June they announced a series of incentives to conference organizers that Goodwin says have generated some positive leads if not actual bookings. Some of those special offers could still be on the table, including free meeting space at the Telus Conference Centre, 30 per cent off transportation from Vancouver to Whistler, free retreats for boards of directors, low cost accommodation, and other incentives.
However, Goodwin says that Whistler is not the only destination resort providing these kinds of incentives to conferences, calling it an "extremely competitive landscape."
"We're competing against conference centres in Penticton, Kelowna, Vancouver, Banff, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax - all have their own special offers," she said. "Across Canada and the U.S. there are strong meeting offers right now, but what we can do is to remind conferences that we are a great place to meet, sell the destination, and sweeten things with a good offer."
On an average year conference business generates 52,000 to 54,000 room nights. At this point Goodwin cannot say where Whistler currently stands in relation to that average, or how things might look in 2010. While the Olympics have generated more interest in the resort Goodwin says the conference centre will be closed for the first three months of 2010 to serve as the media centre for the 2010 Winter Games. That reduces the number of conferences that the centre can conceivably host, although the rest of the year is tracking closer to average. But it's still too far out to make sound predictions.
Goodwin says Tourism Whistler isn't conceding anything yet, and is aggressively following up with leads while promoting the resort to small and medium-sized businesses and organizations in the region that don't require as much lead time to plan conferences and retreats.
"If anyone is still left deciding then we want to be top of mind with a good offer," she said. "Right now we're on sales calls in Vancouver, and everyone is knocking on doors. Some (businesses and organizations) are still considering, but it's tough because everybody is making an effort for that business."
To some degree Whistler is competing against the new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, although only for small and medium-sized conferences.
The FCM meeting, which attracted 1,700 delegates and about 300 spouses, was the largest conference in Whistler to date, and maxed out local facilities. By comparison, the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre can bid to host conferences as large at 10,000 delegates.