Putting down a barely half-eaten sandwich, Whistler Information Centre manager Tina Hayward is quick to greet visitors with a smile, even those who interrupt her hasty lunch break. "Oh its okay," she laughs, "I dont usually get a chance to finish lunch in one sitting."
One look inside the busy info centre and its not hard to see why. Visitors bee-lining from the bus loop stand behind sun-tanned families with bike helmets and curious European backpackers, all waiting to speak with one of three or four friendly employees. You wonder what these people must eat for breakfast, being able to jump from one tourist to the next with such genuine enthusiasm. "Hello," they chirp, and with one flashy move they peal off a fresh map of Whistler Village from the stack in front of them while at the same time un-capping a thick black marker.
"And how can I help you?"
And so it goes, about 500 times per day.
The Whistler Visitor Information Centre has set new visitor traffic records every month since it moved to its new location in April 2003.
This June, the info centre provided more than 16,000 visitors with local directions, activity information, and accommodation referrals, among other services. In May the number was only slightly lower at 15,000 visitors, reflecting a four-fold increase over the same time period last year.
Much of the increased traffic is due to the info centres new location, across from the village bus loop. Before the move the info centre was located in Creekside, across the highway from the Husky Station, where it served 200-300 people per month less than the centre now helps every day.
"The new location certainly enhances guest arrival in Whistler. Tourists (who visit the centre) get a quick, convenient orientation. For them its one stop shopping," commented Brent Leigh, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber runs the Whistler Information Centre under a network contract with Tourism B.C.
Hayward says visitor trends have remained constant for the past four to five months. A majority of visitors to the info centre are international travellers, coming to Whistler for the day then heading back to Vancouver for the duration of their trip. In a recent newsletter Hayward describes many of the visitors as either RVers, twenty-something backpackers from Europe, Quebec, and Brazil, or senior citizens from Florida, Texas and California.
Hayward noted that one of the major goals of the info centre is to show the day-visitors all of the opportunities that Whistler has to offer and to break down the perception that accommodation costs in Whistler are prohibitive.
Leigh adds that this opportunity to encourage return visits among short-term tourists was largely missed in the old location. Both Leigh and Hayward are hopeful that short-term visitors who come to the info centre will later return to Whistler for a longer stay.
"The economic impact of the visitors decision-making process is significant so we try to do our part in helping the experience be a positive one for everyone involved," says Hayward. "In this way the guest has a memorable experience, chamber members benefit from increased exposure and hopefully this will positively impact our local economy with increased revenue and return visits."
In addition to helping visitors, the info centre also provides benefits for local businesses and residents.
"We strongly encourage local residents and businesses to find out about what we are doing in the community," says Hayward. "As the first point of contact for many visitors to the area, we are helping to shape their experience in the resort, and we want Whistler residents and businesses to be a part of this work."
With such large numbers of daily visitors, the Whistler centre provides an opportunity for local businesses to get exposure with tourists who are new to the area.
According to Hayward, one of the most commonly heard questions is "What is there to do here?"
In response, info centre employees ask visitors about their specific interests and then refer them to local businesses. When making these referrals, the info centre usually gives preference to those local businesses that are members of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.
Business owners can also receive information about visitor trends, and as a result can make more informed decisions about where to spend limited marketing dollars.
Local businesses can join the Whistler Chamber of Commerce for a fee of $250 per year.
Many local businesses have experienced an increase in visitor numbers since the info centre moved last year. Eliot Moses, owner of Whistler Eco-Tours, says he is "very happy with the job they do (at the info centre)." He has seen a "huge, huge increase" in the number of people coming to W.E.T. as a result of info centre referrals.
The success of the info centre thus far is only the beginning of what is expected to be a busy summer season. It looks like the centres employees can look forward to hasty lunch breaks all summer long.