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Are room nights on the rebound?

Promising shoulder season numbers, group bookings remain focus for hoteliers

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler has booked its second largest group of guests in the hotel’s 16-year-history for July. U.S.-based software giant Oracle has reserved more than 8,000 room nights, an indication that American groups are returning to Whistler after a post-9/11 hiatus.

"And they’re paying good rates," said general manager Paul Tormey.

The influx corresponds with positive room booking numbers released last week by Tourism Whistler.

Statistics gathered by Whistler’s marketing arm showed an incremental increase in room bookings for November, 2005 and April, 2006, a decrease in prime winter months, and a substantial increase for May bookings. The improvements are attributed to a return of group bookings, organizations that bring in 200 or more visitors at a time and account for 30 per cent of all rooms sold year round in Whistler.

Tormey said the changes are a return to Whistler’s pre-9/11 preeminence and are a result of an overheated U.S. economy.

"The U.S. is full," he said. "It’s very difficult to get rooms in Hawaii and Mexico and there is still some fear about hurricanes in Florida."

Tourism Whistler’s Michele Comeau Thompson said the 2002 SARS scare also took its toll on group bookings.

"Because a lot of meetings have a two or more year booking cycle it took people to work through the SARS situation and become confident with Canada as a destination again," she said.

Tormey, who sits on Tourism Whistler’s board of directors, said reasons why American travel to Whistler dropped off in the past few years have been over-analyzed but he maintains that focus on attracting group bookings needs to stay the course.

"Fairmont Chateau Whistler is investing significant time, money and effort in providing familiarity trips to Whistler to book groups," he said, adding that the hotel recently gave away 400 complimentary room nights to St. Louis-based Merritt’s Travel.

"Not one (of the group) had a problem at the airport or at the border and not one complained about currency," he said.

The Four Seasons’ director of marketing said there is no one reason for changing trends.

"You could ask 10 people here and depending on their business and who their customer is and what market they rely on and their answers would be different," said Ciro Tacinelli.

Unlike other Whistler hotels who experienced increases in group bookings only, the Four Seasons also saw growth in individual travellers.

"We’re a new experience in town and we have different clientele and we’re hoping to attract our customers here rather than compete with other hotels," Tacinelli said. "But if new hotels can come in and bring in new people who then have new experiences in Whistler who tell a new group of friends about it, that helps everybody."

Although Whistler room bookings were up 19 per cent in May, and the Westin Resort and Spa benefited from that increase, the hotel’s sales and marketing director said low group room rates made for a flat market.

"It’s a very nice piece of shoulder season business but it’s a very low rate," Les Pedersen said of Rotary International conference bookings at the hotel. "I saw some growth, mostly in the middle tier to low-end properties," he said. Pedersen said he is cautiously optimistic about projections for next season.

"We’re going to see turning the corner late this year or next year, God willing, and if Mother Nature blesses us again with a good dump of early season snow," he said, noting that Australia bookings for next winter are already coming in.

The Hilton’s general manager also emphasized the importance of shoulder season bookings.

"If we can fill the holes in May and June with groups I think we’ll do very well," said Pradeep Puri.

Noting that individual travel increased only two per cent while tour and travel conferences were up 34 per cent, Puri’s contention that Whistler’s success will be contingent on group bookings was echoed by the Westin’s sales director.

"The shoulder season group market is going to make or break it for us," Pedersen said, "and again it underlies the importance of group efforts to fill up the conference centre and the benefit that has to the village at large."