By Andrew Mitchell
Although the Whistler summer season isn’t considered officially over until the end of October, Tourism Whistler is reporting the highest visitor numbers in resort history, with the potential to break the previous record set in 2002 by nine per cent.
Overall, TW is predicting room nights from May to the end of October 2006 to be up 13 per cent from 2005, with monthly rates on par or ahead of the peak numbers of 2002. Further, it appears that gains in room nights are spread out over a variety of sectors, with increased bookings from independent travelers, tour and travel operators, and group business.
Group business numbers were the most significant contributor, with events like the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Summit and World Mountain Bike Conference in June, and conventions such as one hosted by Oracle Corporation in July and by B.C. Wood Products in August boosting the bottom line. In total, the Telus Whistler Conference Centre has hosted more than 45 groups and events this summer, generating an estimated 25,000 room nights. Between June and September, group numbers were double the previous summer.
Whistler’s growing reputation as a mountain bike destination also brought visitors to the resort, with the Whistler Mountain Bike Park again breaking records with rider numbers over 98,000 — an increase of 10 per cent over the previous year. Each year since 1999 the bike park has broken the previous year’s records with double digit growth.
As well, the Crankworx freeride mountain bike festival was a major draw to the resort. According to one survey the festival brought 24,000 people per day to the resort, with total room nights up 32 per cent during the festival compared to the same period in 2005. The average stay was 6.6 nights.
Golf was also successful, with total golf rounds at Whistler’s three courses up and Big Sky Golf and Country Club up three per cent compared to last year.
According to Michele Comeau Thompson, director of communications for Tourism Whistler, summer weather definitely helped draw visitors.
“It was a fantastic summer for weather, no question, and that has definitely had an impact on tourists coming up from Vancouver for the day,” she said. “New this summer, we also saw growth as a result of the new train services to Whistler, the Rocky Mountaineer Discovery Route as well as the Whistler Mountaineer.
“If you break it down, tour and travel group bookings were up 12 per cent, and that’s the category where we would include something like the train service. I know the numbers exceeded their projections with 50,000 guests on the Whistler Mountaineer, 39 per cent over their projection.”
Following the trend set the previous winter, summer bookings also emphasized value, with low room rates and packages.
“Definitely value is a focus for our marketing throughout the year, and summer offers just incredible value. Even compared to other B.C. destinations… we have amazingly competitive rates,” said Comeau Thompson. “I think a lot of people are starting to rediscover Whistler and those offers really help.”
The markets that responded to the value message include British Columbia, Washington, Ontario, the U.K. and, increasingly, Alberta and California. Mountain biking is a strong draw for those areas, as well as golf.
Tourism Whistler is expecting strong bookings for the coming winter, with a forecasted increase of three per cent over last year — while trailing the resort’s record season of 2000-01 by 11 per cent. Last year’s season was the best in several years, based on the strong interest in value package deals, the exceptional snow, and increased visibility because of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.