When Tourism Whistler senior communications manager Breton Murphy first saw the numbers from February 2012 he thought there had been a mistake. The number was high, a 23 per cent increase from 2011. It also happened to be the same percentage increase reported for January 2012 over January 2011.
"The numbers were exactly the same, so I had to go back and check again," he said. "It didn't seem possible."
In context, it should be noted that February 2011 occupancy was on the weak side for the resort, but even so a 23 per cent increase will make February 2012 the biggest February on record, aside from the 100 per cent occupancy experienced in the 2010 Olympic year. And, unlike January, the increase can't wholly be credited to the lack of snow at other ski resorts with snow finally reaching resorts in Utah, Colorado and California — although still far less snowfall than Whistler, where the resort reached its annual average for snowfall last week (1,042 centimetres) with over two months remaining in the season.
A lot of Whistler's bookings were also made before the snow even started falling with huge interest in the resort's annual Book Early and Save promotion. Based on early bookings the resort was predicting that visitor numbers would be up four per cent this winter compared to the previous year. By the end of January that figure was revised upward to 10 per cent.
Murphy wouldn't guess whether this season could turn out to be the busiest yet for the resort, but March is traditionally one of the busier months and bookings this year are pacing ahead of last.
"It's one of those things we're cautiously optimistic about when (the numbers) come in," said Murphy. "We are pacing for this March to be ahead of last, and we still have April to contend with — and again we're forecasting for this April to be at least on par (with 2011). With all those factors in play, no doubt this season will be a strong one, but we'll have to see whether it's one of our strongest ever."
Murphy also cautioned that while bookings are up, room rates are still at historical lows for the resort and profit margins for hotels are lower than before the financial crisis.
As for where all the visitors are coming from, Murphy said the good news is that people seem to be coming from everywhere. "Every one of our key markets is showing growth," he said. "Our regional market is up over last year, and our key destination markets — the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Australia, for example — all of these are seeing double-digit percentage growth over the previous February."
One nice surprise is a triple-digit increase in visitors from Brazil, although Brazilian travellers are still a relatively small sliver of the market.
Murphy also wouldn't try to credit the increase to any one thing, but said it's likely a combination of factors that includes price, snow in Whistler versus the lack of it in other markets, or spin-off from the resort's Olympic exposures. "When you look at all the factors together there's a correlation there and they're all contributing," he said.
It was particularly important, he added, to advertise Whistler's snowpack early in the season when other resorts were struggling to open.
"We knew we had to get the word out to the U.S. and overseas that we had snow because there was a lot of media attention given to the fact that a lot of areas of the U.S. didn't get snow in the early season," he said. "We needed to let the word know that we had lots of it."