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How Whistler accommodation providers are navigating travel restrictions

Tourism Whistler has suspended marketing until at least Dec. 7
N-Accomodation Providers 27.48 GETTY IMAGES
Whistler’s accommodation providers have had to navigate the province’s recent messaging around non-essential travel ahead of what stands to be a lean holiday period. gettyimages.ca

With provincial health officials reiterating the recommendation against non-essential travel last week, accommodation providers in Whistler are girding themselves for what is likely to be one of the slowest holiday periods in recent memory. 

As of Nov. 7, Tourism Whistler (TW) suspended all of its marketing and sales initiatives to comply with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s recommendation against travel for social or recreational reasons, which has been extended until at least Dec. 7 in light of last week’s announcement. 

“We believe that’s the right thing to do so that we are not proactively promoting any marketing for the next two weeks, at least,” said TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher. 

Like others in the accommodation sector, TW continues to accept bookings through whistler.com from out-of-province guests, as Victoria’s guidance against inter-provincial travel is a recommendation, not an order. 

TW also has clear messaging on its site around local and provincial COVID protocols, and Fisher is hopeful prospective guests will use their best judgement when visiting here. 

“There are orders and there are recommendations, so the orders are non-negotiable and the recommendations are really for people to use their common sense,” she said. 

Saad Hasan, president of the Hotel Association of Whistler, said similar guidance goes out to hotel guests prior to their arrival, wherever they are travelling from. 

“We are not there to validate whether a guest wants to come or not. We are certainly open for business and are providing all the instruments required to ensure people are as safe as possible,” he said. 

Matt Hick, CEO of vacation rental service alluraDirect, said property owners will follow up with out-of-province guests to confirm their place of residence. If they are coming from outside of B.C., they are encouraged to cancel their bookings for a refund or risk a non-refundable cancellation. 

Those booking with an international address, meanwhile, will see a large warning pop up that indicates they are booking “at their own risk and all cancellations are non-refundable,” Hick wrote in an email. 

“I believe the other rental platforms have similar procedures to us regarding international guest warnings, but the property owners must enable this option manually in order for the message to show.” 

Similarly, TW and the hotel sector will accept international bookings, as there are a number of legitimate reasons someone with a foreign address may need to book accommodation. In the case of TW, however, staff will follow up with U.S. and international bookings directly whenever the border closure is extended. 

“And just to provide a bit of context, we only had one or two non-Canadian bookings that did not proactively cancel after the latest extension through to Dec. 21 (both from Washington) so we’re talking low volumes,” a TW spokesperson clarified in a follow-up email. 

Looking towards the holiday season, traditionally Whistler’s busiest time of year, Fisher said it is difficult to predict, with an increase in 11th-hour bookings throwing off TW’s forecasting—but there’s no denying it’s shaping up to be a lean winter. 

“It’s really hard to know, to be really frank, because without that international or long-haul visitation, everything is booked close in at the last minute, so our forecasting model is just not as accurate in this environment as it historically has been,” she said. “But without a doubt, we’re anticipating a much softer season, full stop.” 

Hasan reiterated that point, noting how, with more British Columbians travelling close to home in the pandemic, long-term planning has proved a bigger challenge this year.  

“Staycations can be hugely surprising,” he said. “Summer was, in a way, a good litmus test. We are thinking along the same lines that you will see this sudden shift of people coming into the resort, a sudden shift of things looking busy, and then nothing. But thankfully, because of our experience with summer and our experience since COVID came about, I think everyone is prepared and ready, whether it’s restaurants, retail, coffee shops, or hotels.” 

Although alluraDirect was seeing an encouraging increase in holiday bookings, specifically from Ontario, through October and early November, Hick said bookings “effectively stopped” after the first set of new health restrictions were announced three weeks ago. 

“On Nov. 12, the cancellation requests started. On Nov. 19, the majority of reservations for the coming holidays were cancelled [en masse],” he added. 

So far, alluraDirect’s bookings are down approximately 90 per cent for December compared to last year. 

“The reaction we have received from the owners and managers of the rental properties has been one of frustration. A large portion of their annual rental income comes between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15,” Hick said. “One week things are starting to turn around, the next week things start to look not as promising, and finally the rug is pulled out from everyone. The fallout has been financially and mentally devastating for many of our clients.” 

Larger properties with four or more bedrooms have been hit the hardest, Hick said, as owners risk fines if the number of people accessing their unit is larger than restrictions allow. 

“However, this provides a tough challenge for these property owners,” he explained. “Guest groups that are not taking the health orders seriously are simply misleading the property owners with the total number of guests and provide contact tracing details for only a portion of the group. With access codes being provided by email for most vacation rentals, this is causing some serious stress for these owners who are trying to ensure they do everything by the book.”