Long haul guests coming back to Whistler 

Air Canada partners with resort to align offers out of U.K. and Australia

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Destination visits have taken off for the 2011/12 winter season.

That rebound, primarily from the U.K. and Australia markets, is due in no small part to the tight partnership forged by Whistler and Air Canada, leading to a price packaging alignment that Tourism Whistler's vice president of sales Karen Goodwin called "textbook perfect" in the lead up to this winter.

December's numbers show double-digit growth out of U.K.

Australia has been a strong market in the past years and saw growth again last month. There was also double digit growth out of the U.S.

It's affirmation of the critical role airlines play in Whistler's business.

"That (packaging) alignment of their (Air Canada's) best rates with our best rates has been the real key to our success with the destination market," said Goodwin.

"We've got stronger destination traffic than we did last year and it's coming from these markets (the UK and Australia)."

She explained that the airline worked hand in glove with resort partners in the lead up to the season to deliver unbeatable deals.

Goodwin, along with Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO Dave Brownlie and resort hotel managers travelled to Australia this summer to meet Jeannie Foster, Air Canada's general manager for Australia and New Zealand.

"Our mandate was to fill our seats and drive business to the resort, not only for January (when Australians typically travel) but also for February and March," said Foster from Australia this week.

And it's worked, said Foster. January was very successful.

There was an "early, early book by" offer for August 31, a time that the airline has its seat sales.

"We (Tourism Whistler and partners) added August 31 because that is the best airline offer," said Goodwin. "They've always done August 31 so we added another layer going as deep as we could to capture that business (early)."

And whereas in 2010, Air Canada's prices jumped up £200 on Sept. 1 in the U.K., this year saw just incremental increases in the airfares to keep the momentum going.

"My sense is it's all about momentum and the airlines really helped us keep that momentum going," Goodwin added.

Hotels in resort too kept teasing offers to keep the whole package looking like a savvy choice for a price sensitive customer.

"You've got these partners, all these tour operators around the world, once your price goes up, they move on to the next one that they can sell easily," said Goodwin.

Four years ago the U.K. market was about 10 per cent of the overall market pie. That dropped significantly down to 6.5 per cent in the Olympic year, rebounding to 7.2 per cent last year.

It's too early to tell if the market share overall is going to grow, said Barrett Fisher, Tourism Whistler's president and CEO. But last month's double-digit growth is encouraging.

Tourism Whistler has poured more brand advertising dollars into its long haul markets like the UK and Australia after the 2010 Olympic Games to capitalize on the exposure.

"That (brand advertising) has really helped with our long haul awareness and now we're seeing the booking pattern pick up," said Fisher.

And while the rubber tire traffic has kept Whistler going as it weathers the storms of 9/11, exchange rates, the global financial crisis, to name a few, it's the destination guest that can be the difference between a successful winter season, and one that tops the charts.

"We have to get back to a stronger destination mix because that's our customer that rents skis, and goes out to dinner and shops," said Goodwin.

"It's not full recovery but our efforts are paying off. There is so much that we can't overcome. I can't change the economy and exchange rate, but what do you have control over? And if you can align and keep that momentum going and then see some results, it's motivating for sure."

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