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Regional and local tourists keep Whistler busy

Room nights down as fewer conferences booked post Sept. 11 Summer business in Whistler was much like the winter season before it. Regional visitors and tourists from across Canada and the West Coast of the US came in droves.

Room nights down as fewer conferences booked post Sept. 11

Summer business in Whistler was much like the winter season before it.

Regional visitors and tourists from across Canada and the West Coast of the US came in droves.

While most who had to take long haul flights stayed closer to home with friends and family.

"What we saw in the trends last winter are very much what we are seeing in the trends this summer," said Barrett Fisher, vice-president marketing and strategy and business development for Tourism Whistler.

"What we saw (last winter) were big results coming out of the Western US, out of Canada, and out of the B.C. regional market."

The resort did enjoy substantial visits from those in the UK and Mexico but tourists from Australia and many other overseas markets declined.

Fisher puts the decrease in visitors from Australia last winter down to poor timing in bookings. Tourists from that country generally book from October on for holidays in January. But the terrorists attack on the US Sept. 11 made many international travellers nervous and they chose to stay at home instead.

But it looks like Australians are already back in the saddle when it comes to international travel, as bookings for this coming winter season are strong so far said Fisher.

Another segment of the market strongly affected by the terrorist attacks were conference bookings.

Many are booked a year or more ahead. The drop off in bookings after Sept. 11 has meant that Whistler hotels are down on room nights.

But local activity providers and retail outlets haven’t noticed the same decline thanks to strong numbers of regional visitors.

From May 1 to July 31 Tourism Whistler has found that:

• B.C. visitors are up 2 per cent;

• Visits from Alberta are up 144 per cent;

• Visits from Ontario are up 28 per cent;

• Visits from Washington State are up 38 per cent;

• Visits from Oregon are up 20 per cent;

• Visits from California are up 15 per cent.

One international destination bucking the trend for summer visits is Mexico.

"We are actually seeing growth out of Mexico year round now, whereas they were primarily a winter market," said Fisher

"I think what is happening is that the strong push that we have seen for winter bookings and the promotion of Whistler as a year-round destination is starting to come of age. It is starting to catch on.

"It is certainly happening because we are marketing it, but it is also showing that the market is bucking the trends of not travelling. They must be perceiving as well that Canada is a safe destination and that it is a good place to look at increasing their travel to, while they may be decreasing their travel to the US."

The same pattern is evident out of Japan and Hong Kong although on a smaller scale. But increased numbers in Whistler likely mean they are down somewhere else said Fisher.

"It’s probably a bit of market share steal rather than the market being up overall," she said.

Tourism Whistler is well on its way to planning its marketing strategies for the upcoming winter season.

The organization plans to build on the success it found in regional markets last year and continue aggressive marketing in those markets, as well as a few key overseas markets, to get the best bang for their buck.

"To date we have made the decision that we will continue the momentum of the marketing initiatives launched last fall and that we will continue to focus on the West Coast of Canada and the US regional market as well as the overseas markets of UK, Australia and Mexico," said Fisher.

She is quick to point out that other markets will also be targeted but the focus will be on putting advertising and marketing dollars where they are likely to produce the greatest return.

Whistler is not the only ski resort in B.C. which will focus regionally to get business. Sun Peaks, Silver Star, and Big White are also targeting that market.

"We have an incredibly strong drive-market so we were fortunate in a way that we didn’t need to increase our media buys in the Lower Mainland, Seattle or Washington as we already have a strong media prominence there," said Sun Peaks director of marketing Vince Accardi.

Sun Peaks also suffered post Sept. 11 when it came to long haul visitors, but said Accardi, the resort reached its goal for ticket sales and bed nights by season’s end.

"We were quite pleased with that," he said.

"We upheld our client base and our drive market increased. There were certainly some good deals that were being offered out there but I think the newness of this resort was still exciting for us and clients came to see that for themselves."

Silver Star and Big White saw substantial increases in numbers after Sept. 11 said spokeswoman Jenny Rutherfurd-Drasdo.

"We are currently working with Air Canada, Horizon and Westjet to get increased air service, because of the demand into Kelowna. Business is great, and continuing to grow."

Fisher, of Tourism Whistler, said the success of other B.C. resorts could actually help Whistler as it grows the regional market of skiers.

"In many respects these other mountains almost become important to Whistler because they are growing the regional business in skiers," she said.

"In many ways they complement our product rather than compete with it. But there is no doubt that we have to remain competitive."

Fisher said the presence of the other resorts did not hurt Whistler last year in numbers. Many skiers may try them, but Whistler has a product that can’t be found anywhere else.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Whistler-Blackcomb’s vice president of marketing and sales, Stuart Rempel.

"You see people going to a Big White and they may experiment with it but at the end of the day when they want the diversity, when they want the size, when they want the big pedestrian village and the real cool atmosphere that we have here, they come back," he said.

"What we have is this incredible youth culture here all year. It is the Mecca. It is where a lot of the best skiers and riders call home and people form all over the world want to come here because this is where their heroes live and ride and ski.

"That is something that this place has and what drives that core culture are the mountains that we have and those mountains are not available anywhere else. They are our own."

Rempel said Whistler-Blackcomb experienced many of the same trends outlined by Tourism Whistler.

The mountains were in the process of focusing on the regional market when Sept. 11 hit so re-focusing to aggressively capture that market wasn’t too much of a stretch.

It’s a trend the mountains plan to continue.

"This coming year again the emphasis will be on the regional market," said Rempel.

"We have local pricing initiatives with our pass programs our gold and regular express cards, and 7-Eleven tickets. We really want the local and the regional market to be able to ski here at significant savings and discounts."

Whistler-Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler work closely together, another reason Rempel feels the resort was able to pull together some good numbers for last ski season in the face of uncertainly.

For that same reason he believes this season will be a good one too.

Good snow always helps too, said Rempel, who is forecasting lots thanks to another year of the El Nino phenomenon.

The resort is recognized in the UK as having the most reliable snow in North America

"The Brits come here year after year and they keep getting this great experience," said Rempel.

"Our research suggests that the travel intentions are really strong from the UK and we are working with Air Canada and Tourism Whistler and others to try and increase the air lift out of the UK so that the operators can get the seats they need on the planes out of the UK.

"They love the politeness, the on-mountain amenities. It offers them the immensity of the European resorts but with more reliable snow and a friendlier atmosphere."

Rempel said the mountains are also seeing strong bookings coming out of the Australian market and predict it will be a good year for Aussie tourists.

But much of the focus will be in the US market.

"The US is obviously a big market for us, particularly the Northwest," said Rempel.

"We are experiencing that this summer with a great number of on-mountain visits for the sightseeing, and the glacier and bike-park. We are seeing big regional traffic and that includes Washington and even Oregon.

"So we will have lots going on in Washington for the drive-in market and then the destination ski enthusiasts market all over the US will be done through marketing partnerships."

Already booked to ski the mountains are the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which should bring in about 3,000 individuals from all over the US.