Destination visitors to Whistler Blackcomb are up by almost a third according to the company's first quarter report for 2012.
"Our team has been focused on rebuilding destination visits and maintaining the record visitation levels in the regional markets that we established last season," said Dave Brownlie, president and chief operating officer of Whistler Blackcomb, during a conference call to discuss the report Tuesday.
"We are encouraged to see that our efforts in both the destination and regional markets have been effective to date."
Destination visits grew by 33,000 visits in the quarter, or 31 per cent and visitors spent more money on auxiliary services, particularly ski and snowboard school, retail and rental.
These are key numbers as Whistler Blackcomb can make up to half its money through rentals, snow school, food and shopping. Tickets make up the rest of the revenue.
Brownlie said key international markets, especially the U.S., U.K. and Australia, grew as "a direct result of our focused efforts to grow destination visits to historical levels."
This led to a six per cent increase in auxiliary revenues, including a 22 per cent increase in ski and snowboard school revenue. This push by Whistler Blackcomb to capture the destination tourist would continue through the second and third quarter, Brownlie said.
Breton Murphy of Tourism Whistler said their information on visitor numbers comes from tracking room nights and he believed that ultimately the season could be up by at least 10 per cent over last winter, making it the strongest season in four years.
"Our numbers aren't in yet for January, but there is no doubt that anecdotally this January was busier than last January, and it could be one of our strongest Januarys ever. That's right on the heels of our strongest December ever, for the resort, in terms of room nights," he said. "Bookings are very healthy."
He said margins may mean less revenue per visitor than in the past, depending on the Whistler company, and added that bookings were being made further in advance than in the past.
"We can say that as of today, what's on the books for February, March and April are ahead of what we saw last year at this time," Murphy said.
While Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. posted a loss of $2.8 million during its first fiscal quarter, this season the number of visitors and revenues are up.
The purchase of a 75 per cent interest in the partnerships that own the Whistler Blackcomb resort in November 2010 impacted earnings, with the $8.5 million net loss from October and November 2010 not included in last year's fiscal report.
The loss, for the three-month period ending Dec. 31, 2011, meant a net loss per common share of five cents compared to net earnings per common share of 12 cents — from revenues of $6 million — in the same period the previous year.
Brownlie said revenues for Q1 were $49.13 million, an increase of five per cent year-on-year.
Over 461,000 skiers visited during the period, consistent with the same period in the previous year and higher than the historical average, but regional visits — from B.C. and nearby Canadian provinces and U.S. states — were down by 31,000 or nine per cent. Generally speaking, there is a 1.2 per cent annual growth in skiers in North America.
Brownlie said Whistler Blackcomb expected regional visits to return to historical levels in the second and third quarters based on record season pass and frequency card sales.
He said sales in season passes and frequency cards were up eight per cent year-on-year as of Dec. 31, 2011, and added they "expected to see the return of regional skiers throughout the season to enjoy the excellent snow conditions on the mountains."
Overall, year-to-date visits to Jan. 31, 2012 are 902,000, an increase of 39,000 or four per cent over the same time last year, with a nine per cent year-on-year increase in January alone.
Brownlie said January's numbers meant the resort is "well positioned for the remainder of the season."
The report, to investors and the media, came the day after Whistler Blackcomb Holdings held its fiscal annual general meeting in Vancouver. Whistler Blackcomb Holdings trades as WB on the TSE.
Whistler set room night records in December with numbers up six per cent over the previous record holder — December 2007 — and up 12 per cent over last year.
Part of it is thanks to weather patterns, which have put seven metres of snow on the mountains while leaving many of the popular ski resorts in the U.S. and even Europe with little precipitation in the way of snow.
In recent weeks Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb have been investing in the regional marketplace with significant marketing going into California and Ontario and Washington State.
Last year Whistler Blackcomb saw 2.5 million visits — 2,030,000 winter visitors and just under 500,000 summer visitors, which was inline with the 12-year average. Traditionally the number of destination and regional visits is evenly split, but last year the number of regional visitors outpaced the destination guest numbers.