No, you’re not imagining it: this summer is shaping up to be a relatively quiet one, by Whistler’s standards.
Despite crowds of guests still hitting the Village Stroll each weekend, Whistler Chamber of Commerce executive director Louise Walker recently confirmed various sectors across the resort are indeed experiencing a “softer” summer season compared to pre-pandemic years.
The tempered visitation in Whistler since the snow melted isn’t exactly a shock to tourism operators. Back in May, preliminary booking numbers prompted Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher to predict this summer season would finish behind summer 2019 in the record books. So far, “Performance data to date confirms that forecast to be accurate,” she explained in an emailed statement.
The six months spanning May 1 to Oct. 31 in 2018 remain Whistler’s busiest summer on record, due in part to a packed events calendar dotted with festivals like Wanderlust and the Canadian National BBQ Championships, plus races such as Ironman, Red Bull 400, and Tough Mudder. Room-night bookings in the resort dipped about two per cent the following year, before COVID-19 threw the global tourism industry into a tailspin in 2020.
While Fisher credited conference groups with helping “buoy overnight visitation” throughout May and June this year, she said booking rates for July and August continue to pace behind those pre-pandemic levels.
“July and August are typically more leisure-travel focused, and we can attribute the weakened demand to various factors such as global economic uncertainty, increased interest rates, higher overall travel costs, and travellers staying closer to home or prioritizing different vacations that they were unable to do during the pandemic,” she explained.
According to Fisher, Whistler has “seen a reduction in international visitation, which is typical in times of economic instability, and U.S. visitation to Canada has been slower to return post-pandemic than originally expected.”
In response, she said Tourism Whistler has directed more marketing dollars towards British Columbia and Washington state this summer, encouraging Pacific Northwesterners to consider a midweek visit to the resort before the cool weather hits.
But the slowed-down demand isn’t affecting Whistler’s overnight accommodation providers equally, said Melanie Keam, general manager at Delta Whistler Village Suites and chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.
“We’re seeing some variation, depending on the size of the hotel, with bigger hotels pacing slightly better and smaller hotels and unbranded [accommodation providers], in particular, faring slightly worse,” she said. “But overall, I would say there has been a softening in August, for sure.”
Keam attributed that to Crankworx shifting to July this year. Typically, the mountain biking festival brought about a slight uptick in visitation when it took over the resort for 10 days each August, Keam said. Now, “the pace across the two months seems to be more even,” she explained.
In response, “most hotels are responding to the consumer,” and lowering their prices accordingly, Keam said.
On the bright side, Keam said Whistler’s hotels appear to be better-staffed compared to previous years, based on discussions at the hotel association’s most recent meeting.
“The number of applicants has drastically improved … so most hotels are staffed up to be able to manage any level of demand that comes in,” she said.
“It’s the first time in a while we’ve been able to say that.”
Still, Walker said labour generally remains a challenge for many Whistler businesses. She estimated only about one-third are fully-staffed, with most of the remaining players between one and three employees short of a full roster.
Walker acknowledged there’s been “a small improvement from the winter season,” but maintained Whistler’s current staffing levels remain “far from ideal.”
But will those businesses see lower-than-pre-pandemic visitor volumes carry forward into the fall and beyond? Keam isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Just because Whistler has such distinct seasonality and such different customers who come from season to season, I wouldn’t say I’m ready to bank on this trend of softening demand continuing into future months.”