The summer of 2007 was the busiest ever for Whistler, and so far the numbers for 2008 appear to be similar.
Tourism Whistler is still putting together data from May and June, but Breton Murphy, manager of corporate and member communications, says business was likely up between five and 10 per cent compared to May of 2007 — largely because of growth in conference and group travel that offset a small decline in independent travel. June numbers are not in yet, but Tourism Whistler is also expecting to see some growth.
Based on advanced bookings, the months of July and August are slightly behind last year. However, with a greater emphasis on the regional market and the fact that many summer travelers make last minute travel decisions based on factors like weather, Murphy says the expectation is that 2008 will be on par with last year.
“It comes back to our approach of having a balanced portfolio of markets that we’re targeting,” said Murphy. “We are seeing a softness in the U.S., but growth out of B.C., as well as the U.K. and Australia.
“We’re very cognizant of changes in the U.S. market with consumer behaviour, and the challenges facing the economy, the fuel prices, the exchange rate, and we’re monitoring that quite closely.”
The resort is emphasizing the value message, and the fact that hotel rooms are available for $99 through the summer. That helps to offset the increased cost of gas, says Murphy, especially for visitors driving to Whistler from across the province and Washington state.
Murphy adds that Tourism Whistler anticipated the softening U.S. market, and in reply has a summer marketing strategy in place that emphasizes regional markets, such as western Canada and western U.S. states rather than markets in the east.
Murphy points to a recent survey that found that one in five Washington residents would make travel decisions based on gas prices.
“If one in five would, that means four in five wouldn’t, and that’s a good sign,” said Murphy. “Recent research also suggests that Americans are not deciding not to travel, but when they do travel they will be travelling shorter distances and for maybe a shorter length of stay and ways they can curb their spending.
“It’s an opportunity for us, when you look at the value Whistler offers, particularly in the summer. Compared to a lot of destinations it’s exceptional, and that message of value that we’re been delivering for years needs to continue to be delivered. Once we get that value message through, we can build on that with our reputation as a youthful, world class, and welcoming destination with a spectacular mountain environment and endless choices for activity.”
More research shows that the average drive most U.S. travelers are expecting to make for summer holidays are in the range of four hours. Murphy says that gives Tourism Whistler a rough idea where the biggest return on their marketing investment will be this summer, and for the U.S. this season. While Seattle is slightly out of that range, it’s still one of the closest, biggest urban centres in the region and will get some attention as well.
Tourism Whistler recently brought in Peter Yesawich from Y Partnerships, a travel consultant group that focuses on U.S. travel trends and data. According to Murphy the discussion on attracting U.S. visitors — still the largest market for Whistler — was so valuable that they are bringing Yesawich back for a session with Tourism Whistler members on July 22.
One of Yesawich’s messages was for all of Tourism Whistler’s members to be involved in the overall value message for the resort. Better informed members are also valuable, with new products like the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre open this summer, and the Peak 2 Peak Gondola opening this winter.