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SLCC breaks winter records for visitors, weddings

Overall sales at Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre up 18 per cent over Christmas period

A new approach to drawing visitors to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) over the winter has paid off, with sales up 18 per cent in every category during the Christmas season.

"It's a great good-news story for us," said the SLCC's executive director Casey Vanden Heuvel.

"Our overall sales are up 18 per cent over the Christmas period year-over-year. That's everything together; in comparison to last year our sales are up in every category, including the café, gift shop with traditional First Nations art, gallery and admissions. That's a solid number from our point of view."

The SLCC on Lorimer Road houses galleries of cultural displays and art, a theatre, activities for visitors, a gift shop and café serving traditional foods — all centered on the two indigenous communities, the Squamish and the Lil'wat Nations, whose traditional territories include Whistler.

Winter has normally been a quiet time for the SLCC, with the majority of its business coming from visitors in the summer months.

"It makes a difference at a busy time of the year to give people something really compelling to consider adding to their schedule," he said. "We decided that every single day over holidays we'd be offering an onsite artist to meet and watch at work, as well as a workshop or class as an opportunity for our guests."

The cultural centre was presented as a must-see attraction for visitors looking for something to do off the slopes, Vanden Heuvel said.

"We wanted to make sure we had something compelling for the concierges at the hotels and the village hosts at the info centres to talk about when people were looking for something different to do in Whistler. They've been tremendous supporters and we thank them."

A pre-Christmas artisans' market and a Dec. 29 "winter gathering" with a maple syrup shack and storytellers drew more visitors.

Those hearing wedding bells have also helped the SLCC cash register bells ring.

From December 2012 until March 2013, the cultural centre is hosting 10 weddings, the most it has held at its facilities to date, and double the number for the same period last year.

"Our winter weddings have increased substantially and one thing about that weddings drive so much business to the resort in general. It's not just the cultural centre that is benefiting. It's the hotel rooms, the caterers, the hair salons, all the activity providers," said Gwen Baudisch, the SLCC's marketing manager.

As well, couples booking the SLCC can now choose between the Fairmont Hotel, the Four Seasons, Whistler Cooks and Bearfoot Bistro as catering options.

"I would say that business is derived from a few areas. Having four catering partners now has helped substantially to increase the number and variety of our weddings and events, and we've had some great media coverage with weddings over the years and that's helped get the word out about us as well."

Baudisch added that this winter they have also seen a shift in traditional travel trade clients, with the cultural centre increasingly becoming the reason for visitors to come to the resort in the first place.

"In the summertime, the cultural centre does quite well with the tour bus groups coming through Whistler, who are going on a 'full Canadian' tour. In the wintertime that businesses hasn't existed, but that's beginning to change," she said.

"Our partners that we work with in the summertime have started creating winter programs that are more based on the Canadian experience rather than a ski vacation, and they're pitching Whistler more as all-encompassing Canadian Winter Wonderland. It brings a different demographic here, group business, older people."

Two tour travel trade clients taking this approach include an educational tour company and the other is an Australian travel company, Baudisch said.

"They want that Canadian aboriginal experience for their guests," she said.