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Opening weekend stronger than last year, despite dollar

Tourism Whistler projecting three per cent growth through winter

The American Thanksgiving weekend and official opening of Whistler and Blackcomb for the season produced numbers that outpaced previous years, despite the higher Canadian dollar, continued high gas prices, lineups at the border and other factors.

The exact numbers won’t be known for at least a few weeks, but bookings and last-minute arrivals for the long weekend exceeded figures for the same weekend the last two years.

“Based on the pace of bookings leading up to Thanksgiving weekend, we expect bookings will be ahead of the same period last year and 2005 as well,” said Breton Murphy, manager of corporate and member communications for Tourism Whistler. “Saturday and Sunday looked particularly strong, and many of our members said the village was abuzz for the entire weekend.”

Tourism Whistler has been watching numbers carefully since the Canadian dollar reached par with the U.S. in September, and climbed to as high as $1.10 before sinking back to near parity last week. Record gas prices were also a concern, with the price of oil nearing $100 a barrel in early November.

To address these issues, Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb have been stressing value to visitors, offering substantial discount packages for advance bookings. Those packages expired in mid-November, but not before bookings for the winter holidays were tracking about three per cent ahead of last year.

The Christmas holidays look particularly busy.

“Our current estimate for Thanksgiving weekend was a room occupancy of 60 per cent, which is quite good, and the pace for the holidays is looking even stronger,” said Murphy. “From Dec. 28 to Jan. 1 we’re on pace to exceed 90 per cent at the rate we’ve been going. I can’t say what’s typical, but if I look at numbers from last year and the year before, we’re well ahead.”

According to Murphy, last year’s huge snowfalls have helped with the booking, especially for long haul guests. As for the regional market, which includes Washington, Murphy says most visitors are return customers.

“That’s a market that is well-versed in the buying power of their dollar, because they’ve been to Whistler before — about 75 per cent have been here before,” said Murphy.

“The regional market also makes decisions at the last minute, they’re aware of the weather and snow, and no doubt they also saw the value and services, which influenced their desire to return. Our job is to keep delivering on that through the winter season.”

Several new offers and incentives put forward by Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and resort partners are helping to counter any negative impacts of the dollar or economy. For example, the “book early and save” offers that ended last week had a huge uptake, as has a program that gives visitors a free day on the mountains if they stay until Tuesday.

“We’re also getting some help from the airlines,” said Murphy. “Right now there’s a $99 airfare special from California, and there are flights out of Toronto and Ottawa starting at $175. Those are one-way rates, but there is still exceptional value there and we’re seeing a strong response.”

One of the negatives from the long weekend was the long wait at the U.S. border. Border waits over three hours were reported at the Peace Arch crossing.

Murphy says Tourism Whistler is working with partners, including Tourism B.C., to address the issue and to keep visitors better informed.

“We are going to have more information on our new member website… that businesses can share with their customers, and on our public site as well on different border options — The Peace Arch, the truck crossing, Huntington — and the construction going on there. We’ll let them know about passport requirements, and the improved Sea to Sky Highway commute for this season.”

According to Murphy, the Sea to Sky Highway has more passing lanes at this point than before, now that the project is about 60 per cent complete. In addition, no scheduled closures are planned for the winter season, and construction delays should be less than 20 minutes from one end of the highway to the other.

Stuart Rempel, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Whistler-Blackcomb, says the numbers were also helped on the long weekend by the lack of snow at Western U.S. resorts.

“Right now we have a competitive advantage because we have more snow than the majority of large ski resorts in the U.S., but that’s an advantage that could evaporate pretty quickly,” he said. “One big snow dump and the resorts could catch up to us, and they are formidable competitors in this market.

“The key thing for us, as a resort and partners in the resort, is to do as much work as we can (telling people) that we’re open with great skiing, lots of snow, and carry that competitive advantage into booking business. Once again the value equation is so important, because we still have lots of rooms to rent — even at Christmas.

“It was somewhat of a relief to see the plates from the U.S., but we shouldn’t sit back and relax.”

As for the dollar, Rempel says that most Americans appreciate that they have been getting a sometimes steep discount in recent years because of the strong U.S. dollar. Now that currencies are more or less equal, he says Whistler can still compete at regular prices.

“I think they can compare our prices to competitor resorts and leading U.S. resorts and still come away with the idea that we still offer great value without the benefit of the exchange,” he said. “Americans voted in a sense by being here over the weekend.

“I would still have to say that we’ll have to keep a close eye on the U.S. market in terms of the value of the dollar and consumer confidence, the economy and all the other factors, but we passed the first big test, so to speak. This is new territory for everybody.”

Rempel says the priority for Whistler-Blackcomb is to get more terrain open as quickly as possible. This week’s snowfall and expanded snowmaking will make it possible to open the ski-outs by the end of the week. The alpine, which requires more snow than the lower mountain because of terrain features and higher winds, could be open if more snow falls as forecasted.