With six-per-cent bump in room nights, winter 2016-17 was Whistler's busiest ever 

Officials stress need for measured approach in handling resort's growth

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE/TOURISM WHISTLER - Whirlwind winter Whistler had its biggest winter ever in 2016-17, with record room night figures in November, December, January and April.
  • PHOTO by Mike Crane/tourism whistler
  • Whirlwind winter Whistler had its biggest winter ever in 2016-17, with record room night figures in November, December, January and April.

Winter 2016-17 will go down as Whistler's busiest on record.

In what's become something of an annual tradition for a resort growing at a feverish pace, this past season outperformed last year's record-breaking winter with a six-per-cent increase in room nights and an average paid occupancy rate of 72 per cent, a new high.

The months of November, December, January and April all saw record room-night figures.

"Whistler's success has been a community-wide effort," said TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher in a release. No one from TW was available for a follow-up interview.

It was a perfect storm of factors that led to another winter for the books. Excellent weather conditions, a favourable exchange rate, a packed event schedule, and the highest number of American visitors in 15 years — no doubt spurred by Vail Resorts' inclusion of Whistler Blackcomb in its multi-resort ski pass for the first time — all played a role.

With peak periods already bursting at the seams, TW focused its efforts on growing visitation in slower times. Shoulder season proved to be the main source of growth, with the period between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15 seeing a 22-per-cent rise in room nights. Increasing visitors' length of stay, particularly mid-week, is one way the resort can boost room nights "while minimizing increases in visitor volume," Fisher said. "Our strategies are aimed at balancing business levels, creating a smoothing effect to spread visitation throughout the year."

But the emphasis on building Whistler's shoulder season comes with added strain on an already overworked labour force and employers scrambling to fill key positions, said Dan Wilson with the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

"I think where the challenge is if you have employees or business owners who are already doing overtime during peak periods — those slower times can get quite busy as well without an increase in staff — and that may stress people's abilities to provide good service over multiple years," he said.

The Community Foundation of Whistler (CFOW) has been looking closely at the less tangible impacts of Whistler's continued boom as part of its 2017 Vital Signs report, expected in the fall. What it found through a series of recent public forums was a distinct "duality" in how the community views its growth.

"For some people, there's a sense of fear that they're being pushed out, and for others, it's more of a confidence that Whistler is still a wonderful place, and particularly in comparison to the global context," said Carol Coffey, the CFOW's executive director.

Any discussion of Whistler's growth inevitably leads to the question: How long can it be maintained? It's a challenge Whistler's business community has seen firsthand.

"I don't want to sugarcoat the fact that we've had a really busy year, and we're going to continue being busy, but the business owners are struggling because we don't have enough staff in-resort," said Melissa Pace, head of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. "In part, some of it has to do with housing, some of it has to do with affordable housing, so there are different layers causing some of the lack of employees coming to Whistler."

Mounting concerns around housing and staffing levels are nothing new, and it's why resort stakeholders are urging a measured approach as Whistler moves into its next phase.

"There is room for some growth, but I don't think anybody is thinking we're going to keep this pace up. We have to be realistic about the carrying capacity of the community," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

As Whistler's economy has benefitted from year after year of record visitation, there's a growing sense that the prosperity isn't being passed down to the average resident. According to the CFOW's research, 16 per cent of permanent residents and 58 per cent of young adults in Whistler reported making less than the standard living income in 2015.

"I think the market, to a large extent, will take care of that problem," added Wilhelm-Morden. "If employers can't find employees because the salaries they are paying are too low for those employees to actually live in Whistler, they'll have to adjust those salaries accordingly."

While acknowledging that winter 2016-17 showed that Whistler's future "looks very bright," Fisher stressed in the release that it's no time for complacency.

"We need to celebrate our successes while we simultaneously address the issues facing our community, to ensure that we balance delivering an amazing guest experience while also fulfilling the needs of our community."

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