This winter saw 20 times more tourists come out to the Village of Harrison than usual, according to estimates from Tourism Harrison.
“The restaurants all had a phenomenal December, the hotels had a phenomenal” month as well, Robert Reyerse, executive director of Tourism Harrison, said.
“Harrison’s not really a winter destination,” Reyerse explained. “The resort stays busy year round … but the rest of the businesses, they struggle.”
Harrison Hot Springs generally experiences an off-season slump from October to April, with December being a particularly slow month. To help combat those numbers, Tourism Harrison opened its Lights on the Lake for the first time in 2018.
“From a day tripper perspective and an overnight occupancy perspective, it wildly exceeded any of our expectations,” Reyerse said.
The Nov. 24 opening night for Lights on the Lake saw more than 1,000 people attend, which was significantly better than the 500 he expected to arrive.
The large number of attendees may have been part of a publicity “blip” that resulted in Harrison Hot Springs being billed as the Fraser Valley’s newest Whoville — even though it wasn’t turning into anything of the sort.
“We mentioned in one quote at the very bottom of the press release (about Lights on the Lake) that Harrison had this kind of Whoville feel about it,” Reyerse said. “But then Narcity picked it up and took this two-page press release that was all about Sasquatch-themed lights and turned it into Harrison’s turning into Whoville.”
The resulting social media frenzy took about a month to sort out, Reyerse said, and he estimates that around five per cent of all the people who came to the event were expecting to see Whoville.
“As a marketer, you are always trying to get something to go viral,” he said. “This is not what we wanted to go viral.”
“There’s such a thing as fake news, and it got out there, and it’s very difficult to fight it.”
Despite the lack of a true Whoville, Reyerse said most people who came were quite happy with the overall experience. He estimated the village saw 30,000 people come to the village for day trips during the Lights on the Lake event, which ran from Nov. 24 to Jan. 28.
“Harrison on a good day will draw people out,” Reyerse said. “But it would be more like 1,000 over that time period, maybe 1,500.”
The good weather that was so prevalent in November, December and January made significant contributions to the number of tourists visiting the town, according to Reyerse and local business owner Lorrie Luckey.
Although this is Luckey’s first year owning Suzy’s Cafe off Esplanade Avenue with her sister Susan, she worked under the previous owners and saw a major difference in sales.
“Usually through January, it’s really slow,” Luckey said. “This year we’ve done almost triple” the amount of sales, based on grocery purchases and the month-end budget.
“Like last Wednesday (Jan. 30), the salesman tried to get in the door, and he couldn’t even get in,” she added. “There’s people lined up.”
She attributes a good part of the business to the weather in Harrison Hot Springs, but also the Lights on the Lake event and CBC’s week of filming for Jonny Harris’ Still Standing.
Although the number of day trips to Harrison stole the show with their 2,000 per cent increase, overnight visitors also saw a significant increase. For the first time, hotels and motels in the village had a higher occupancy rate in November than October, and the best December on record.
According to Reyerse, December 2018 saw about a 70 per cent occupancy rate for local hotels and motels, compared to 61 per cent in 2017. It equates to about 1,500 more room nights for the month.
“What it really benefited was the smaller hotels,” Reyerse said, noting that the Harrison Hot Springs Resort normally operates about 90 per cent capacity at all times of the year.
In the future, Tourism Harrison plans to expand Lights on the Lake to keep the momentum going for winter tourism in the village.
“The idea is that we’ll build on it and maybe add some other components,” Reyerse said.
The plan is for Lights on the Lake — now renamed Lights by the Lake to avoid confusion as to whether the lights are actually on the lake — to be built up slowly over the next two years.
The initial investment for the lights was around $50,000, coming from funds given to the village by the provincial government for tourism infrastructure. This built off the Christmas lights purchased by the village and the Chamber of Commerce over the last 10 years.
Next year might add a synthetic outdoor ice rink, something being considered as a resort development strategy project at Harrison council Monday night (Feb. 4), or see a change to the kind of light displays around the lagoon. Tourism Harrison will be meeting with local business owners on Feb. 14 to discuss the next years’ plans.
But for now, Reyerse is happy with the results of the inaugural light display.
“It was pretty broadly successful, and that made the restaurants happy and hotels happy, which makes us happy.”