Lodging for Games gets creative

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Travel executive is looking at viability of bringing Shuswap houseboats to Vancouver

Bruce Constantineau

St. Regis Hotel general manager Jeremy Roncoroni stands in only room he has left for the Games — a suite that goes for $1,100 a night. Photograph by: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

When more than 250,000 visitors come for a 17-day party, sleeping arrangements become creative.

Olympic travellers heading to Vancouver and Whistler will stay in hotels, motels, hostels, private homes, mobile homes, recreational vehicles, tents and on cruise ships.

They may even soon have an option to sleep in drylanded houseboats near False Creek.

Exposure Travel co-founder Nick Gudewill wants to bring houseboats from the Shuswap region and create a “houseboat city” on property near Main and Terminal in Vancouver. He’s negotiating with the land-owner and the City of Vancouver and will assess market reaction to the concept by Dec. 15, when he will either proceed with the project or cancel it. “People are looking at paying 500 bucks a night for a motel,” Gudewill said. “This will provide a lower-cost, affordable housing option for a younger crowd.”

Prices would range from $150 a night for a single bed in a shared bunk room to $1,500 a night for an entire vessel that can sleep up to 15 people.

Gudewill said the houseboat city should attract visitors who leave things until the last minute as he expects many people will show up in Vancouver without confirmed accommodation. “We thought about doing this in Whistler or Squamish but if we want walk-ins, we have to be close to the action in Vancouver,” he said.

Not everyone has embraced the concept of providing relatively affordable rooms during a period of high demand. A change of branding at the former Quality Inn Vancouver Airport has left many Olympic visitors scrambling for new rooms, as the hotel says rooms booked months ago for as little as $79 a night will now cost $350 a night or more.

The Happy Day Inn in Burnaby — where rooms are available for as little as $60 a night this winter — has listed rooms on Expedia for $625 a night during the Olympics. The hotel’s website says suites available for $111 a night during the peak summer season will cost $775 a night during the Games.

Tourism Vancouver vice-president Walt Judas said price gouging is still an anomaly as most hoteliers understand the need to build long-term relationships with visitors. “It’s not just about two weeks during the Games,” he said. “It’s about future business and getting people to come back again and again.”

(The Paralympic Games in March will not have the same impact on hotel prices as the Olympics. A Best Western hotel on Kingsway, for example, has rooms available for $109 a night for much of the Paralympics, compared with $250 or more during the Olympics.)

Judas said most downtown Vancouver hotels have few, if any, rooms available during the Games but noted 28 hotels and motels listed on www.2010destinationplanner.com currently have more than 1,900 rooms. The hotels are spread over a wide geographic area from Vancouver Island to Chilliwack.

He noted tour operators secured a lot of Vancouver hotel rooms for clients awhile ago and previous Olympic experience shows some of those rooms will become available as the Games draw closer. But he expects it will still be hard to find rooms in downtown Vancouver.

St. Regis Hotel general manager Jeremy Roncoroni said the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee secured 58 of the 65 rooms at his newly renovated Dunsmuir Street property and he has sold six of the seven rooms he was allowed to market during the Games.

Two of the rooms were sold to large companies for the entire month of February and Roncoroni expects the final room — a 600-square-foot suite — will soon sell for $1,100 a night during the 17-day Games period. It is usually available for $595 a night at that time of year.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries about it and should sell it soon,” he said. “Somebody called me the other day looking for 40 rooms and I said you’re smoking out of the wrong pipe at the wrong time.”

Admiral Hotel owner Amir Sadath is renovating the north Burnaby hotel’s 25 rooms for a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 each and recently listed them on Expedia for $690 a night during the Games. The regular off-season room rate will be around $150 a night, he said.

“We discussed this with Expedia and determined that’s the price we should ask,” he said. “The few rooms left around Vancouver are going for that.”

Games chief executive officer Martin Schoenberg, whose company lists private homes for rent during the Olympics, said he knows of a few smaller hotels that have left clients stranded in the same manner as the former Quality Inn.

“People have contacted us looking for help because some hotel has left them stranded or a homeowner has decided to sell so they can no longer rent them a suite,” he said.

Rent for the Games properties start at about $500 a night for a one-bedroom condo. The organization currently has about 500 properties available during the Games, down from 1,500 two years ago.

“We thought demand would have levelled off by now but we’re dealing with major corporations that still don’t have their accommodation plans finalized — names like Yahoo, Samsung, Rona and the NHL,” Schoenberg said. “We thought this would be really late in the game for them.”

Canada‘s two major airlines said they have noticed a spike in interest for flights in and out of Vancouver during the Olympics.

WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said the airline has received several requests for special charter flights to Vancouver during the Games and it plans to fly as many as it can, depending on the availability of aircraft.

Air Canada said it is closely monitoring demand and will add capacity to Vancouver when required. It will also introduce non-stop service from Vancouver to Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva and Zurich during the Games and will bring several hundred more employees to Vancouver during the Olympics to ensure it can handle the increased traffic.

Global Travel managing partner Scott Clute expects a lot of regular winter-season visitors to the Vancouver/Whistler region will travel instead to resorts like Sun Peaks or Big White during the Olympics.

He also said several Vancouver residents will leave town to avoid the Olympic hoopla and many will fly out of Seattle or Bellingham to escape the perceived congestion and security issues at Vancouver International Airport.

Jubilee Travel owner Claire Newell expects a lot of people will want to get out of Vancouver during the Games. She noted reading week — the annual one-week break for university students — happens during the Olympics. “I don’t think people are being ‘bah humbug’ about the Olympics,” she said. “I just think a lot of people on the west side and in downtown Vancouver are worried about the traffic situation.”

Newell said tour operators know there will be a strong demand for warm-weather getaways in February and have priced their products accordingly, noting a seven-day all-inclusive trip to Puerto Vallarta, departing Feb. 14, will cost $1,649.

“I don’t expect they will go on sale too much because a lot of people will book well in advance,” she said.

Newell expects many Vancouver residents will follow her own personal Olympic strategy — stay in the city for a week to take in some Olympic events and then get the heck out of town.

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