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Will the last-minute traveller save the Pan Am Games?

Canadian water polo athletes Monika Eggens, left, and Jacqueline Kohli take a "selfie" in the square inside the Pan American Games athletes village in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015. .
Canadian water polo athletes Monika Eggens, left, and Jacqueline Kohli take a "selfie" in the square inside the Pan American Games athletes village in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

The 2015 Pan Am Games were billed as an economic boon for Toronto and the surrounding region.

And with July being one of the city’s busiest months for tourism, the environment is ripe to draw tourists to the Games.

But there’s been suggestions that people might avoid Toronto and its perpetually bad traffic during the Games. And ticket sales haven’t exactly been the most popular item in the city.

Even tourism officials admit advance bookings of hotel rooms haven’t materialized like they’d hoped. But, Andrew Weir of Tourism Toronto said, momentum is building as the Games get underway.

“With the athletes arriving, the venues opening up, the conversation is changing to one of the energy and the fun and the excitement of the Games,” Weir said. “That was always going to be the final piece that would drive people to come visit.”

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Banking on the last-minute traveller

And the association representing hotels in Toronto says it’s beginning to see the surge of booking it’s been hoping for.

But last-minute travellers are a new phenomenon that’s been developing over the last few years. Terry Mundell, the president of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association said hotels are used to advance bookings but over the last few years have seen a shift.

“It’s more of the last minute traveller deciding to come to Toronto and then boom books a flight, books a hotel room, or drives in however it is,” he said.

In fact, just last week Mundell told The National Post its members are “very, very worried.”

But things change quickly in the hotel industry, he said, and “we are starting to see more bookings coming through our system.”

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“It’s starting to move absolutely, later than we expected absolutely, but the good news is it’s starting to move.”

He admitted however that the numbers of bookings are still below where he’d like them.

Tourism into Canada is highest in the summer months as a combination of business and leisure opportunities draw people to the city.

But the Games have displaced conventions normally scheduled in July and the Honda Indy – which was in July last year – was moved to June. Those pre-planned, large events would give hotels their desired advance bookings, but because they’ve been displaced by the Games, that’s not happening, Weir said.

“Normally that would be on the books well in advance, and there’s some of that but there’s not as much this year because the Games have displaced that business, but the hope and the opportunity is that it will be replaced by new people here to see the Games.”

Unofficial data available on the GTHA website shows hotel occupancy in June hovered around 80 per cent. The GTHA won’t know until August what July’s numbers are like but admitted some hotels are doing well, and others are struggling.

“Part of that is a bit of that issue of where you are in terms of where the venue might be,” he said. “There’s not necessarily an even distribution… in an event like this.”

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But the city is in a position to build on the tourism success of this year and previous years. Over 1.5 million people visited Canada between January and April this year, up six per cent from the same time last year.

“Year after year we have been consistently setting records for new visitation and we certainly hope to do that this year,” Weir said. “Right now, we’re about two per cent ahead of last year’s pace. But we had a very strong July last season; hopefully we can match that or surpass it. “

He said “signs” of an influx of visitors are there; hotel searches on the Tourism Toronto site have spiked in recent days.

Toronto hotels were prepared for an onslaught of July bookings during the Pan Am games, but some may end up checking in even fewer guests than last July. People arrive at the Town Inn Suites hotel in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015.
Toronto hotels were prepared for an onslaught of July bookings during the Pan Am games, but some may end up checking in even fewer guests than last July. People arrive at the Town Inn Suites hotel in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

So will tourists actually show up? History is not necessarily on the side of Pan Am organizers. International visits to London actually fell during the 2012 Summer Olympics, according to a 2013 CIBC report into the Pan Am Games.

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The opposite, however, happened during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics where international tourist visits, hotel occupancy, and spending all spiked.

Weir said they’re expecting an influx of what’s called the “transient leisure” visitor who books at the last minute.

“That tends to be very late. It’s very common, at any time of year, particularly in the summer, for people to decide on Tuesday to travel on Saturday,” Weir said. “That’s already what we’re seeing.”

Another option is Airbnb – are people looking to private rentals to find cheaper accommodations during the Games? It’s hard to tell – the company didn’t make anyone available Tuesday and instead said in a statement, “the Pan Am Games here in the Greater Toronto Area is a marquee event where Airbnb can add elastic accommodation capacity to world class cities.”

Mundell however said a change of narrative – from one focused on preparations, budgets, and traffic to a more celebratory tone – might convince more last-minute travellers to come to Toronto.

“I think with the opening ceremonies on Friday, I think you’ll also see more energy if you can put into what’s going to happen in the city and the GTA area, which I expect will hopefully continue to have those last minute travellers book.”

WATCH: Canadian Pan Am Games athletes ask Torontonians to embrace games, forget traffic worries

The Vancouver Olympics, generally considered a success, sold a record number of tickets – 97 per cent of the 1.54 million sold through the Games at an average price of $139.

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Those sales numbers were tabulated post-Games – but even media reports published well in advance of the Games, 13 months in fact, suggested tickets were hard to come by. A January 2009 report in The Seattle Times described the 2010 Olympics as “all but sold out.”

With just days to go before the 2015 Pan Am Games opening ceremony, 800,000 of the 1.4 million available have been sold. Pan Am Games officials did not say how many they hope to sell throughout the duration of the games.

But, according to Pan Am officials, almost 100 events, including 75 medal events, are fully sold out.