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Resort watching visitor trends closely

Mixed reports from Memorial Day long weekend



By Andrew Mitchell

Bucking recent growth trends, local businesses are reporting average visitor numbers for the U.S. Memorial Day long weekend. However, it’s too early to tell if the rising Canadian dollar or gas prices are having an impact on the regional market, while poor weather no doubt took its toll as well.

According to Breton Murphy, manager of corporate and member communications for Tourism Whistler, it will be at least a month before May’s numbers can be put into any kind of perspective.

So far the indicators are mixed.

“In terms of our pacing we do expect that the long weekend will be doing the same or a little less compared to last May,” he said. “ In terms of all the factors influencing that, we have to keep in mind the profile of the type of visitor we would expect. Obviously the regional market is important for weekend travel and can book at the last minute, so the bad weather no doubt had an impact on that.”

As for the record gas prices and rising Canadian dollar — which is nearing a 30-year high against the U.S. dollar — Murphy doubts that is having an impact at this point.

“If you look at the pace of our bookings for June, it’s actually up this year over last year, and last summer was a banner summer for Whistler — our best ever,” said Murphy. “We’re not just maintaining our performance, which is really great news.

“The rest of the summer is mixed. We’re not expecting July to outstrip last year… the context here is that last July was one of our best summer months ever for group businesses, and we don’t have the same numbers booked this year.”

Murphy says Tourism Whistler will keep an eye on gas prices and the rising currency, but is not as concerned with the things it can’t control.

“It may have an impact in the longer term in terms of the capacity people have to spend, so we want to be closely monitoring any points in growth of the dollar where consumer behaviour might change,” he said. “This is an issue that is always coming back so we don’t focus on it. We can’t presume a strong or weak dollar is something we can count on, we have to be able to compete based on the product offering we have, and offering them at a value.”

Stuart Rempel, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Whistler-Blackcomb, said the weekend met expectations for the most part.

“Certainly the weather has an effect on business. On Friday we exceeded our budget, Saturday we were on budget, Sunday was a bit of a challenge, and (Monday) we hit the ball out of the park,” he said. “Adding up the visits we say about 6,700 visitors on the three days, Saturday to Monday, which was close to our target or budget. But for the week before we exceeded our budget.

“It helps that our skiing product continues to be excellent, we’ve still got a good snow base and lots of terrain is still open. It’s only a small portion of our terrain, but it’s more than a lot of resorts can offer in the middle of the winter.”

With the Whistler Village Gondola closed for repairs, Whistler-Blackcomb is offering discounted sightseeing passes on Blackcomb — less than $20 — that have been well-received. As well, Rempel says the bike park is going strong.

As for gas prices and the dollar, Rempel says the challenge will be similar to past years when the resort was dealing with a slow U.S. economy and the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition, he believes new border regulations that require people to carry passports to visit or return to the U.S. are a present and future concern. Currently the new rules only apply to sea and air crossings, but the requirement will be expanded to all land borders next year.

“Certainly we’re concerned about gas prices and the exchange rate, but Whistler in particular at this time of year offers incredible value to both Canadians and Americans,” he said. “The hotel rates are low, the cost of activities is low. The restaurants are offering great Dine and Unwind deals. When you look at that, Whistler is quite surprising when you compare prices to other places like resorts in the Okanagan. In a lot of ways we can offer better value through the spring and summer, while also offering a wide range of different priced hotel properties.

“Part of our success over the last couple of years, and how we’ve grown our business as a resort over the last couple of years, is continuing to focus on great service and a great product, which equals great value. We cannot take our eye off that ball.”