The outlook for Whistler’s tourism sector this summer is moving in the right direction coming out of the pandemic, but many of the challenges that have persisted over the past two years remain, caution local leaders.
With COVID-19 restrictions loosened and barriers to international travel opening up, Whistler is poised to experience what should be its busiest summer since 2019. According to Tourism Whistler’s (TW) forecasting, room-night bookings for the month of June are pacing approximately 10 per cent behind the same period in 2019. TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher also noted that May and June numbers “have been buoyant” partly thanks to conference and group bookings, many of which are holdovers from 2020 and 2021.
“That fares very well from a balanced visitation perspective,” Fisher said. “Because for us, it’s not only how we balance visitation year-round by raising up our fall and spring shoulder period months, but then in summertime looking at how we move visitation off of the peak weekends to encourage midweek visitation.”
In terms of the expected visitor makeup this summer, Fisher said TW is anticipating strong volumes from the provincial and national markets, while Whistler will likely have to wait a while longer to see a full return to pre-pandemic form from some of its historical international markets.
“When we looked at winter visitation this past winter, particularly the U.K., which is a pretty resilient market, we saw our U.K. visitors be pretty close to what we would see in a typical year, but then other international markets such as Australia, Mexico, Germany and whatnot, they will likely see a stronger return for next winter, 2022-23,” explained Fisher.
The local business community is also gearing up for a busy summer, and with more certainty heading into the season than in the past two years, Whistler Chamber of Commerce chair Diana Chan said businesses have been able to better prepare for what should be an uptick in sales—and staffing.
“The challenges haven’t changed. There is a balance of comfort for the business community and to be able to plan,” she said. “I think we’re getting a better understanding of what volume we’re going to be getting this summer and in order to service that volume, what the staffing levels needs to be so we can focus on, as best as possible, finding the right people.”
Always a persistent challenge locally, staffing remains a concern heading into the season, although Ottawa dedicating more resources to processing the backlog of immigration and temporary foreign worker files has helped somewhat. One added wrinkle this year, however, is the tightening of Whistler’s historical shoulder period.
“We used to have a bit more of a lull before heading into the season where people could take time off and have a bit of downtime. I’m not hearing the same stories,” Chan said. “What we’re hearing is we just rolled into another season and we need to give our teams a bit of a break. I’m interested in seeing how that plays out for the summer.”
You can also make a valid argument that Whistler probably does not appear as desirable to young seasonal workers as it once did, what with its longstanding housing and affordability crises, family doctor shortage, and now four-month-long transit strike. But it is very much an employee’s market, particularly in the hospitality sector, where there is ample room for career advancement, said Graeme Benn, GM of Delta Whistler Village Suites and president of the Hotel Association of Whistler.
“As the resort lurches forward, there’s going to be opportunities for people to move into management roles and supervisory roles,” he said. “I think it’s a season of opportunity for a lot of people who want to come and work in the resort.”
Recruitment is one piece of the puzzle, of course, while retention is another. Chan said the factors creating pressure points on Whistler’s frontline staff are the same that make it hard to keep employees in the long term.
“There are challenges to recruitment, for sure, but the number of people who come here and want to stay for a career, keeping them past a year is becoming more of a challenge,” she said.
This week is National Tourism Week in Canada. Prior to the pandemic, the industry employed one in 11 Canadians.