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Holiday season adds 'positive momentum' for winter 2013

Some businesses set new records, others report busy break
THE PLACE TO BE The 2012-2013 holiday season was record setting for some Whistler business's. Photo by joern Rohde/

Craig Beattie didn't think it was going to get any better than New Year's Eve on top of Blackcomb Mountain, a crisp cloudless perfect winter's night and sold out fondue snowmobile dinner topping off an excellent day of business.

But, five days later on Saturday, Jan. 5, Canadian Wilderness Adventures broke that New Year's Eve sales record.

In a word, the general manager called this year's holiday business "incredible."

"The first five days of January have been outstanding," Beattie added of his snowmobile, snowshoe, dogsled and fondue tours.

Perhaps not everyone in town has had record-breaking numbers like Beattie's but holiday business has, by many accounts, been good this year, setting the stage for another positive season.

"We got out of the gate (in 2013) quite nicely," said Victoria Dyson, director of sales and marketing at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

Occupancy rates were up 14 per cent at the Fairmont this December over last December; occupancy at the Pan Pacific was in the 90 per cent range in the first week of January, and, at the Callaghan Valley at Whistler Olympic Park, there was a 30 per cent increase in day ticket sales this holiday season over last year.

But, perhaps most of all, the first week of 2013 offered a chance to capitalize on the positive momentum of a busy holiday season.

"I'm bullish on the rest of the year," said Jim Douglas, general manager of the Pan Pacific, who is already reporting a 20 per cent increase in bookings for next winter.

"When we get great snow, Whistler is a force to be reckoned with."

Abundant snowfall in early December beckoned guests over the holiday season and the winter wonderland weather kept them happy while they were here.

Unlike years past, however, Whistler Blackcomb officials would not comment on the holiday period business levels because the company is now publically traded.

In a press release, Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. (TSX: WB) declared a first quarter dividend of $0.24375 per share payable on January 25, 2013 to holders of common shares of record on January 22, 2013.

Senior manager of investor relations Jeremy Roche said the numbers would be available on Feb. 4, when Whistler Blackcomb releases its first quarter results (Oct. 1-Dec. 31). However, with a late start and schools out until Jan. 7, some holiday results won't show up until the second quarter report.

Other resort partners were much more forthcoming, painting a picture of busy hotels and restaurants and happy guests with no major transit or weather glitches.

Whistler businesses were prepared for a slow start to the winter break with school holidays falling later in the month and stretching later into the New Year.

"Our occupancy reflects that," confirmed Douglas.

December occupancy at the Pan Pacific was below last year because of the holiday timeframe but the first week of January made up for the slow start.

"Overall, I'm expecting to be ahead (this year compared to last year)," Douglas said.

The same was true at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and though it too was down occupancy-wise in December, room rates, like at the Pan Pacific, were up over last year.

"We had a significant rate growth in December this year," said Dyson.

The hotel, more than ever before, rolled out the red carpet for its guests this year with things like a large sized gingerbread house, a complimentary artisan cheese class and a beer tasting class, and for kids, a Build-A-Bear session; guests responded in kind.

Dyson said the hotel sold out its higher-priced suites faster than in years past where the basic rooms were first to go, another sign that visitors were spending more money than in previous years.

Wayne Katz, owners of Zog's, Moguls, Gone, and Lift in the Village, said some of his businesses were up while some were down. He can't account for the pattern.

Overall, however, his numbers are up five per cent over last year, which was also a year he saw increases.

"Everyone was in a good mood," said Katz of the vibe around town as people lined up for a Zog's Dog or a latte from Gone.

"Customers were excited and happy... The weather was perfect."

The weather contributed to increased business at Whistler Olympic Park where Whistler Sport Legacies reported not just a 30 per cent increase in day ticket sales this year, but also an increase in retail sales. Snowshoeing and tobogganing were also popular.

In town, revenue to the municipality from the new permanent village ice rink was $35,000 from 6,500 skate rentals and hot chocolate, up roughly $5,000 over the same period last year. There were approximately 7,700 visits to the Whistler Holiday Experience.

Dyson describes her predictions for the remainder of the 2013 winter season as "hesitantly optimistic" with strong numbers at this point... and beyond.

Corporate America, she said, is once again looking at Whistler for meetings. Whereas booking windows in the last few years have been inside the 18-month time frame, she's seeing group bookings beyond that now — another sign of growing confidence not just in Whistler but in the economy in general.

She added: "I'm signing some stuff in 2016 now."