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Group business back in Whistler in 2015

Expanding conference centre an option; 15,000 room nights attributed to conference incentive fund



Two options are on the table for an expansion to Whistler's conference centre, as group business rebounds in 2015.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who sits on the board of Tourism Whistler, confirmed she has seen the high-level findings of a draft of the expansion report, outlining the two options and what she called "very rough order-of-magnitude budgets."

The report has yet to come to council and has not been made public, but the municipality's 2015 budget includes a further $50,000 for a phase 2 study — a detailed business plan.

Among other things, this second report will "further refine and test the overall strength of the potential investment in building expansion in terms of its anticipated 'returns' in incremental local economic activity."

As resort partners quietly delve into the possibility of spending big bucks to expand the Whistler Conference Centre, 2015 is shaping up to be another busy year for conference and group business on the books.

"I think 2015 will get us much closer... much stronger to full recovery," said Tourism Whistler's Karen Goodwin, vice president of market development and sales.

The numbers tell the story.

In the past decade, the peak for conference business as a percentage of overall business was in 2006, with 34 per cent of the summer market.

That business took a dive in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown, hitting a low of 21 per cent in 2011. That corporate business has since been climbing back.

While the percentage of the market has remained around 21 to 22 per cent since them, summer business has also grown. In other words, group business has been getting stronger in recent years in terms of the actual number of room nights, at roughly one-fifth of the overall market.

Winter 2013/14 group business was about 11 per cent of room nights.

"2015 is pacing well and we expect an increase over 2014," said Goodwin. "While we won't reach peak levels of 2006, there is some good recovery."

Helping sweeten some of the dithering deals is a pot of money made available from Whistler's RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) fund.

Last year the municipality committed $150,000 to that "incentive" fund. To date, $20,000 has been doled out to two groups last November.

The remaining $130,000 is a line item in the 2105 municipal budget — a carryover of the unspent funds. A least $80,000 of that has been committed.

This "incentive" fund was a direct recommendation in the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report.

"The funds are used to secure key conference business to the resort in order to build economic impact, build incremental room nights," said Wilhelm-Morden.

The results, said Goodwin, speak for themselves.

That fund, in which group business is incentivized to come to Whistler with cash to offset things like travel costs, is directly responsible for adding roughly 15,000 room nights.

"There's a positive economic benefit to the resort," she said.

The business must meet three specific criteria:

• It must be a new event;

• It must come in the need period; mid-week and off-peak season;

• It must benefit multiple businesses.

"It's common practice in other destinations with much more money and probably less criteria," said Goodwin. "I think ours is an excellent program and the results speak for themselves.

"We're winning a whole bunch more business without the money as well."