“Shoulder season’s a tragedy all over the world.”
Those were the words of Thom Tischik, the executive director of the Revelstoke Accommodation Association when I called him last month to talk about ideas to boost shoulder season tourism.
“When I heard the question my first response was there’s no silver bullet,” Robert Hood, the chairperson of the Tourism Management school at Thompson Rivers University. “If there were, people would be doing that and they would know exactly what to do.”
For tourism operators, the shoulder season is that period of year between the peak season and low season.
For Revelstoke, based on 2010 hotel revenue data from BC Stats (the most recent year that is available), the shoulder season could be considered the months of September, December, June and, to a lesser extent, October and May.
In 2010 July and August were the busiest months, followed by January, February and March. Those were followed by September, December (likely mostly due to Christmas) and June, with May and October lagging. November and April were easily the slowest months in terms of hotel room revenue.
The shoulder season is the time of year where the weather is still pretty nice but the kids are back in school so it’s more difficult for families to get away. The water isn’t warm enough for swimming, but going out for a hike is still a comfortable affair.
“The shoulder season is a different kettle of fish given the responsibilities people have,” said Hood. “But there are people who don’t have those kind of responsibilities that are out there, that are retired. There’s that market and they want to visit places within their region.”
Shoulder season is a challenge, not only because there are fewer tourists around, but also because of perception, perceived and real, that there’s less to do. In the spring, the ski hill is closed and there’s too much snow in the alpine for hiking and mountain biking. Backcountry skiing and snowmobiling is still possible, but many people have already turned their minds to summer pursuits, making them a harder sell.
In the fall, the alpine usually remains accessible into October but with the days getting shorter and the weather getting worse, people are less likely to travel.
For Poppi Reiner, the owner of Poppi’s Guesthouse, the shoulder season is almost a complete write-off. There’s a few university students who come through after class gets out and some ski bums that stay in the fall when they arrive in town but, “as far as tourists, almost none,” she told me.
“Basically I could almost close down from when the hill closes until mid-June and from the end of September until mid-December,” she said. “What happens is you want to be around even for the one or two rooms you might get because you need every penny you can get. You don’t feel like you can bugger off because you’re so desperate to pay the mortgage that you don’t want to leave.”
I called Robert Hood to see what kind of insight he could provide into the matter. He said it was a matter of looking what tourism products there are to offer, what the market is out there and how to match them together.
“You have to know what you have that’s suitable for available markets at this time,” he said.
He brought up events like the Gran Fondo bike race from Vancouver to Whistler that was conceived as a way to bring up tourists on a slow, post-Labour Day weekend.
Before Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened, January, February and March were amongst the slowest months of the year in terms of hotel room revenue. The ski resort, and Revelstoke’s burgeoning reputation as a winter destination has changed that. Now, the true slow season is only a few months a year.
“That is an advantage over some communities that have to realy on that mid-June to mid-September time frame,” said Tischik.
The Revelstoke Accommodation Association has talked about some ideas, such as attracting small corporate meetings and retreats to Revelstoke during the spring and fall. “We see that being as a place where there’s competition but we do have the location and facilities to promote that,” Tischik said.
Judy Goodman at the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce brought up the idea of hosting more events. She used the example of Spirit Fest in the winter. “I think the more we can have, things going on and events happening and doing things in that shoulder season, the better.”
Hood made the point that the tourism community has to be on board. If one business is going to offer a product, they need other businesses to be open too. So if someone comes here to go mountain biking, they might also expect hotels, restuarants, shops and other attractions to be open. “Any tourism experience is not just a one-business experience,” said Hood. “People come to the community and they depend on multiple players.”
Which raises another issue – the fact many businesses in Revelstoke take advantage of the shoulder season to close down for a week or two, take a vacation and get some renovations done.
“Sometimes a shoulder season is not always bad,” said Tischik. “It’s a great time for improvements and renovations and that kind of thing.”