News » Whistler


By Alix Noble The number of new visitors to Whistler is not keeping pace with the rate at which new hotels are being built, according to figures released by the Whistler Resort Association. Although hotels and other types of commercial accommodation weathered this past winter, projections are that by the end of 1997, the number of rooms will increase by 21 per cent. This outstrips the projected increase in tourists over the same period. "As a result (of the increase) I think you'll see people having difficulty keeping rooms full," said Laurie Vance, a past WRA director at large and manager of the Blackcomb and Mountainside Lodges. "We managed to maintain this year, but we need to do more to stay there for next year." To spur growth in the number of visitors, the WRA is stepping up its strategic marketing plan, but according to Barrett Fisher, marketing director at the WRA, "it would be next to impossible to keep up." The boom in construction resulted in 13.4 per cent more room units for the 95/96 ski season than the previous winter. Although more people than ever visited Whistler this past winter, the number of room nights was only up 6 per cent from the year before, leaving many hotels feeling the crunch, especially during the tail end of the season. One room unit, according to the WRA, is a single hotel room or condo unit. The WRA rental pool accounts for 70-80 per cent of the tourist accommodation in the valley and is a good indicator for Whistler in general. There is a demand for all the new room units, but this winter the demand came only during the peak season of February and March, when the number of visitors was up 17 per cent over last year. Marketing strategies aimed at destination skiers, who stay longer and have higher daily expenditures, increased the number of international visitors this year. During peak season, much of the 17 per cent increase consisted of destination skiers, particularly from the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Brazil. Complex marketing programs already in place aim to encourage these and other skiers to visit Whistler at times other than February and March. Most blame a drop in the number of regional skiers for the low visitor figures in the non-peak season. The North Shore mountains experienced a reasonable snow year, and "for those that can ski in their backyard for less, that option is more attractive," said Vance. Poor weather at the beginning and end of the ski season also affected the number of people on the slopes. Despite the record number of winter visitors, actual skier visits were down from last year’s record by a projected 3 per cent. Although there is not a lot of correlation between snowfall and skier visits, according to Kim Needham, co-ordinator of the municipality’s monitoring program, "We didn't look at rainfall. Rain would affect skier visits." The increasing number of activities for those who don't want to ski could also account for a decrease in skier visits — there are more options even if the ski conditions are good, said Vance. Despite the so-so winter, the WRA and local hoteliers are optimistic about the summer season. Hotels project an 11 per cent increase over last summer, based on pre-booked rooms. The average summer room rate has also been increasing steadily the last few years. Recent marketing schemes, such as getting big U.S. airlines like American and United to sell Whistler 12 months a year, should have a "tremendous impact," Vance predicted. But summer business is harder to forecast than winter business because it is even more weather dependent. Almost 60 per cent of summer visitors are from Washington and B.C. — tourists who find it easy to leave Whistler if the weather is poor. Poor weather in the month of May set the summer off to a slow start, with 13 per cent less room nights than last May. Highway closures and traffic congestion on the bridges between Vancouver and the North Shore could also be a deterrent to summer tourists. As well, mid-week traffic between Squamish and Whistler is restricted at the moment because of the rock slide in the Cheakamus Canyon. The Department of Highways plans to begin paving three lanes around the rock slide site in late July. The regional market will be more affected than destination visitors.