Denny Warner

Tourists flock to reopened centre

Chamber and Visitors Centre benefit from return to highway location

A return to its past has proven to be a big boost for the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

In May, the chamber moved from its previous location in an upstairs back office in Sidney to the refurbished visitors centre on the side of the Pat Bay highway in North Saanich.

“The response has been overwhelming,” chamber executive director Denny Warner said, about working out of the higher profile location.

The biggest change has been the constant buzz of visitors who stream through the building after every scheduled B.C. Ferries sailing.

The chamber shares its space with Visitor Services, funded by Destination B.C.

For decades, the buildings on the property were something of a landmark for visitors arriving on Vancouver Island until the Visitor Information Centre closed in 2013.

“This building has been here since the early 1980s, Warner said. “The decision was made about two years ago to close it — we just couldn’t financially keep it open anymore.”

However, after reviewing its options for the building, the chamber decided to reopen the highway office and instead shutter its Sidney site.

So far, the experience has shown Warner that there’s tremendous value in face- to-face communication, despite what she said is the perception that people get all their information digitally.

According to the assistant manager of Visitor Services, Suraj Domeli, the response to the reopening of the highway location has been beyond all expectations. As many as 1,000 people per week drop by the centre, with that number climbing to 1,200 on long weekends. Domeli said the forecast was for about 600 people per week to use the centre.

“So far, it’s been really good,” he said. “We weren’t really expecting the numbers we have gotten.”

The centre, which is staffed by volunteers, is open from the time the 7 a.m. ferry arrives to after the 3 p.m. ferry sends its passengers shuttling down the Pat Bay.

Somewhat surprisingly Domeli said that most of the visitors are either German or Dutch. People from the U.S. are the second most common traveller to stop in, followed by Canadians from Ontario and Quebec.

Domeli attributes the European visitors to popular guide books that feature Vancouver Island.

If the numbers stay positive, Domeli said there’s every reason to think the centre will stay open year round.

The centre and the chamber share a “very favourable” lease for the property from the Real Property Division of the provincial Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services.

And the chamber is looking into opportunities to earn additional revenue by sub-leasing space. Warner sees potential for fruit stands or craft tables selling local goods, and for renting out overnight parking to truck drivers.

Another benefit of the highway office is it helps fight the perception that the chamber only represents Sidney, instead of all three Saanich Peninsula municipalities.

As for day to day operations, Warner said the move doesn’t affect her that much. She still does a lot of her work out of office, doing outreach for the chamber’s 300 member businesses. The new location does represent a fresh start and a stable base for a chamber that has had its share of changes recently.

“There’s a sense now that we can really focus on things that are important,” she said, noting that the chamber advocates for regional business interests by lobbying government as well as creating marketing and networking opportunities.

Currently, the chamber is working on creating a policy committee with geographic and sectoral representation. The aim is to create policies for issues that traditionally required the board to review each time they came up.

 

Up next:

The next major event for the chamber is Sept. 24 when it hosts its last ever golf tournament, which coincides with the final season of the Prospect Lake golf course.

On Oct. 22, the chamber hosts the Crystal Awards at Butchart Gardens, honouring excellence in local busi