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.
Indeed, many would consider the creation of Blackcomb Mountain as the true beginnings of the Whistler Brand.
It was only when Joe Houssian's Intrawest entered the picture in 1986 that Smythe's focus changed. While the idea of providing great service to his guests was still his passion, the young resort head was seduced by the opportunity of creating a ski "empire" where he could test and showcase all his new ideas. Teaming up with the Vancouver developer was a match made in heaven, Smythe claimed back then. In retrospect, it now looks more like a deal made with the...
But I digress.
So what now? The real estate economy is over. At least in the near term: the valley has finally reached build-out and there's really nowhere else to continue the "boom." So where does the Whistler community turn for its shekels? How do we support all the framers and carpenters and electricians and plumbers and general contractors and real estate agents living here now that their main form of income is drying up?
Easy. Forget building new homes for now. Forget the uphill transportation business even. Instead, consider the human and natural resources element of the mountain resort experience. For better or worse, folks, we're in the value-added business now... and those resorts that figure out first how to champion that quality to customers will thrive. As for the others? All you have to do is travel to upstate New York to see what the booming spa resort towns of the late 19 th century became when people suddenly changed their holidaying habits. It's not pretty.
Know what I mean? It's not good enough anymore to boast about our big vertical or our fancy lifts or our abundant snow. That, as Smythe would put it, is just the base line. Besides, when a second-tier resort like Revelstoke can promote itself as having "the longest vertical in North America," it's time to hang your reputation on something else. Which begs a few questions. What is it that makes Whistler unique? What makes the experience here distinctive from other places?
For me, it's always been obvious (and it's what Alta States tries to celebrate every week). It's our inimitable mix of geography and people that make Whistler such a progressive, fun and attractive community. And yet, it's virtually the last thing Tourism Whistler or W/B - or even the municipality - focus their efforts on promoting.
Let's face it. We have incredible Whistler ambassadors traveling the world. From ski stars Britt and Michael Janyk to Mayor Ken Melamed, from eco-innovator Arthur DeJong to bike-park guru Tom Prochazka - to name but a few - these longtime locals do the community an incredible service simply by doing their jobs. As a fellow world-traveler, I can tell you exactly what kind of impact these individuals have abroad. No matter how much abuse Melamed gets at home, for example, our mayor does a very creditable job of representing the community at international events. As for the rest of the above-mentioned, each is a walking/talking/acting advertisement for the best that Whistler has to offer. It's called lifestyle and everyone wants to have one...
So let's work harder on providing our guests with a backstage pass to that lifestyle. Let's find new ways to give our visitors a momentary hit of our local magic. It's fundamental to our survival. But that's just a start. For if Whistler wants to make a smooth transition from real estate economy to value-added economy, the community is going to have to find a way to encourage job diversity among its young residents.
But it has to be a job diversification that makes sense. Does job diversity in Sea to Sky country include developing a gravel pit or clear-cutting a rare stand of old-growth timber? I don't think so.
Fortunately, much of the ground work in that sector has been done. Whistler already boasts a number of value-added enterprises that rock. It's just that the "establishment" in this valley isn't really paying attention. And sadly, that's where the disconnect lies.
Think about it. If the industrial ski resort model turns out to be unsustainable, if there really isn't a market for 35,000 skiers per day at Whistler (and industry experts are increasingly skeptical on that score), if Intrawest's days are numbered (as so many insiders have predicted in recent months), how the heck are we going to get out of this gaping financial hole we're facing if we don't change our game? People come to the mountains, let's not forget, for re-creation. Let's make sure they get the chance to discover their own unique Whistler experience while they're here "re-creating"...
Interested in locally-made skis and boards? Chris Prior and his team of local board shapers can happily deliver the goods. Graphic designs and locally-printed T-shirts more your style? Look no further than Toad Hall, where Jorge Alvarez and his fellow toads have been tweaking the nose of local authorities for decades. Want to get a taste of what's beyond the lifts in the Whistler area? Joey Houssian's backcountry business, Outdoor Adventures at Whistler, will provide everything you're looking for. Searching out a reputable real estate firm? Maggi Thornhill and her team pride themselves on their individual attention to clients.
There are countless others who make a difference in this town. Whether it's Toulouse Spence at the W/B ski school, local boarding curmudgeon Ken Achenback with his Camp of Champions or even crazy Grant Lamont with his classic Cheakamus Challenge bike race - whether it's Whistler Film Society's Shauna Hardy or Origin Design's Danielle Kristmanson or even W/B race department goddess Cate Webster - each of these individuals adds something of value to our guests' visits.
It's a no-brainer right? The future of Whistler, I'm convinced, resides in the work decisions its inhabitants are making, even now as I write this. The challenge, however, is to convince those who still have a stake in the old order to shed their blinkers and acknowledge the changing times. I'm up for the challenge of telling that new story. Are you up for making the necessary shifts in your own life? We'll see...