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Early snow and mountain opening creates buzz but not bookings

Accommodation providers hopeful booking pace will pick up

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Early snow and the early opening of Blackcomb Mountain sent a buzz through the bookings market for winter sports enthusiasts.

But for many in the accommodation sector the excitement hasn’t translated into a heap of new bookings, yet.

In fact Tourism Whistler’s 120-day bookings pace report shows that the resort is down from last year.

"Right now if we look at the room bookings from Nov. 14 to March 12 it shows a 17 per cent decrease compared to the same time last year," said Tourism Whistler spokeswoman Michele Comeau.

That doesn’t mean Whistler will be down this much for the season, she said. The forecast is for only a slight variation above or below the bookings for last year.

Phones at the Westin Resort and Spa were busy as the snow began to fall and media across the country reported Blackcomb was up and running earlier than it had been in 20 years.

"It wasn’t a massive call to make reservations but that buzz did encourage the phones to ring," said Westin spokeswoman Monica Hayes. "There was so much talk in all areas about the mountain opening up so early so we got a lot of inquiries and people wondering what the conditions are like."

Hayes said bookings are about the same as they were last year at this time. But she is hopeful the pace will pick up.

"Once word gets out to our mountain destination travellers, they start talking, then you start seeing the results with increased calls," she said.

Paul Tormey, general manager at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, said bookings at the hotel are slightly ahead of last year.

"Last December was the best December in the 16-year history of the Chateau, and we are ahead of that now so that is encouraging," he said.

The early snow and opening of Blackcomb did cause a blip in interest and bookings said Tormey but the real value of it comes from how the resorts PR engine uses it to create interest around the world.

He also pointed to a continued reality for tourism providers across Canada – that U.S. visitors are not travelling the way they used to.

And travellers are booking much closer to their vacation times.

Last year Tourism Whistler did a survey of travellers to find out more about booking patterns. It found that the majority of B.C. travellers research, decide upon on a location, and book their vacation in under a month.

Over a third of travellers from Washington State research, decide upon and book their trip in less than four weeks.

Ontario travellers were evenly spread between booking their vacations in the short term, under a month, the medium term, one to two months, and the long term, more than three months.

California vacationers mostly booked in the medium and long term with a small minority booking in the short term.

If these patterns hold it’s likely Whistler will see bookings increase as the season goes on, with reliance in 2005 and early 2006 on regional travellers.

Comeau said Tourism Whistler is campaigning hard in those markets to bring guests to the resort. New marketing is underway, including a voucher program that aims to let visitors enjoy an activity, meal, or spa for free to help offset the gas prices.

New activities like the tube-park, new hotels and restaurants will also help.

Some of the reluctance to book is a result of last January’s awful rainstorm. It’s created a hangover that only great snow and good value will push out of the minds of mountain enthusiasts.

"We believe it is definitely a factor," said Comeau. "It is something that is very much the way skiers think and it is not necessarily rational. When they see there has been a poor snow year somewhere they will wait until their confidence is back before considering booking."

Whistler also plans to capitalize on the passing of the Olympic flag for the Winter Games from Torino to Whistler-Vancouver this February in Italy.

"That has a huge potential for keeping Whistler out there," said Comeau.

"It will be great media opportunity and great way to keep Whistler exciting."

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