If the resort seemed busier than usual this past January, it wasn't your imagination. According to Tourism Whistler numbers released on Tuesday, January 2012 is officially the busiest in resort history — up 23 per cent over Jan. 2011, and six per cent over the previous record from 2001.
Those numbers, and forecasts for the rest of the season, prompted Tourism Whistler to revise its forecast for winter 2011-2012. In November, Tourism Whistler was expecting visitor numbers to increase four per cent over the previous winter but that has now been changed to 10 per cent.
"We're seeing the pace of bookings has been quite strong since early season," said Breton Murphy, senior manager of communications at Tourism Whistler.
"There was great response to our Book Early and Save promotion, which had its deadline in mid-November. There was great response to the Whistler Sabbatical Project, and a lot of engagement with visitors to the site and awareness of Whistler as a whole that definitely resonated. Another success is the messaging about our snow advantage in late December and early January when compared to our many counterparts in North America and major resorts in the U.S. we had significantly more snow."
Also encouraging for Whistler is the fact that the trend to last minute bookings is shifting, and visitors — especially destination visitors from the U.S. and U.K. — were booking earlier and more often.
"Those are two markets in the current economic, global scenario have been hardest hit," said Murphy, "so to see growth out of those is really good for us."
The growth has been seen in all of Whistler's key markets, including the regional market, short-haul markets like Washington State and Australia.
Looking ahead, Murphy said the end of February and March were pacing ahead of last year in terms of bookings, while April is on par with 2011.
February numbers won't be available until mid-March, but the recent President's Day long-weekend was extremely busy.
"It's going to be interesting to see," said Murphy. "We won't have a sense of things until next month but the anecdotal feedback from our members is that it was busy. We talked to some hotels and they were speaking to the fact that they were at, or near, capacity, so it is great to see that rebound (from the U.S. market).
"The regional market continues to be our number one market, but to see that mix returning with destination and long-haul visitors is great for the resort."
Looking even further ahead, Murphy pointed out that the past three summers have been records for Whistler, all within a few percentage points of each other, and that generally speaking summer is a strong time for resort visits.
But while visitor numbers are up, Murphy said that value is still a major consideration for visitors.
"We seem to be returning to pre-recession levels of room nights, but that shifting consumer behaviour means that visitor spending is not rebounding to the same degree... If you chat to our members about how they feel the season is going, many are not seeing the same kind of yield they would have seen six or seven years ago."