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Not just a ski town any more

Whistler smashes summer records for visitors and room nights
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REACH FOR THE SKY Participants in one of the Wanderlust festival's yoga sessions. Photo by Mike Crane, Tourism Whistler

After the busiest summer in almost 20 years at Slope Side Supply, it looks like summer business has officially eclipsed winter business.

It's just by a hair, said co-owner David Krasny, nonetheless he sees it as a sign of Whistler's coming of age. Whistler is no longer "just a ski town" but a viable year-round resort.

"What's significant is that's summer business; we never thought that summer business would ever beat winter business," said Krasny.

Slope Side's toilet paper sales, a cheeky way the resort measures occupancy, were up 11 per cent in May over last year, June was up eight per cent, July was up six per cent and August was up eight per cent.

"Our toilet paper sales for the first three weeks of August were busier than any three week period, other than the Olympics," said Krasny.

"Where else can you find a more accurate indicator of how many people are in town?"

The official indicator, Tourism Whistler's room night numbers, tell a similar story.

The just-released August room nights were up three per cent over last year — a small lift that comes on the heels of a 15 per cent increase in June and a seven per cent increase in July. That makes summer 2013, to date, the busiest on record.

Louise Walker, Tourism Whistler's vice president of marketing and strategic planning, put the summer numbers in context.

August is traditionally the summer's busiest month so while 2013 saw "just" a three per cent increase, that translates to 73 per cent occupancy throughout the resort.

"That's about a January," said Walker, referring to Whistler's peak winter season.

The highest occupancy summer weekend was the first weekend in August — it was the BC Day long weekend, the Wanderlust yoga festival was in town, and the weather was the icing on the cake, enticing last minute regional guests.

On Saturday August 3 Whistler was at 97 per cent occupancy — Olympic-style occupancy.

"Ninety-seven per cent — that's full. It's hard to get above that," said Walker.

The second busiest weekend was the second weekend of Crankworx; on Saturday Aug. 17 Whistler was at 96 per cent. The third biggest weekend came on Labour Day — on Saturday Aug. 31 the resort was at 95 per cent.

And that translated on the ground at O&R Entertainment, which owns La Brasserie, La Bocca, Amsterdam Café Pub, Maxx Fish, and Hot Buns Bakery into pitchers of beers poured and thousands of eggs bennies eaten.

General manager Brenton Smith confirmed that company wide August was the second busiest month on record, after February 2010 — the Olympic month — when the world was in Whistler.

"For the last several years I would say summer in the resort, as a valley food and beverage operator, is busier than winter," said Smith. "Because, primarily in the winter time, everyone is here for the skiing, and so when they're skiing they're up on the mountain establishments. I don't see them for brunch. I don't see them for lunch very often."

Business on his Village Square corner doesn't start picking up typically until après during the winter.

"But in the summer time we get them right from open all the way to close," said Smith. "That's always going to be our busy season."

Rates up, destination visitors up

In addition to the boost in occupancy this summer, hotel room rates have also seen a lift.

At the Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa, general manager Stephen Webb confirmed the room rate has increased seven per cent over last year at his property.

The length of stay is increasing as well.

It's still nowhere close to the rate and the average length of stay in the winter.

"It's still significantly lower than the winter," he said of the rate. "We're always going to be a ski resort for peak season."

While more people actually come to Whistler in the summer, they spend less — significantly less — than their winter counterparts.

Webb underscored the value of the winter destination guest — a critical factor to the resort economy.

Recent research shows those guests stay longer and spend more than twice as much as summer destination guests – a $350 average daily spend in winter compared to a $160 in summer.

That said, summer destination visitors typically spend more than regional and this summer, destination guests were on the rise.

European guests were up 29 per cent.

"It's a small market but it's definitely growing," said Walker.

There was also small growth in some destination U.S. markets.

"That says that there's potential for future growth," she added.

Whistler Blackcomb would not release any summer mountain biking or sightseeing numbers. That information will be included in its next quarterly financial report.

But the village was busy with mountain bikers all summer long, all heading to the mecca of mountain biking — The Whistler Mountain Bike Park.

Last summer for the three months ending Sept. 30, total revenue at Whistler Blackcomb increased by 6.9 per cent or $1.8 million over the same period to $27.4 million. This was primarily due to an 8.1 per cent increase in guest visitation over the same period in the prior year.

That includes mountain biking, hiking and sightseeing visitors.

"The popularity of events like Crankworx and X-Games introducing mountain biking this year are contributing to the increasing popularity of downhill mountain biking," said Michelle Leroux, Whistler Blackcomb's manager of public relations and communications. "The Whistler Mountain Bike Park is on the wish list of most mountain bikers, so the growth of the sport is certainly good news for Whistler."

Mountain bikers are a growing, powerful market force in the resort. "They're a good crowd as well," said Walker. "Don't be fooled by the dirty bikes!"

The 2013 summer business, however, hasn't come out of the blue.

"We have just over the last four or five years seen summer get stronger and stronger as Whistler becomes known for more than just snow sports," said Walker.

"The weather, of course, helps, I can't deny that."

The other factor is the close to $3 million municipal festivals, events and animation (FE&A) program.

Festivals, Events and Animation

Part of the strategy to boost the summer numbers was to develop non-stop programming with the message that there is always something happening in Whistler.

This summer there was, and that was due in no small part to the FE&A program, which enticed big name events, small free concerts and a gamut of programming in between.

Ground zero for this was Whistler Olympic Plaza — the transformed forest where Krasny said Whistler "hit the bull's eye" in terms of developing a spot to entice people and encourage them to stay in town.

When asked how much of a role the municipal FE&A program played in Whistler's success this summer Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said: "I think with July and August, certainly we can't ignore the fact that we had a fantastic summer weather-wise. And again rubbing shoulders with councillors and mayors across the province last week (at the UBCM conference), everybody spoke about tourism revenues being up and tourism numbers being up, primarily as a result of the good weather.

"But let's not kid ourselves, the fact that so many things were going on here in Whistler, everything from Wanderlust to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to Ironman — there was something going on every weekend. And very often through the week as well."

The FE&A budget flows from provincial Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) money. Whistler gets funding based on accommodation business generated in the resort; last year that amounted to $7 million. It's likely to be more next year given the increase in hotel occupancy and rates.

The money comes from the province with the specific goal of growing tourism.

Wilhelm-Morden met with B.C.'s 13 other resort communities who are part of the Resort Collaborative at UBCM last week. She gave a presentation to the two tourism ministers — Minister of State Naomi Yamamoto and Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Shirley Bond — specifically underscoring the importance of this funding to Whistler.

She also reinforced the importance of Whistler to the province — it's annual $1.3 billion GDP, its annual tax revenues to other levels of government of $405 million of year, or $1.1 million every day.

Whistler also accounts for 22.5 per cent of the entire annual tourism export revenue for the province — that's new revenues into the province.

"Our RMI isn't responsible for those results, but certainly it's a very important tool that allows us to achieve those financial results," said the mayor.

Occupancy stats:

Winter:

December — 61 per cent

January — 72 per cent

February — 79 per cent

March — 78 per cent

Summer:

May – 36 per cent

June — 47 per cent

July — 64 per cent August — 73 per cent

Whistler's goal is to achieve a year-round occupancy level of 60 per cent.