Pace of booking strong for U.S. Thanksgiving as Whistler sets more records 

October up 12 per cent over last year, Cornucopia up 30 per cent

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER - CRUSHED IT Many Cornucopia events sold out in the 19th annual edition of Whistler's food and wine festival, which was the busiest yet.
  • Photo by Mike Crane / Tourism Whistler
  • CRUSHED IT Many Cornucopia events sold out in the 19th annual edition of Whistler's food and wine festival, which was the busiest yet.

Whistler's marketing efforts south of the border may have tipped the scales in setting a new banner year for Cornucopia.

But that was just one factor driving ticket sales up 30 per cent over last year for the 11-day food and drink festival. While most of the attendance still comes from the Lower Mainland, and this year's attendance surge is based on things like the expanded programming and the positive and increasing word-of-mouth recommendations, Whistler is also trying to capitalize on the low Canadian dollar and entice more Americans north.

"This year we made a concentrated effort there (marketing in Seattle), based on the strength of their dollar and the incredible value," said Watermark president and Cornucopia producer Sue Eckersley.

"Cornucopia is an incredible value whether you're on par or not."

Cornucopia's record-breaking numbers come as Tourism Whistler confirmed that October's room nights in Whistler were up 12 per cent over last year. It has been a familiar refrain for almost every month this summer — each increasing over the record-breaking summer of 2014, some by double-digits, like October.

American guests, however, are just one part of the equation.

"In October, conference and group bookings were up by seven per cent over last year and accounted for one in three room nights booked," said Patricia Westerholm, Tourism Whistler's manager of communications.

Americans have been flocking to B.C. this year. According to the year-to-date overnight custom entries up to September, total U.S. visits to B.C. are up 9.4 per cent this year, accounting for almost 4.2 million guests. September alone brought 500,000 U.S. guests to B.C., up 12.3 per cent.

It is not clear how many of those are travelling up the Sea to Sky highway.

Despite the enticing dollar exchange — the Loonie is .75 cents to the greenback — the Americans aren't yet putting their money into Whistler's real estate, as they've done in years past when the exchange rate was this good for them.

Local realtor Ray Longmuir, with the Whistler Real Estate Company and a board member of the American Friends of Whistler charitable organization, said that as of the end of September, there was essentially the same number of U.S. buyers in the Whistler marketplace as the previous year.

"I thought that was unusual given the fact that in 2014 they were paying a dollar (Canadian) for a dollar (U.S.) and in 2015 they're getting a 25- to 30-per-cent discount," said Longmuir.

"We have noticed an increase in enquiries from Americans, not a huge increase... that hasn't translated into sales as of yet. I anticipate that this winter it will, but we haven't seen that yet."

The last time the dollar was at this level, he added, there were double the American buyers in the marketplace. But that was when real estate was king in Whistler and Americans not only had equity in their homes, but also had easy access to cash from lenders.

"One could speculate that it is because of the fact that they just don't have the same access to cash and a fundamental feeling of security in the real estate market... Back prior to 2008 they had an almost feverish speculative view of the marketplace where it was just always going to be going up."

And then the sharp reality of the economic downturn hit.

"As a result, they're much more careful with their purchases," speculated Longmuir.

Tourism Whistler cannot yet say if it's Americans driving the pace of booking for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, but the weekend is pacing ahead of this time last year.

"In terms of this coming weekend, the pace of bookings is ahead of last year for the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, showing strongest numbers on Friday and Saturday," said Westerholm. "The early snow and Whistler Mountain's early opening have generated a lot of interest and excitement for winter. We also had a Book Early and Save promotion, which ended Nov. 14. The U.S. dollar remains strong against the Canadian dollar, offering exceptional value to our U.S. visitors."

Bolstered by Cornucopia's 2015 success, Eckersley said the 11-day festival is now anchored firmly in the calendar and is on the radar for more and more people.

"People bought tickets far in advance of other years, which I think is significant because people know that things are going to sell out — House Party is going to sell out, Taste of the World sold out 10 days before it happened, Crush was close to sell out, Poured was sold out and we had to order more glasses in order to accommodate additional ticket sales," she said.

"I really like the positioning of Cornucopia right now."

And there's still room to grow, particularly in the new brands like The Picnic and Brood, as well as room to grow the early-week events, positioned in the middle of the festival.

"This year was significant," said Eckersley.

"The village was busy. I'm really excited. This is the third year of the expanded (11-day) program. As you know with businesses, you create the three-year plan to see whether it's going to take. And (Cornucopia has) more than taken."

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