Busy start to year for capital region tourism industry

Hotel operators and tourism attractions are bracing for a busy summer as early returns suggest this could be a banner year for the sector.

Hotel occupancy, revenue per available room and transportation links have all seen significant increases over the first two months of the year, according to statistics compiled by Chemistry Consulting.

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During the firm’s annual economic-outlook breakfast, Chemistry principal Frank Bourree credited strong marketing campaigns by Tourism Victoria and a resurgent U.S. economy for the busier-than-usual off season. Through the first two months, hotel occupancy is up 6.7 per cent compared with last year, while revenue per available room — a key indicator in the tourism economy — is up $10.05 to $56.35.

At the same time, the Victoria International Airport has seen a 3.25 per cent increase in passengers and B.C. Ferries has had bumps in vehicles (up 4.03 per cent) and passengers (up 4.27 per cent).

It’s a harbinger of things to come, said industry veteran Ian Powell, managing director of the Inn at Laurel Point.

“The main thing is the U.S. economy is firing on all cylinders,” Powell said. “[Americans] are more employed, they feel more comfortable, they know what’s going on and they are travelling again. And as I look out on the year, the projections look good.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Hotel Grand Pacific general manager Reid James. “We are up 12 per cent for the first quarter and we will be up again in the second,” he said. “June is going to be huge in the city this year.”

While solid marketing from Tourism Victoria — a romance campaign in February is credited with filling rooms around Valentine’s Day — James said the city was also due a surge in traffic.

“I think it’s cyclical to a degree, and it’s sort of the Pacific Northwest’s turn,” James said. “And you have a lot of things positive out there like the U.S. economy improving while Canadians are staying home because of the low Canadian dollar.”

During his presentation to the breakfast meeting, Paul Nursey, chief executive of Tourism Victoria, said there are two keys to what he expects will be a big year — consumer confidence and GDP growth.

“Normally I say I am cautiously optimistic, because this is a sector that can be disrupted, but I’m now more than that,” he said. “We are poised for continued responsible growth. We are now fully recovered from the 2008 downturn and I feel we are entering into a period of sustained growth.

“January was off to a rocking start. We expect it will continue through the year all things being equal.”

The sector intends to press the early advantage with a spring marketing campaign that borrows the look and feel of the successful campaign being run by Travel Portland — Portland is Happening Now, which targets hip, young people with disposable cash looking for new experiences.

Tourism Victoria is a program called Victoria: Beyond Words. It plays on the theme that the destination is so incredible that even the most erudite will be at a loss for words and must resort to a new language to describe the place. A video uses lines like “splasherific gawkerism,” “coniferous, immersification” and “extreme hogfestation” to describe things like getting out into nature and diving into local cuisine.

“We want it to be clever, chic and have the ability to start a conversation,” said Nursey, noting the ideal target audience is highly a educated woman from Seattle, San Francisco, Portland or Vancouver who has influence with her friends.

Powell likes the idea. “Did you see there’s not a bloody whale or flower in sight, I like that,” he said, noting it’s time for quirky campaigns that target a new consumer. ‘‘People who know us, know us and what we need are those who don’t and [Tourism Victoria’s] going after that.”

Dave Cowen, general manager of Butchart Gardens, also likes the new approach, noting that by targeting millennials and other groups not typically associated with visiting Victoria it could pay off down the line.

“The visitor that knows Victoria for its beauty and relaxing and rejuvenation atmosphere is a loyal visitor. We get a lot of repeat visitors,” Cowen said.

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