Another Whistler summer, another season for the books 

Occupancy rates up an estimated four per cent over last year's record summer

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVID BUZZARD / WWW.MEDIA-CENTRE.CA - busy business Tourists continued to flock to Whistler this summer, the busiest in resort history. Above, crowds cram into Olympic Plaza for the Canada Day festivities on July 1.
  • PHOTO by david buzzard / www.media-centre.ca
  • busy business Tourists continued to flock to Whistler this summer, the busiest in resort history. Above, crowds cram into Olympic Plaza for the Canada Day festivities on July 1.

The numbers are in: Whistler's unprecedented growth continued into summer 2016, making it yet another season for the record books.

Tourism Whistler (TW) confirmed that occupancy rates between April and the end of September were up an estimated four per cent over last year's record-breaking summer. The months of May (+4%), July (+9%) and September (+9%) were the busiest of those respective months in resort history, due in large part to TW's advanced booking push and a busy event calendar.

"Our summer campaign content and language continues to have a strong midweek, shoulder season, and longer length of stay message behind it," wrote Kirsten Homeniuk, TW's director of marketing services, in an email. "So we're not just trying to secure quantity of bookings to the resort but quality as well. We're trying to get a higher yielding visitor who is coming for more than just a day or weekend. The success of this is showing up in our room nights results with both growth in shoulder and midweek this past summer."

June (-1%) and August (-2%) saw slight decreases in occupancy rates this year, which TW research manager Meredith Kunza said was likely impacted by a pair of large group bookings that bumped the results in 2015.

"We're still in a good place," she said. "Just like June we had a really big incentive group in town last August, and that group wasn't returning this year. We were able to essentially almost maintain our room nights without those big groups."

Whistler's continued popularity played out across the resort's key sectors this summer. Restaurant Association of Whistler president Amy Huddle said the restaurant industry experienced an "incredibly busy" few months, while Hotel Association of Whistler head Saad Hasan called it another "very successful season."

"I think it's a combination of things," Hasan said of the bump in business. "I think both in terms of what Tourism Whistler's been doing with marketing, and then also of course the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) pushing through the Festivals, Events & Animation (program), which is bringing in a lot of excitement to the resort." A weak Loonie, and what Hasan calls "a generational shift" among young travellers looking for the kind of outdoor adventure Whistler can offer, are other important factors, he believes.

But of course any talk of Whistler's boom also comes with a consideration of the immense challenges the resort's growth brings with it.

"Every time there's a bit of a burst in our numbers, there's always some growing pains," Huddle said. "Feedback that the restaurants were getting was long lines, traffic, lack of parking, but I think that all comes down to better planning for those key weekends, and some creative solutions, like free buses on the weekends." The RMOW launched a pilot program this summer offering free transit on select Saturdays, resulting in "an overwhelming response" and increase in ridership, according to a presentation to council this summer by municipal transportation planner Emma Dal Santo.

"The one thing we certainly hear often is about (the lack of) housing. It's not that the staff aren't coming, people are coming and certainly looking for jobs," said Hasan. "Having said that, as much as people say that this pressure may have affected our guest service, our scores don't say that. Our scores show our guest satisfaction is quite high."

Pushing for more midweek bookings and longer stays is one way Tourism Whistler is working to ease the strain on frontline staff, Kunza said.

"If we can increase length of stay and increase those midweek visits, the hope is that we're actually maintaining our success and seeing percentage increases in room nights, but we're actually staying at the same volume of people, or fewer people, which should decrease the pressure on the frontline staff, and maybe businesses won't need as many frontline staff," she explained.

Huddle iterated that the resort needs to come up with "creative solutions" to Whistler's housing crisis, and employers need to be apart of that equation.

"Getting (staff) and housing them is a huge issue right now and the restaurant association is trying to get involved with the chamber and the municipality to get some creative ideas," she added.

Hasan, meanwhile, would like to see homesharing services like Airbnb become more transparent so communities struggling to provide affordable housing can gain a better sense of the impacts on the market.

"In the past (homesharing sites) used to say taxation isn't their problem. It's between the landlord and the municipality. Well, you know what? That's not cutting it anymore. What (communities) are saying around the world is that you have to disclose who these renters are and if they're paying taxes. So if the province or the municipality knows, then they can follow up on it."

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