July occupancy numbers encouraging 

Last-minute bookings helping fill hotels but making it hard to plan

The hotel industry experienced a "better than anticipated" July thanks largely to last minute bookings, according to Tourism Whistler.

While exact numbers won't be available until mid-August, Arlene Schieven, vice-president of marketing at Tourism Whistler, said July has been positive across the resort.

"Our early indicators are showing that (July) was positive, but until we have the information from all the hotels, we won't be able to provide the exact number in terms of where we netted out," she said. "I do think that we'll do better than we expected."

"We are anticipating that we are up nine or 10 per cent (over last year) for July," she said.

This comes after a dismal start to the summer, when the resort was operating below 40 per cent occupancy in June.

This year, Schieven said improved weather and deals on hotels accounted for many of the last minute travelers, many of which were from around B.C. and Washington State.

"Those last minute bookings coming from the Vancouver market are very weather dependent," she said. "It's not surprising, we always have to wait and see how the weather nets out and it was definitely in our favour this month."

Andrew Glass, director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa, said that while their numbers are up slightly from last year the last minute bookings can be "stressful."

"Within the last two days, it looks like it could be slow and then it picks up, so that certainly causes a little bit of stress on our part," he said. "But if the weather's good, the pick up normally comes."

Roger Soane, general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and chair of Tourism Whistler, said last-minute bookings are often troublesome to deal with.

"It's terrible," he said with a laugh. "You try to gauge your staffing levels and everything else. You want to be able to give your colleagues as much notice for when they're working, but we're finding that, seven days in, we're starting to see the pick up."

The Chateau will often book rooms on a Monday for check-in on Friday.

"People are looking at the weather forecast and thinking, 'yeah, let's do it,'" he said.

According to Mark Herron, general manager of the Four Seasons and chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler, projections for August are either down or flat from last year. But these projections could change due to last minute bookings.

"That's only what is on the books today," he said. "That's down from year to year, across the board."

During the first weekend of Crankworx, there was an 11 per cent last-minute booking increase over the week before, though it hasn't been good for everybody.

"This is the worst week (the Four Seasons) has had all year, but that's not our market," Herron said of Crankworx.

He said that at least one hotel has restricted guests from storing bikes in their hotel rooms, so many of them may have moved to non-service properties in town.

Herron said he hopes the fruits of Tourism Whistler's destination market advertising strategy will start to show this winter. They are already projecting a better winter season than last year. He said these won't be "heyday" numbers but they will start to see a return to stronger numbers.

"We have gone through two seasons of decline in business. In 2008 to 2009 it was the economy and from 2009 to 2010 it was the economy and the Olympic aversion," he said. "The hope is the Olympics would have sparked interest in Whistler again, and we hope to see the uptake of that exposure this winter."

Soane said the Chateau Whistler is already receiving calls from businesses interested in booking group functions in Whistler because of what they saw on TV during the Olympics, but those bookings are 18 months to two years later.

"We definitely want to return to a balanced portfolio where people book in advance and that will happen as we work on our destination marketing," said Schieven. "It certainly makes forecasting difficult in terms of what do we anticipate."

Schieven said those forecast are important to guide Tourism Whistler's marketing decisions while businesses use forecasts to guide their staffing decisions. Schieven, Soane and Glass all said that last-minute bookings haven't affected the quality of their services for the guests.



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