February 13, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

Accommodation picture becoming clearer 

Whistler events will be staffed, stands full even if Vancouver access cut off

Olympic organizers have increased the budget for accommodation in the Sea to Sky corridor.

The move came after organizers realized that they had to house enough people in and around the Whistler venues to put on all events in case the highway was closed to traffic.

"(We) started looking last year at how do we ensure that we have enough people up in the corridor to make sure that we can operate these venues if we had a situation where we couldn't actually access the road between Squamish and Whistler," said Jacqui Murdoch, vice-president of services and accommodation for VANOC.

Murdoch said the issue was being considered even before last summer's rockslide at Porteau Cove, which closed the highway for four days. It grew out of time spent in Whistler over the 2007-08 winter season in Whistler, which saw the highway closed several times for hours at a time.

"We analyzed that and we went back to senior management and we said we really believe we need a larger contingency base of people up in the Whistler area to be able to manage a situation where we couldn't move lots of workforce from Vancouver to Whistler or even from Squamish to Whistler," said Murdoch, who has worked on or organized numerous large events including World Cups, the Sydney Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and APEC.

"What they were able to do then was recognize that we needed more budget to be put toward the workforce accommodations arrangements."

According to the recently released revised VANOC budget, there has been an increase of $31.5 million in Games Services and Operations. Not all of this funding is for issues in the Sea to Sky corridor, but the document states: "The majority of the increase relates to higher costs for workforce accommodations in the Sea to Sky corridor, transportation, food service requirements at the Whistler venues including the athletes' village, snow removal and cleaning and waste."

The plan now sees core staff stationed at or near each of the Whistler venues, including Whistler Olympic Park, so that events can go ahead even if the resort is temporarily cut off. Housing solutions are being worked out.

Olympic organizers also expect there to be thousands of spectators staying in Whistler who will be able to get to the events on Olympic transportation.

"We expect to have a significant nucleus of spectators in Whistler," said Terry Wright, VANOC's executive vice president of services and Games operations.

"We have sold a lot of Whistler multi-day packages. We will be talking about some innovative programs in the very near term to augment that in terms of ensuring that we have a base of spectators in the mountains."

Wright confirmed that VANOC has been planning for some time to make sure that the resort is self-sufficient at Games time.

"One of our plans from the very beginning is to have Whistler essentially able to put on the Games if we didn't have a link (to it). So our press are up there, our broadcasters are up there, our technical people are up there, and the athletes are up there. We have been working hard on the workforce accommodation so that the core teams we require to get the event off will be there."

And it looks like there is finally light at the end of the tunnel as far as securing accommodations in the Sea to Sky corridor, said Murdoch.

"We really do appreciate that the community is now understanding what our real need is and they are coming on board so we are very positive that we will find the other 400 or so rooms that we need up in the corridor," she said, adding that she believes it is both timing and information creating the change.

Most accommodation isn't booked more than a year out, so it is expected that more beds will become available over the next few months.

In the meantime though VANOC is still in discussions with cruise ship operators to berth at Squamish and is looking at several other temporary options, including housing trailers, tents, and cabins.

In all VANOC needs 21,000 rooms each night at Games time. Of those 17,000 are needed in the Vancouver region and 4,000 are needed in Whistler.

When Vancouver first bid for the 2010 Games, the demand for rooms from client groups and the IOC was about 18,000.

Of the 17,000 rooms needed in Vancouver, Murdoch said the 13,200 rooms needed contractually for the IOC are secured and VANOC is working on securing the other 3,800, which are needed for ceremonies, the Cultural Olympiad, torch relay, bus drivers and other skilled volunteers.

In Whistler the 3,250 rooms for the IOC contingent are secured, but 222 rooms are still needed for the media. That's down from the 411 reported last month.

VANOC is still working to get 750 rooms in Whistler for essential workers, said Murdoch. Negotiations are underway for up to 250 rooms and it is hoped the Homestay program, which is offering tickets in return for beds for volunteers, will also help secure accommodation.

Murdoch said VANOC was also pleased that Whistler Council approved the Temporary Commercial Use Permit (TCUP) bylaw this month, allowing homeowners to rent out their places nightly to VANOC workers.

"We really appreciate the resort municipality passing the TCUP arrangement last week," said Murdoch. VANOC is still working out the rate formula.

VANOC will soon be issuing a list of preferred suppliers of accommodation. Homeowners who want to use the TCUP to rent their places should go through these suppliers, as VANOC needs services such as key management, 24 hour maintenance, housekeeping, snow management, and waste management as part of the package.

Most accommodation needed at this point will be for a seven-night minimum or for the 17 days of the Games. Few, if any, accommodation seekers are looking for space beyond this, said Murdoch.

Any accommodation providers that are not locked down yet should start advertising, as many spectators with tickets are now looking for a place to book.

In August, VANOC-booked hotels will be allowed to release inventory not needed by Olympic organizers.

Murdoch said there is no doubt creative solutions have been needed when it comes to accommodation and, she said, some volunteers may need a real sense of adventure.

"I think some of them may be a little challenged, but it is all about communication," said Murdoch.

"We will be really careful about who we place where... and we will look for our high-energy younger individuals to go into less salubrious (accommodation), but we will place them right in the middle of the action up in Whistler."

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