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Whistler’s renovated conference centre opens its doors.

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Expanded facility should generate new business for whole resort

With a checkerboard of sunlight columns warming the wood-pillared and rock-faced grand foyer the newly renovated Whistler Conference Centre feels more like a cathedral in the mountains than an institutional facility capable of hosting thousands.

And creating this image was no mistake.

"It is totally unique in comparison (with other conferences centres)," said Lynda Gilroy, director of meetings and incentive experience for Tourism Whistler.

Ahead of schedule and on budget, the conference centre will hold a gala opening Saturday, Sept. 27 after a yearlong face-lift.

And it is expected that Telus and the Whistler Conference Centre will make an announcement at the ribbon cutting regarding the re-opening of the facility.

Workers have been furiously finishing lose ends, hammering down carpets, cleaning windows and skylights, and sprucing up the awe-inspiring 12 metre-tall, low-emission Rumford wood-burning fireplace in preparation for the gala opening.

Organizers want everyone to feel right at home.

"The Whistler Conference Centre is very residential in its feel," said Gilroy.

"When you walk in you feel at home, whereas when you walk into some other conventions centres, you feel they are more institutional.

"And that is one of our major selling points about the resort. It is how we make you feel from the moment you arrive until the moment you depart."

It looks like Tourism Whistler’s message and the new $10.5 million makeover is having an impact on bookings. The centre is already 65 per cent booked for 2004 and there are booking all the way to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Included in those bookings is the US-based Automatic Data Processing conference, which has booked 6,400 room nights for August 2004. That is expected to inject $1.7 million into the resort.

Without the renovation and upgrade, said Gilroy, there is no way the resort could have hosted the ADP meeting. And there are several more like it on the books.

"What my team… targets is groups of 400 guest rooms and up," said Gilroy.

"Of course if we get the smaller groups we generate leads for the hotels and we distribute those leads to the appropriate hotels.

"But the conference centre is going to allow us to go up to… 1,500 delegates so the hotels get the guest rooms and we use the exhibit space."

But it is not just the additional 25,000 square feet of space which will attract conferences.

"(Long-haul U.S. groups) are typically very sophisticated meeting planners who are used to dealing with very high-end facilities," said Barrett Fisher, interim president of Tourism Whistler.

"We needed the higher end finishings, the technology, and we needed to ensure that it was a showcase facility to attract them.

"And it is meetings and incentive business which is going to balance our portfolio because high season for meetings business is spring, summer and fall."

The value of the lucrative partnership is not lost on hotels in the resort.

"I think it is going to be a great beacon and an opportunity for us to do well in that segment," said Mike Duggan, general manager of the Pan Pacific and chair of Tourism B.C.

"We’ve had a year where we have missed it certainly, and I think the resort has missed it, and I think properties like myself, that are within the village that don’t have substantive meeting space, well, we have missed it a little bit more. So we are really looking forward to its re-opening."

And the upgraded conference centre will not just benefit the resort said Duggan. It will be good for the whole province.

"Ever since 9/11 the meeting and incentives market has been a little bit challenged," said Duggan.

"I think you have to have renewed emphasis on getting out there and getting the story told in relation to what it is we have to offer. It needs to be one where at times, perhaps, several facilities get together and go to some of these marketplaces and tell them why British Columbia is a great destination.

"Some of these marketplaces are big and your message can get lost in the clutter so a stronger sell, I think, is sometimes a more beneficial route to go.

"Eventually you need to sift it down and see where the business is going to be, like Whistler, Penticton, Prince George, or Vancouver. But we need to get them thinking B.C."

For years there have also been grumblings that Tourism Whistler, in operating the conference centre, was directly competing against properties which have their own conference facilities.

But not so said Gilroy.

"With the extended capacity of the facility it is going to really complement the hotels that are now existing, like the Fairmont, the Westin, and the Delta," she said.

"We now have the ability to go after much larger groups, which will bring much more economic impact to the resort."

Indeed, Tourism Whistler is predicting conference goers will directly spend $28.7 million in the resort in 2004.

That’s a $10 million dollar increase in year one over previous years.

"We see that that will ramp up on an annual base for about four to five years at a similar level," said Fisher.

And that’s business small accommodation providers, activity businesses, retailers, restaurants, bars, and the big hotels can’t wait to share.

In fact, said Fisher, when you look at why conference centres are built, it is not just for the money they generate themselves, it is also for the spin-off effect they have on a community.

It is no surprise then that major properties are gleefully awaiting the conference centre’s re-opening.

"We are delighted about this," said Monica Hayes of the Westin.

"It gives us now an opportunity to go after much larger village-wide conferences where most of us as individual properties aren’t able to do so.

"There was a drop village-wide for group business this year. And while some of it had to do with a number of other global issues, there was a component there too because there was no conference centre that could handle that business.

"So when we talk about being thrilled and excited about the conference centre opening that is a fact. That gets us all back on track to go after those markets.

"It is a really great partnership, and as much as we are all competitors, it is all of our efforts in putting it all together that makes us successful as a destination."

Fisher concurs.

"Our strategy is to complement what our hotels are already offering, not to compete with them," she said.

"We want to add value.

"It is going to take meetings business to new heights because we now have a central conference centre in the resort that is at the same level of brand-integrity as the resort itself.

"It has the size and scope of being truly a destination resort conference centre."

Add the cache of being chosen to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games into the mix and the former humble ice-rink masquerading as a conference centre will surely turn into the phoenix rising from the fire.

"When we do look at other Olympic destinations, in fact, targeting the meetings and incentive markets has been where they have seen their greatest success," said Fisher.

"Large groups want to be affiliated with the Olympic name and want to have the opportunity to meet in the facility pre-Olympic and post-Olympic.

"It gives some added excitement, exposure and profile to their event.

"And I think there is a real belief that… if we have the capabilities to pull off such a large scale event then we absolutely have the capability of showcasing important corporate and association meeting planners and their event throughout North America.

"So it does put you a notch above."