Conferences and tour groups boost summer tourism numbers 

Local businesses unsure of financial impact

Summertime conferences and tour groups mean big business and big bucks to Whistler, according to figures obtained by Pique Newsmagazine.

But local business owners aren't quite sure how this summer's crop of conferences will affect their ledgers.

Figures from Tourism Whistler reveal that conference delegates spend, on average, less than regular tourists.

Regular tourists spend about $309 per day, while conference delegates spend $264 per day.

But, according to Tourism Whistler, conference delegates stay for longer periods, are not weather dependent and provide guaranteed business.

Numbers and statistics, however, don't always paint an accurate picture and members of Whistler Village's Commercial Core Committee are less sure of the financial impact.

"I get a sense that there were actually less conferences in town this summer," said Dave Davenport, owner of two apparel stores. "But my business does go up when they're here."

Another business owner said conferences should be held during slower times of the year rather than summer.

"Conferences should be held in the shoulder seasons when we need to attract people here," said David Campbell, a jewelry store owner. "People come here in the summer or winter and the hotels are going to be full regardless."

But representatives from large hotels such as the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and the Westin Resort and Spa said their buildings are practically full during the summer months due to group bookings.

"Conferences are a very important component of our business," said Janet Hart, the Chateau's marketing manager. "They're coming in with a specific need and they're taking advantage of volume buying power."

According to Hart, conferences make up more than 50 per cent of the Chateau's group business.

The Chateau sees about 700 groups per year. The groups can occupy as little as 10 of the hotel's rooms or as many 550.

The Westin sees between 20 to 35 groups per month in the summer. The size of each group ranges in size between 10 and 300 delegates.

"Conferences and meetings are a big part of our business," said Sheana Watt, a Westin sales associate. "There has also been a dramatic increase in tour-operator business."

Both hotels employ sales departments that focus on luring conferences and tour groups into their buildings.

The Chateau has 28,000 square feet of meeting space, while the Westin has 17,000 square feet.

According to Tourism Whistler, conferences and tour groups accounted for 54 per cent of Whistler's summer business last year, while regular tourists made up the remaining 46 per cent.

Meanwhile, a proposed $22-million expansion of the Whistler Conference Centre could add thousands of square feet in meeting space and generate millions more dollars for resort businesses.

The conference centre currently has 88,000 square feet of meeting space and generates $19 million annually for the resort in delegate spending.

The proposed expansion will raise capacity to 135,000 square feet and, according to Tourism Whistler, generate $49 million annually.

Tourism Whistler will also be hosting a group of German tour operators this winter in the hopes of bringing more European tourists to the resort. The tour operator is aiming to increase its business to Canada by 30 per cent after this familiarization tour.

The tour group business was given another boost recently after Banff-based Brewster Transportation announced it is adding Whistler to its list of summer bus-tour destinations next year.

But despite the differing numbers and opinions, Davenport said what all Whistler business owners, whether big or small, are probably thinking.

"Conferences are good things."

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