Whistler sees strong shoulder season 

As access through YVR improves, so does off-season tourism

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER
  • Photo by mike crane / tourism whistler

As Tourism Whistler goes through the final numbers from the summer season, it's clear it was another successful one in terms of accommodations.

"We had a really great summer for overnight visitors, we were up in most of our shoulder periods, which is exactly where we want to see growth, and we ended up on par with last summer," said Meredith Kunza, senior manager of research and product development at Tourism Whistler. "2016 was a record summer for Whistler so we managed to maintain that for 2017. We were up for both May and June, as well as September."

That success in the shoulder months — the ones that flank summer's star attractions, July and August — lines up with the growth seen by the province of B.C. in international arrivals over the same period.

Tourism BC saw an increase in international arrivals by 4.6 per cent in September versus last year. That followed an increase of 5.3 per cent for June and 4.6 per cent for May. According to Kunza, overnight stays — the main metric used by Tourism Whistler — don't directly correlate to B.C.'s international arrivals. But Whistler is capitalizing on some of the specific nations that have seen a large percentage increase in the shoulder seasons.

"When we have markets where we have improved air access, like more direct flights or improvements in capacity, that's where there's an opportunity and that's where our team is focused," she said. "If we see an increase in air access to Australia, and we put marketing efforts there, then we will often see increases in room nights to Whistler from Australia."

Australian travel to YVR has greatly improved over the years, with a direct flight from Brisbane added last year, and a direct flight from Melbourne coming in December.

Along with Australia, the province also had a spike in arrivals from Mexico and Germany in 2017. Hotel Association of Whistler president Saad Hasan said some of those numbers may have been driven by their efforts.

"Tourism Whistler and Whistler resort hotels as a whole, we have GM missions and other missions that go to different destinations just pounding the pavement and meeting people," he said. "For the longest time we thought Germans aren't going to come here to ski because they're surrounded by ski hills. But once we started going there and meeting the tour operators, we realized Germany is a huge market. They love to travel, they have no problems driving in winter conditions, they will come and hit a variety of resorts. Not only that, they're big into heli-skiing."

These international marketing efforts by Tourism Whistler have helped lessen the drop off experienced in shoulder seasons. In fact, as booking deadlines pass for the winter season, fewer people are focusing on getting rooms for peak times like the holiday season.

"We have been pacing ahead of last winter for the whole season when we check in on those deadlines," said Kunza. "While we're pacing behind over that Christmas period, we're pacing ahead for November, pacing ahead for February, March and April. So ... instead of people booking early for some of the main attractive periods, we're starting to see that early booking spread over the whole season, and that's the goal."

Hasan has been in the Whistler hotel game for almost 20 years, and he attributes social media and the internet to helping fill times that used to be a lull for the hotels. With the ability to research on their own, people are always going to find a good deal.

"January used to be an area we really had to work hard to fill, because that's where new years is done, people have gone home, their credit cards maxed out, and it would be a bit of a lull until Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend," he said. "We used to say, 'January is where we want to fill up.' People are noticing that as well, and they're thinking we should go then, the snow conditions are fabulous, most of the crowds are gone."

Even with Christmas holidays pacing behind in overnight bookings, there's no worry that Whistler hotels won't be full in late December. As long as the weather is good for skiing, Hasan expects around 100-per-cent occupancy, which is par for the holiday course.

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