Conferences tip September's scales for room nights 

Tourism Whistler marks another record month

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Summer 2013 room night numbers just keep getting better, helped by thousands of conference guests hitting town in September.

Tourism Whistler's official stats last month show a 13 per cent growth over last year in terms of room nights booked, making September 2013 the busiest September on record.

If it sounds like a broken record, repeating the same tourism boon over again, it's one that Whistler doesn't mind replaying — June saw a seven per cent increase over the previous year, July a 15 per cent increase, August a three per cent increase.

While there were gains from the regional market and "significant gains" out of Ontario, Alberta, the U.K., and Australia and strong marketing campaigns encouraging early bookings, there was another critical factor at play.

"Conference and group business was key and played a significant role in the increase in room nights," said Patricia Westerholm, Tourism Whistler's manager of corporate communications.

The Whistler Conference Centre hosted several large groups last month.

BC Wood, a not-for-profit trade association that supports B.C. businesses that manufacture wood products, accounted for almost 1,000 room nights.

The Certified General Accountants Association of BC accounted for 1,200 room nights.

The Society of Economic Geologists accounted for 1,500 room nights.

Conferences made a difference at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, as well.

Fifty groups came through the hotel over the course of the 30 days.

Group business accounted for 7,000 room nights at the Chateau alone.

"Group business is very vital for hotels to have steady and sustainable financial results; this does not only benefit hotels but also the destination," said Burhan Culculoglu, the Chateau's director of operations.

"Our goal is always to get healthy numbers of group business and September was a great month for this segment."

Resort-wide paid occupancy was at 52 per cent last month, nudging above September 2010, the previous record-holder at 51 per cent — that's when Whistler held the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) conference, which accounted for more than 3,000 room nights. Whistler is hosting UBCM in 2014.

"When we look at our high-season product in summer and winter from skiing to hiking and golf, and all those sorts of things, we're in pretty good shape when you look at the curve of visitation," said Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

"But when you look at the meeting side of the business, spring and fall, there's an area for growth and opportunity."

Fisher was speaking just before last week's public presentation of the EPI (Economic Partnership Initiative) committee report. Of the 60 recommendations in that report, two deal specifically with conference business.

The first is to develop detailed criteria for identifying appropriate opportunities for investing local in-kind resources as a tool to increase our ability to attract resort-wide conference business.

To do this $150,000 will be considered out of the 2014 municipal budget.

A further $40,000 in RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) money will go to develop a business plan for the potential expansion of the Whistler Conference Centre.

The centre can hold a standing reception for 2,000, but more often it hosts dinners for up to 1,000 or a general session for 1,600.

Most of its events, however, are in the range of 100- to 500-person program.

The new research would look at the opportunity to attract new business if the centre had an additional ballroom.

At the moment, the centre cannot accommodate a meeting (whether a general session or a tradeshow) in one ballroom followed by a lunch or dinner in another ballroom — a "meet and feed" scenario.


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