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Holiday numbers show improvement

The economy hasn't fully recovered by Whistler businesses showing improved capacity



Olympic aversion has disappeared but Whistler businesses are still facing a number of challenges related to an ever-evolving travel market.

Hotel bookings and spin-off business in the resort community has been reshaped by online promotions that encourage tourists to wait for last minute deals rather than securing their vacations months ahead of time. While some folks still prefer the security of nailing down their Christmas plans well in advance, an increasing number of travelers are choosing to save money by holding out for deals close to the holiday.

The impact in Whistler over the Christmas period varied depending on the business.

"What we saw was the return of some of our longer staying guests over the festive period, which was great," said Andrew Peart, director of marketing for the Four Seasons Hotel in Whistler. "What we didn't see is the pick up of the last minute business that we were expecting. There is a lot of last minute shopping going on so people are definitely looking for the best deals they can, so there is a mix of the two markets."

While Peart said occupancy at the Four Seasons in December was down from 2008, Delta Whistler Village Suites reported a rise of five per cent from the pre-Olympic year.

Tourism Whistler hasn't released its official December occupancy rates for the resort but manager of research Louise Walker said their preliminary data is showing improvement over last year, though occupancy is still behind what it was in 2008.

"It's so difficult to compare to two years ago because everyone is making all these last minute bookings so pacing behind two years ago is more reflective of booking changes," Walker said. "I think we'll probably end up on par or even slightly ahead of two years ago."

When one of the biggest snowstorms of the last 30 years hit the United Kingdom in mid-December, closures at Gatwick and Heathrow airports had a far-reaching impact in Whistler. At Summit Sports, owner Ian van Gruen estimates that 20 per cent of their December business comes from UK customers, many of whom gave up their Christmas travel plans to Whistler after waiting for days for the airlines to fly.

"We do pre-bookings for rental equipment and we did a lot of refunds that week for people who just gave up on coming," said van Gruen. "They would have been better if there hadn't been the problems at Heathrow and Gatwick. We probably saw a loss of revenue just in refunds from pre-books, a pretty significant amount there. We generally get as many or more walk-ins and then all the periphery stuff they would have purchased as well so that had an impact on business between Dec. 17 and 24, but following that the second week of the Christmas holiday was as strong as ever."

van Gruen said Summit's sales numbers were up over last year and that his store's four-year trend is strong.

At Fanatyk Co Ski & Cycle, manager Bernie Duval said the UK closures had no effect on business. Recent store expansions and an improved storefront presence in the village helped mitigate any losses.

"We were slammed, things were definitely busier this year, for sure for us," he said. "It was very positive, we had lots of Europeans, lots of South Americans, more than usual. About the same amount of local customers that come back every Christmas. We were at full capacity pretty much the full time."

Final resort occupancy numbers will be released by Tourism Whistler in late January.

Anecdotal evidence suggested there may also have been considerable day skier visits during the holiday period. Vehicle traffic coming into Whistler was heavy each morning during the holiday break. South-bound traffic each evening was also heavy.



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