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Whistler sets new room night record for December

Partners continue to pump money into selling resort in 2012
Record reset Tourism Whistler reports room nights up 12 per cent over last December, up six per cent over December 2007, the last record-holder. photo by andrew mitchell

The suspicions have been confirmed: Whistler has another entry in the record books — December 2011.

"It is our busiest December ever," confirmed Tourism Whistler's president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

Room nights were up six per cent over the previous record holder — December 2007 — and up 12 per cent over last year.

And the good news doesn't end there.

"January is also pacing very, very strong and potentially could be one of our strongest January's ever as well," said Fisher.

The numbers confirm what those in the know have known for a while; that early season advertising campaigns were very successful in the long-haul markets and Whistler was going to be busy in 2011/12 even before it was blessed with snow. (see related story on page 14)

Now, as it reaps the benefits of a fluky weather pattern that has cursed its competitors across North America, Whistler is sitting pretty... on five and a half metres of snow.

But that doesn't mean resort partners are resting on their laurels. Rather, the opposite is true.

Whistler Blackcomb is pouring tens of thousands of incremental dollars into a major marketing push across Canada and into the California marketplace, trying to capitalize on the stage that has been set in the lead up to the winter season.

"We've actually stepped up our marketing in the last four weeks," said Whistler Blackcomb's senior vice president of marketing and sales Stuart Rempel.

"We're making a commitment to California, the San Francisco Bay area, we're doing more in the regional market, we're doing more in Ontario.

"It's a significant investment."

That means more snow alerts with tour operators and pumping up print advertising like the two full-page ads that ran nationally in the Globe and Mail over the last two Friday's, among other things.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler also had a full-page ad on Saturday, boasting of the snow conditions here.

Tourism Whistler has a similar strategy in LA, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington State pushing the snow advantage in ad campaigns, said Fisher.

Added Rempel: "I would argue that there's hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent in the resort right now, incremental dollars, to try and get people here, by not just Whistler Blackcomb."

At the same time, Whistler Blackcomb launched a 72-hour sale this week for select dates in March and April. The idea is to fill in the mid-week need periods.

"There's still occupancy available," said Rempel. "We don't want people to think all of a sudden that we're sold out here. We've got a big winter ahead of us and lots of availability and we want to keep selling this place."

But at what price?

While room night stays are breaking records, room rates stayed flat or even dipped by two per cent resort-wide overall in December.

That's a concern for hoteliers.

"There might be heads in beds and that might be great for the mountain, and great for retail, and great for restaurants, but from the accommodation sector standpoint, we've seen significant deterioration in average room rate and understandably why, because the demand is way down," said Jim Douglas, general manager of the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside and Pan Pacific Whistler Village Centre.

Douglas is also chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.

"The accommodation sector continues to be concerned about the deterioration of average room rate," he added, with one of his properties seeing a four per cent increase in room rates over last December, the other staying flat.

That being said, December is a difficult month to make sense of the numbers because the rates vary so drastically from the beginning of the month to the end of the month.

The true picture of the room rates won't emerge until closer to the end of the season.

In the meantime, while it may be tempting to increase rates because Whistler has the competitive edge, that's not the right strategy, according to Rempel.

"While we have the snow we can't just jack up our rates now," said Rempel. "We're not just competing with other ski resorts. People have choices. They can go to Mexico, if it's on sale. Or they can go to Hawaii, if it's on sale. They can go to Las Vegas if it's on sale.

"We just have to be really careful that we don't get too carried away as a resort and all of a sudden jack up our rates."

Recouping room rates can only come, added Douglas, as demand increases. And it still remains to be seen if the rates will ever fully recover to the top prices once seen.

"The first step is creating more demand and seeing some successful winters and, most importantly, seeing some guests have some great times," said Douglas.

That's exactly what's on Whistler Blackcomb's mind and why it's pumping up snow making machines on days with fresh snow.

The idea, as always, is to get as many people to Whistler and to experience the mountains, the village, the nightlife, the family life and get blown away by it all.And ultimately, come back for more.