Whistler Conference Centre

After years of low bookings, big-ticket (and big-spending) conferences are returning to Whistler

» Read the full article on BCBusiness.com

With alpine vistas, a surplus of meeting space and close connections to Vancouver, Whistler is following the lead set out by ski resorts such as Banff and Aspen and courting the conference crowd—a much sought-after tourist segment known to book early and spend lots of money. This month, Grow—a technology investment conference with some 1,100 attendees—became the latest to make the trek up the Sea-to-Sky highway, relocating from Vancouver after four years.

Whistler saw 2.55 million visitors in 2012/2013. Meetings, incentives, conferences and events—known in the industry by the acronym MICE—make up a large proportion of total visitor numbers, and an even higher proportion of tourist revenues, in Whistler. For a town with around 8,000 hotel rooms, advance corporate bookings are vital to the resort’s economy. In 2013, conferences and meetings represented 22 per cent of total room nights in the summer, and 11 per cent in the winter. In total, meetings and conferences accounted for 81,000 room nights last year.

A portion of those visitors come for events at the Whistler Conference Centre, which has seen attendee numbers fluctuate over the years—from a high of 65,607 in 2004 to a low of 15,766 in 2011 (a drop attributed largely to a high Canadian dollar and stricter passport controls) and back to 60,322 last year. “Prior to 2008, when conference business started to decline due to the recession, this segment peaked at about 30 per cent of room nights in summer and 15 per cent of room nights in winter,” says Karen Goodwin, vice-president of market development at Tourism Whistler, which markets the resort town locally and abroad, and sells packages directly to corporate clients.

Whistler has scored a series of coups for conferences over the last five years: in addition to Grow there was TEDxActive in February of this year, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in 2009 and an upcoming 2015 anesthesiology summit. Added to that is the uptick in business associated with employee incentive packages: large bookings by corporate clients such as UBS Financial and Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, which represent thousands of room nights a year. These kinds of events give Whistler valuable media exposure—but more importantly, they represent a vital source of revenue for resort hotels, says Stephen Webb, manager at the Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa: “We are definitely seeing recovery.”

ConferencesBC, a now-defunct industry group, estimated the total economic impact of conferences and conventions in B.C. at $560 million in 2006, the last time a major study was conducted. Delegates spend on average between $276 and $533 per day, and around one third of delegates travel to other parts of the province as part of their stay.

Last summer was Whistler’s busiest on record in terms of room nights, and group business is a key component of that success, says Goodwin. Improvements to infrastructure, particularly the expanded Sea-to-Sky highway, have helped to increase Whistler’s viability as a destination for large groups, she adds. Just as important for large events with a heavy digital and media presence—like TEDxActive or Grow 2014—is the 286-kilometre fibre-optic cable that runs up the Sea-to-Sky corridor, which improved Whistler’s ability to host groups that require high connectivity and broadcast capabilities.

For many conference organizers, Whistler’s compact size (no hotel is more than a 20-minute walk from the conference centre) and easily accessible resort amenities give it an advantage over Vancouver. “You won’t lose your delegates,” jokes Goodwin.

On Tap Next Month? Beer

It’s not just conferences picking Whistler as the backdrop for doing business. Now in its second year, the Whistler Beer Festival will be held from September 11 to 14 in the resort town. The festival has doubled in size to an expected 4,000 attendees, and will feature selections from more than 50 breweries, 25 of them from B.C. The big attraction is a “Best in Fest” competition, whereby three breweries are awarded draft-beer contracts for distribution in Whistler bars and pubs; rather than bestow titles or hand out prize money, the festival organizers wanted an award that offered lasting benefits to both the breweries and participating local businesses. Organizers Liam Peyton and Harrison Stoker of Gibbons Life plan to launch beer festivals across Canada, starting with a Vancouver event in 2015.

Brittia Thompson