By Michel Beaudry
Joe Ryan is probably writhing in his grave right now. So too is Franz Wilhelmsen. And they should be! After all, both men invested vast amounts of time and effort to create what are, arguably, Canada’s two most iconic mountain resorts. One did it in Quebec in the late 1930s. The other managed it in B.C. 30 years later.
But that doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.
For according to the clever men who run the vast marketing machine called Intrawest, Ryan and Wilhelmsen might as well have never existed. At least that’s what they’re trying to convince Southern Ontario homebuyers. But don’t take my word for it. You be the judge:
“From Intrawest, creators of Whistler and Mont Tremblant, comes an opportunity to indulge yourself with a home at Ontario’s premier [sic] four-season resort,” ran the first sentence in a very slick ad campaign for a new housing development in Collingwood. Festooned with flowery descriptions of the proposed homes — and the associated lifestyle that goes with “Intrawest ownership” — the ad copy went on to promise only good things for prospective buyers. Indulge yourself indeed….
The full-page advertisement appeared in a recent edition of the Globe & Mail. And if it hadn’t been for a sharp-eyed visitor to Toronto, it would have never come to my attention. “I can’t believe this is going on,” wrote my incensed correspondent, who also included a scanned copy of the ad for my viewing pleasure. “The creators of Whistler and Tremblant? These guys are getting away with murder!”
Now I have no trouble with the good folk at Intrawest selling timeshares or quarter-ownerships or octo-ownerships or whatever they’re into this week. That’s the business that they’re in. But when it comes to tampering with the truth — when it comes to taking credit for great deeds and bold decisions — I find it really hard to stand by and just let them re-write history.
I know. I know. I make a lot of you uncomfortable when I start titling at conceptual windmills. You’ve made that amply clear with your letters to the editor. And I’m probably doing myself all sorts of harm by poking at the great dragon that powers this valley’s economic engine. But enough is enough. Don’t you think?
I mean, it was one thing for Intrawest to pull the wool over American investors’ eyes in order to raise the dollar value of their company. But to place an ad in one of Canada’s biggest dailies and blatantly lie about their role in the development of two of this country’s most beloved resorts? Well, to me, that’s just going too far…
Now, if they’d written something like: “From Intrawest, creators of that bland cookie-cutter development at Whistler’s Creekside’” or even “From Intrawest, creators of that overbuilt faux-Quebec-City Potemkin village at Mont Tremblant,” I’d have no problem with their claims. But that’s not what they wrote.
Let’s take a step back in time for a moment and look at what really happened.
Whistler Mountain was created in 1966 by a group of Vancouver skiing enthusiasts that included such seminal figures as Wilhelmsen, Stephan Ples, Ivan Quinn, Glen McPherson and a host of others. In 1980, Blackcomb Mountain was born from a deal made between Aspen Corporation and the Federal Development Bank of Canada. Meanwhile people like Al Raine and Garry Watson and John Hetherington and Pat Carleton were hard at work making sure there was a pedestrian-only, people-friendly village linking the two mountains.
Intrawest didn’t make it to Whistler until 1986 — long after the growing pains (and one of the province’s nastiest recessions) had passed. The company’s timing was exquisite. For the economic tide had turned in B.C. Suddenly everyone wanted recreational property on the West Coast. And Intrawest was only too happy to supply them with something to buy at Whistler. While there’s no question that Intrawest prospered greatly from their investment in this place, critics now wonder if the company’s 20-year obsession with short-term profits benefited the community as much as its marketers like to think it did.
OK. OK. So Intrawest made a lot of money for the valley’s legion of realtors. And properties are definitely worth a lot more today than they were back in 1986. But that begs the question: Unless you plan on leaving Whistler, where are you going to live after you sell your million-dollar home?
But I digress…
As for Mont Tremblant, Intrawest’s claim is even more outlandish. For nearly 50 years, Joe Ryan’s Quebec creation was the darling of the East Coast establishment. People came from as far away as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago to share in the winter joie-de-vivre that had become such an intrinsic part of the Mont Tremblant story. How popular was the place? Consider that the great American storyteller Lowell Thomas was a huge fan and actually made a number of radio broadcasts from the lobby of the Mont Tremblant Lodge…
As far as Canadian ski culture goes, Tremblant was very nearly our Ur resort. From the pioneering Red Birds Ski Club to skiing legend Ernie McCullough, from the Wheeler brothers to Jackrabbit Johannsen, and from Curé Deslauriers to Peter Duncan, Mont Tremblant has been the source of some of the greatest tales in Canadian skiing history.
Things went sour for Quebec’s economy in the early 1980s too. And Tremblant suffered greatly from the exodus of Anglo visitors. By the time Intrawest came sniffing around in 1991, the place was a shadow of its former self. Again, the company’s timing was impeccable. They bought Tremblant for a pittance, made an incredible deal with the provincial government and transformed the place into a neo-urban monstrosity that bears little resemblance to the mountain vision Ryan brought to the northern Laurentians in 1938.
To be fair, the Tremblant transformation was also a huge financial success for the company. But as many people have noted recently, the pace of development has just about crushed the soul out of the place…
Which brings us back full circle to the ad in the Globe and Intrawest’s claim of having “created” Whistler and Mont Tremblant.
For the record, Intrawest has never created anything from scratch. Unlike their ground-breaking predecessors who gambled huge (and often lost big) to cut out ski areas from the Canadian bush, the Intrawest modus operandi has always been to let others assume the risks. And they’ve benefited greatly from that strategy. But “creators” they aren’t…
Am I over-reacting? Am I getting all excited about nothing? Should I take a Valium and just accept the fact that modern-day marketing is all about telling people lies?
I don’t think so. For to me, there is a vast difference between mountain culture and real estate sales. Intrawest probably has one of the most clever (and aggressive) marketing and sales team in the business. And they’ve proven their effectiveness time and again. But when it comes to nurturing a place’s unique identity — when it comes to protecting the magic of an exceptional destination — they don’t have a clue.
And that’s what really bugs me.
At a time when Whistlerites are increasingly becoming aware of the community’s leadership role in the province and trying to chart a path to a sustainable and responsible future, it’s critical that we remain true to our history. Now is certainly not the time to get lazy and allow a real estate developer to take credit for all the hard work done over the years by people like Wilhelmsen and Raine and Watson and so many others.
But then maybe I’m just a cranky old romantic who can’t see the forest for the condos. You tell me. Is Intrawest justified in its claims of having “created” Whistler and Tremblant? Or should they be called out for their arrogance? Let me know. I’m curious to hear what you think…