Whistler smashes records for June room nights 

Managers, owners, hit the front lines to deal with staff shortages

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Whistler has been laying down the gauntlet of late with some record-breaking months, but nothing comes close to the 26 per cent increase in room nights for June 2015, eclipsing last year as the busiest June on record by a long shot.

That success hasn't come without its challenges, as businesses struggle with finding enough staff to meet the demand, and owners work double-time to fill in the gaps.

Group and conference business accounted for one in every three room nights last month, adding to 61 per cent average occupancy for the month, a time traditionally at the tail end of the sluggish shoulder season.

The good weather and the loonie's slide to record lows also played a role in the early summer boom.

"It's been a good summer so far," said Jerry Marsh, owner of the Creekside Market.

June broke records at the grocery store, he added, and July and August are shaping up that way too.

"We've seen a busier July than we've seen in the last two years," added Marsh.

Staffing, he added, remains a concern. Marsh has added an incentive program, a $50 gift certificate, for staff who can entice others to apply and get hired at Creekside Market.

"It's always an issue staffing in Whistler. Some times are better than others," said Marsh.

He said they are getting by as management steps up to the plate to fill the gaps on the front lines, putting off their back of house duties for quieter times.

Still, they don't have much of a buffer for emergencies.

"The thing is, you have people that will have to go home all of a sudden, back east or to Australia, or somebody gets injured in the bike park and you're down a body...

"Your management staff, maybe they take a little less time to do their back-end jobs and they're working upfront. Usually that's the way you pull through these times."

One of the key factors at play for the June room night numbers was the conference and group business in the resort. It doubled over last June. There were five big conferences at the Whistler Conference Centre last month including: the 49th Canadian Meteorological & Oceanographic Society Congress, the Canadian Healthcare Engineering Society of BC 2017 conference and trade show, and the Mozilla All-Hands Work Week.

"Not only is (June) up over last year, it outperformed the 10-year average," said Tourism Whistler's manager of communications Patricia Westerholm, adding that there was consistent growth out of the regional and destination markets. The last two Fridays on the month recorded occupancy at around 87 per cent and there was "consistent and significant growth in occupancy during mid-week periods throughout the month."

"Certainly, the U.S. market is performing well and we know that the strong U.S. dollar plays a part in that for sure," added Westerholm.

The loonie is the lowest it's been in roughly a decade; there's a chance it could tumble even further in the months to come.

In the wake of the summertime pressures last year which broke occupancy records, the municipality anticipated the lift in summer business during its budgeting process this year, funnelling more money into village operations, among other things. It remains to be seen if the boost in funding was enough to meet the demand.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden reported this week that pay parking revenue from the day lots was up $20,000 in June — $79,000 in June 2015 compared to $59,000 from the year before.

Garbage decreased by one per cent, but recycling increased by 13 per cent, comparing June 2014 to 2015.

"That's going to bear some additional analysis," said the mayor.

Also up for analysis in the weeks to come is the labour shortage problem, rippling across B.C. but keenly felt closer to home.

Val Litwin, president of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, said there are plans for a business roundtable on the situation.

"We're in a labour shortage; it will get worse up to 2020," said Litwin. "It's not going to change any time soon."

Businesses, he added, must persevere to attract and retain staff and ask some tough questions: How is my work culture? What training am I offering? Do I have a competitive wage? Am I flexible with hours?

Litwin said his phone rings daily with businesses in town worried about staffing.

In the meantime, it's all hands on deck for the rest of the summer after its record-breaking start.

"It was... nuts," said Tony Horn, owner of Slope Side Supply of June's business. "It was a ridiculous month."

Slope Side was up 22 per cent on the previous June, which itself was a record-breaker they never thought they would beat. After all, June 2014 was the school strike and summer started earlier in B.C. And yet...

"To put it in perspective, we were busier in June than we were in February. And we weren't slow in February, at all. It was really crazy," said Horn.


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