Conference business expected to jump 

Tourism Whistler is predicting significant increases in the conference and incentives market for 2001, provided that targeted marketing can overcome the growing perception that Whistler is an expensive destination.

This message was the overall message put forward to members at a breakfast session hosted by Tourism Whistler Feb. 23.

Kristi Wenaus, conference sales manager for the midwest and Eastern United States, said Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. as well as the emerging markets of Atlanta and Cleveland yield "huge opportunities" in the associations market trade. For example, 47 per cent of Ontario-based associations host off-site meetings in Canada. However, she says large groups are being put off by Whistler’s increasingly expensive image.

"We will be heavily promoting the spring and fall shoulder seasons to educate people that Whistler is excellent value in these periods," she said. "Fortunately the off-season months of June, September, October and November are when associations are looking to host conference events."

However, price sensitivity is not as crucial in all markets. David Tikkanen, conference sales manager for the Western U.S market, said the shorter haul markets tend to look for other factors when choosing conference destinations.

"In the U.S market they’re not so much price sensitive as experience sensitive, in terms of how it’s going to add to their company," he explained. "They want to know what’s unique about Whistler and what they can do here that they can’t in San Diego or Bermuda."

Tikkanen said the key emerging markets in California are the high tech and Silicon Valley companies which, in line with their progressive image, are attracted to Whistler as "the most spectacular ski resort in North America as well as an amazing golf destination."

He said describing the high tech industry as dynamic and fast changing is an understatement. "There’s a saying in Silicon Valley: every day 10 companies go broke but 15 start up."

Tikkanen said rising energy costs are also fuelling a potentially lucrative conference booking source for Whistler.

"We are seeing renewed interest from the gas, oil and petroleum companies because the hike in gas prices means they have extra cash and are thinking about programs and meetings again."

Closer to home, the Washington and British Columbia conference markets are also tipped to rise, driven largely by opportunities within the high tech industry. The conference sales manager for this region, Christine Taylor, said downsizing in the financial sector, through bank mergers and cutbacks, has reduced the demand for conferencing to a degree. But she said this is being offset by the rise in new tech companies and steady repeat business from mining and forestry interests.

"We will be pushing for contracts in the shoulder seasons, as these local markets also tend to be price sensitive," Taylor said.

Local market factors such as the cancellation of the World Cup mountain bike races this summer and the current lack of snow are unlikely to affect conference event bookings. Tikkanen said: "We’ve still got more snow than Aspen or Vail so we haven’t seen any effect on our business and don’t expect to."

The director of conference sales, Linda Gilroy, said Tourism Whistler plans to launch a meeting planner guide by late March for interested groups. She said the ageing condition of the Whistler Conference Centre is a disincentive for some conference bookers, but progress is being made with the municipality on financing a renovation.

All the conference sales team showcased a list of upcoming trade shows this year they will be attending throughout North America to promote Whistler.

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