Business down but not as bleak as expected 

December tourism came in quietly but the end of the month seems to be going out with a bang.

In some cases occupancy at Whistler hotels has almost doubled as the snow continues to fall and the resort markets itself aggressively, offering value deals too good to be missed.

However, there is little doubt when all the numbers are in that overall the month will be down from last year, and that 2009 will be a year full of challenges.

“There is still way too much uncertainty in the world, forget just in Whistler, but again… I still believe there is demand for Whistler, it just is going to be last minute,” said Trevor Graham, general manager of the Westin Resort and Spa.

While early December was pacing behind last year at the Westin the hotel has been at 95 per cent occupancy at least since Dec. 20.

“People have to be patient,” said Graham.

“They have to believe it is coming. It doesn’t take away from the fact that Tourism Whistler, (Whistler Blackcomb) and ourselves have to keep aggressively marketing value though.”

Booking patterns continue to ebb and flow, as is becoming more common in a web-driven tourism market. Cancellations come in but almost as quickly new bookings are taken, especially when the snow is flying said Graham.

“Those that cancel tend to be more of what I will call the Lower Mainland, Seattle, Oregon market,” he said.

“They are driving… but that is the same group that then re-books when a cancellation comes through.

“I can’t speak for other hotels (but) I’m not sure the last week of the year is as bad as Tourism Whistler suggested it might be. I do believe it is still off but I don’t think it hit the 20 per cent off numbers that they might have thought mid-December, and again I think that is because of last minute demand. I think people are truly waiting for that last minute purchase.”

Over at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler it is much the same story, with occupancy low in early December but now rising to at least 82 per cent this week.

“I think everyone is breathing a sigh of relief,” said spokeswoman Lynn Gervais.

“Obviously we won’t be able to recover to previous years but this year is definitely looking up.”

As well as competitive pricing the Fairmont is paying particular attention to spoiling its guests, said Gervais.

“The one thing that we are doing is really rewarding the guests that are here in house and ensuring that they are having an amazing visit,” she said.

“We are roasting chestnuts everyday, we have hot apple cider and it is definitely paying off as guests are extending their stays and so on.”

Both hotels have been pleased with food and beverage sales as well. The Chateau’s Wildflower Restaurant has been doing 500 breakfasts a day.

“We are seeing an increase in food and beverage numbers that we haven’t typically seen in previous years,” said Graham.

Chris Quinlan, president of the Restaurant Association of Whistler, said business is off from last year but eateries have definitely seen things pick up in recent days,

“We definitely started a little slower than last year but we have ramped up,” he said.

Quinlan expects restaurants to be busy until next week, when school holidays are over. Over the weekend it wasn’t unusual to have an hour wait at popular dinging places such at 21 Steps, the Mongolie Grill, and Earls.

Knowing that times may be tough had many of the adventure tour businesses prepare ahead of time.

Craig Beattie, general manager of Canadian Snowmobile Adventures, cut down the number of snowmobiles he is running this winter and watches his staffing levels.

“We had our best year last year so it is tough to compare but things are looking somewhat positive compared to what has been forecasted,” he said.

“It is down but we forecasted ahead… so we were preparing for that.”

The company also managed to get their dog sled operation running before Christmas and will launch a snowshoe tour in the Callaghan Valley next week. Beattie believes diversification and being able to run different products all year round has been key to the company’s success so far.

“We are a 12-month a year company so we can adapt,” he said.

Whistler Blackcomb has been working overtime to make snow and get the lifts open. Doug Forseth, senior vice president of operations, acknowledges that the visitor numbers are down.

“(We are) not hitting last year’s numbers,” he said.

“But it is strong… and each day (is) getting better and better.”

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