In tourism, there’s no such thing as “off-season” anymore

Online booking has made consumers more aware of price fluctuations for hotels and attractions, and smart operators are cashing in

Northern lights

(Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty)

The 100 days of summer may be coming to an end—not just for this year, but for the tourism industry generally. In Canada especially, the dramatic changing of the seasons used to mean a sharp drop-off in visitors, leaving hotel rooms empty, attractions idled and workers on their way back to college or to another line of work. That’s less true today, as demographic and technological changes drive more off-peak leisure travel. Savvy operators need to find ways to take advantage of these changes to generate more business at a time when they would otherwise be sweeping floors.

The rise of online booking sites might be one factor driving travel in shoulder seasons, since tourists have become more aware of the deals available during non-peak times. The number of families with school-age kids also represents a shrinking share of households, meaning people have more flexibility to travel outside of the usual school break times.

At Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures, owner Carlos Gonzalez is just gearing up for his busiest season as night falls earlier north of 60 degrees latitude. “I was one of the early guys that started 30 years ago with the aurora viewing,” Gonzalez says of a territorial tourism industry formerly based on summer fishing, hunting and family camping adventures. His star attraction is the northern lights, the main season for which runs Nov. 20 to Apr. 10.

More than 25,000 visitors now come to Yellowknife over the winter specifically for the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, Gonzalez says, and 85% to 90% of his customers come from China, Japan and South Korea. To round out the experience, Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures offers snowmobiling, snowshoeing, dog-sledding and ice-fishing.

On the country’s western edge, the Wickaninnish Inn has turned stormy winter weather into its own attraction. Recalling his own childhood vacation home in Tofino, B.C., witnessing the clouds and rain blow in, managing director Charles McDiarmid designed the luxury beachfront resort with storm-watching in mind, with features such as a 240-degree view of the water from the restaurant and soaker tubs next to the windows in most rooms.

“We wanted to be the absolute best winter storm-watching destination on the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Alaska,” McDiarmid says. He recalls the concept took time to take hold; occupancy was around 20% during its first winter season of 1996-97. Today the Inn runs between 50% and 60% full from November to February. Even with lower room rates it’s important to stay open year-round, he says. “We have this expensive asset that’s sitting here,” he says.

Ski resorts typically face the reverse problem of most Canadian tourism businesses: packed over the Christmas and March breaks and much of the time in between, empty and bleeding money the rest of the year. But a number are aggressively promoting summer and fall activities from lift-accessed mountain bike parks and hiking to arts, music and film festivals.

Canada’s largest such resort, Whistler Blackcomb, suffered a miserable winter this year, with skier visits down 13% in the opening quarter of this year compared to a year earlier due to poor snow conditions. And in its 2014 fiscal year, Whistler Blackcomb’s “other” visits rose 8.2% as skier visits declined 4.7%.

For hotel operators, “we have some of our busiest weekends in the summer,” says Tourism Whistler communications manager Patricia Westerholm, though room rates are typically lower and the economic impact smaller than during the peak snow season. “We see more unique visitors in the summer than in the winter, but in winter, Whistler has more international guests, who stay longer and have greater expenditure,” she explains.

Still, tourism operators are realizing there’s no such thing as an off-season any more. If you package it properly, in other words, they will come.