Visitor numbers down, but ahead of projections 

Reason for optimism as regional market improves

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Tourism Whistler released its December numbers on Wednesday, and while they were well down compared to last year they were also better than forecast.

According to Jeff McDonald, manager of public and member communications for Tourism Whistler, there is room for optimism as well as caution in the current economic climate.

"Based on what we've seen, there is reason to be optimistic that bookings will be higher than current pace reports indicate," he said.

Paid room nights in December 2008 were down 11 per cent compared to December 2007, which was a record December for the resort. Compared to the December average for the last five years, however, Tourism Whistler expects to be down just two or three per cent.
January 2009 room nights are also pacing a little more than 10 per cent behind January 2008, "but we are seeing week over week increases and are now only pacing three per cent behind the same period two years ago in January (January 2007), to put it into perspective."

McDonald says the usual method for forecasting visitor numbers is not as reliable, as most reports are made 120 days out and many people are booking much closer to the date.

"Our 120 day pace report shows bookings 10 and 20 per cent behind last year, but that report assumes that people book within the same period as previous years," said McDonald. "People do seem to be booking later. For example, on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we're hearing anecdotally from our hotel partners that they saw significant pickup in the last 10 days before the weekend."

The B.C. travel market has also seen a boost recently, which is largely attributed to special deals offered by Whistler Blackcomb and accommodation providers as well as a decision to focus marketing on regional markets.
"In December 2008, the B.C. market contributed 34 per cent of resort-wide paid room nights, and that's about a third higher than in December 2007," said McDonald. "What that means is that the B.C. market is stabilizing us, relative to visits from more distant markets which we know are down."
For example, visits from Washington State were down nine per cent in December 2008 compared to 2007.

Broken down into different segments, Tourism Whistler said individual travel was down three per cent in December compared to the previous year, while conference and group travel was down roughly four per cent.
"We're pleased that our individual and group travel numbers were as strong as they are," said McDonald. "Tour and travel business is down 28 per cent, which is a fairly large number and is reflective of the fact that most visitors to Whistler in that group come from overseas markets, and they're hurting from the worldwide economic downturn."

McDonald says the plan through the end of the season will remain the same, with strong pickup of accommodation deals that include lift tickets.
"After we saw how people responded to those we will continue to focus, or refocus, our marketing on regional markets," he said.

On Friday, Tourism Whistler president Barrett Fisher will be meeting with members at a 2 p.m. conference to discuss the current economic climate and most recent numbers. The meeting is open to members only.
At the start of the season, Tourism Whistler warned that the worst case scenario for the resort was a decline of 12 per cent over the last year, while the best case was five per cent - on par with the winter of 2003-2004 when people stayed away because of the lack of snow.

Challenges this year include the economic crisis and a low snowpack. However some factors, like a lower Canadian dollar and lower gas prices, are also helping the resort's bottom line. The Olympics and Peak 2 Peak Gondola also generated additional publicity for the resort, while also bringing competitions like World Cup test events to the region.

This year, a booking agency owned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler and managed by Tourism Whistler, also started to advertise deals in U.S. dollars to emphasize the value.

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