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Revenues increase for WB in first quarter of season

Visitor numbers up five per cent over Christmas period

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Revenue for Whistler Blackcomb is up by two per cent, or $1.1 million, to $50.3 million for the first quarter of 2013 the first quarter of the 2012 season.

The revenue increase was largely a result of lift revenue increases and more money being spent per guest compared with the same period last year, reported Dave Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. on Feb. 1.

Brownlie spoke at the corporation's phone-in conference for media and shareholders, reporting financial results for the three months ending Dec. 31, 2012.

"I'm pleased with our results so far," Brownlie said at the phone-in.

As well, he said, total season pass and frequency card sales to Dec. 31, 2012 were a record $36.6 million, a six per cent increase over 2012.

There was a strong 16-day Christmas holiday period, where visitor numbers increased by five per cent over 2012 to 309,484.

There were 461,000 skier visits overall in the first quarter, which was consistent with the same period in 2012 and higher than the historical average.

Cash and cash equivalents ended strongly, he added, at $56.3 million as of Dec. 31, 2012.

Much of this good news came from strong numbers of regional visits, Brownlie said, which offset declines in the destination market. "Our efforts in the regional market had a stabilizing effect on our business and I am very pleased with our results," he said.

Two areas where numbers had decreased included destination visits from Europe, Brownlie noting Britain and Germany in particular. This impacted ski and snowboard school.

"As a result of the later start to the holiday period (which began on Dec. 22) our busy Christmas season pushed into January and had a delayed effect on holiday visitation patterns compared to last year and contributed to lower destination visits for the quarter," said Brownlie.

Effective ticket prices had grown for the period by 2.5 per cent, contributing to revenues. Incremental revenues from food and beverage, retail-rental and other divisions resulted in a two per cent increase in ancillary revenue.

The event was the first for Jeremy Black since he started as chief financial officer at Whistler Blackcomb in mid-January.

He said operating expenses for the quarter increased by $1.7 million or five per cent, compared with the same period last year. This was primarily because of increased wages and benefit costs, increases in labour in ancillary business units because of the increase in revenue, and timing related to supplies and maintenance.

Going into January 2013 and the start of the second quarter, year-to-date visits as of Jan. 27 were 852,000, an increase of 8,000 — or one per cent — over the same period in 2012. For January, skier visits had increased by two per cent, and destination skier visits also increased.

"I am cautiously optimistic that we'll continue to see growth in skier visits through the remainder of the second quarter," Brownlie said.

Capital investment was a buzzword during the discussion. The recent announcement of Whistler Blackcomb's plan to build the new high-speed detachable Harmony Six and Crystal-Zone Quad chairlifts for $18 million would contribute to growth in the 2013-2014 season and in the future, Brownlie said.

Ground will be broken on the two new lifts in May. Brownlie said the project could be financed entirely by Whistler Blackcomb.

Afterwards, investors questioned Brownlie about various aspects of the project, including what benefits the corporation expected to get from the investment. He answered by saying the new chairlifts would be positives in terms of attracting regional visits, with destination ski visits also being impacted by the improved quality of the experience.

David Lynn, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) believes capital investment of this sort is precisely why Whistler Blackcomb has done so well in recent years, citing the Peak 2 Peak Gondola and other investments.

"I think, absolutely, they're doing the right thing. It's a very competitive business, particularly in terms of destination skiers. Whistler, in particular, is striving to be a world-class resort so they have to invest in capital," said Lynn adding that it works as a good business decision because it helps WB remain competitive in world term–––s, and it addresses capacity constraints on the Harmony Chairlift.

"The bar is constantly being raised in terms of technology," he said. "And if people come to visit and they're stuck in lift lines, it's not positive in terms of generating repeat business. They have a very smart management team in Whistler and they wouldn't make that capital investment unless they knew they could generate a positive ROI from it."

On the back of Whistler Blackcomb's report, the Wall Street Journal on Feb.1 named Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. stock as a "Canada stock to watch."

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