Everybody is worried. From Bill Jensen, the enigmatic new resort guru at Intrawest to Michael Barry, the always-avuncular head of America's National Ski Areas Association, the eminences grises of the mountain tourism business are all wringing their hands in despair over the changing face of the industry. And few of them like what they see.
Alas, very few of them really know what to do to get us out of the mess they created.
Forget the real estate economy that made billions for Intrawest. Forget the second-home building boom that made millionaires of ski bum homeowners at Whistler. Forget fancy libraries and trendy training centres too. From now on, say the industry experts, mountain resort towns from California to Quebec will have to survive and thrive on their own merit. Even Jensen - whose company has the most to lose from this change - was adamant during the recent gathering of the Canada Ski Council. The real estate gravy train is over baby.
Combine that with the perfect storm of crippling recession, ageing baby-boomers and a very ineffective retention rate of mountain neophytes (a.k.a. new riders and skiers) and the result is a very scary scenario. What the heck will 2010 look like for North American mountain resorts? And more importantly, what the heck does the future hold for Whistler?
Does that mean, as the new Intrawest boss proposes, that we're all back in the uphill transportation business (and in the case of W/B, the sideways transportation business)? No way. His predecessor, Hugh Smythe, put that notion to rest nearly 30 years ago. In what was to become a highly prophetic critique back in 1981, Smythe chided his older resort colleagues for getting stuck on merely providing uphill transportation services to their growing hordes of twenty- and thirtysomething guests.
Not that mountain operators should skimp on providing the best in lifts to their guests, said Smythe. Au contraire . The young resort entrepreneur was all about showcasing leading-edge technology. Still, that was just the baseline on which one built a mountain's reputation. Service, said Smythe - creative, personalized service - was what future resorts would be judged on.
And Blackcomb Mountain, the brash new ski hill that he and Paul Mathews had recently delivered to the world, mostly lived up to that challenge. Bigger, better bathrooms for everyone (a particular obsession with Smythe), home-cooked fare that ventured beyond the tired hamburger patty and soggy fries scenario (thanks to the Parsons family), and a gung-ho staff of young, motivated mountain professionals who were given permission to take risks and assume responsibility for their own decisions (stalwarts Arthur DeJong and Rob McSkimming are "graduates" of that program): this was the Blackcomb signature. And while Old School Whistler next door struggled at first to keep up with the changing face of the ski business, both resorts benefited greatly from Smythe's unconventional approach to mountain development.