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The Canary in the mine shaft — a trip to the Australian Alps



"We've taken this very special experience wrapped it in pro forma and called it a product. That's so wrong. We so undersell what we have to offer... "

Arthur DeJong, mountain prophet


It's not like Arthur DeJong needed more winter. After all, Whistler Blackcomb's point-man for all things environmental had spent more than his fair share on the slopes these past few months.

What with decompressing from his Olympics duties, and devising new plans for summer trails in the alpine, and making sure his staff was doing all it could to mitigate WB's environmental footprint, DeJong could have easily declined the invitation to speak at a ski industry conference Down Under a few weeks ago. But when the Australian government calls...

"Insofar as climate change goes," explains DeJong with his trademark grin, "the snow-sliding business is often seen by others in the tourism industry as the 'canary in the mine shaft.' In other words, our industry is going to feel the effects of climate change much more directly - and much sooner - than most other businesses. Well, if that metaphor is correct, then Australia's 'canary' is the furthest one down that shaft."

Meaning? Australia is already facing the reality of a snow-less future. A marginal mountain player at the best of times the country has seen its winters shrink and its snowline climb at a frightening pace in recent years. And, like all good researchers, DeJong is fascinated by the process. Which is a big reason, he admits, why he travelled all those miles last month.

"I was first invited to speak Down Under back in 2006," says my favourite corporate green-man.

And no, I'm not being facetious. One of the most forthright and vigorously honest people I know, DeJong walks a very fine line between hypocrisy and advocacy. A quietly passionate guy (I've described him in past stories as a cross between a Jesuit missionary and Casper the Friendly Ghost), he'd rather advocate for change from the inside than rail and shout and criticize from the outside.

And his track record is pretty good. Time and again WB has been recognized by its peers for its commitment to progressive environmental principles. And while we can always quibble about the company's follow-through, there's no question that over the years DeJong has quietly steered the corporate ship in a greener direction. Saving what probably adds up to millions of dollars in the process.

But I'm getting sidetracked again.

"Australia's ski resorts were all built within the country's national parks," explains DeJong. "There's more than a billion dollars worth of infrastructure there. So the Australian government has a huge stake in the future of the country's snowsport business."

He pauses. Takes a deep breath. "That's why the government invited me down in the first place. They were worried that members of the industry there didn't fully appreciate the threat of climate change."

So that was it. He was assigned the job of Chicken Little back in 2006?

Precisely, he says. One can only assume, however, that his "sky is falling" message was well received.

"I think it was a wake-up call for many in the industry," he admits. And laughs. "Maybe that's why they invited me back in 2010..."

The keynote speaker at this year's conference ("this time," he says, " I got to address the full sustainability issue, not just climate change"), DeJong was amazed at the evolution that had occurred in the intervening four years.

"While Australian ski-resort managers might not have appreciated the threat back in 2006, that's certainly not the case today. There's a real sense of urgency now. People are definitely energized."

DeJong's popularity with Australian ski area operators (despite his gloomy message) may be in large part due to his role back home. "I'm an operations guy," he says. "I'm not a scientist nor an engineer nor a politician. I think that's why my message goes over well there. It's coming from a working man. And they get that. After all, it's big part of the Australian character."

That's all fine and good, you say, but what does DeJong's spring jaunt down to Australia have to do with Whistler? Funny you should ask...

"Once again," says de Jong, "I was struck by how much we're all connected. We talk and talk about a global economy, but I'm not sure we always know what we're talking about. Well here's a perfect example." He takes a breath. "What would happen if global warming killed the Australian ski business? Simple. Whistler would not only lose a passionate group of consumers, but also a very vital workforce!"

Think about it. How many guest workers come up from Australia to spend a winter or two living their dreams while working in Whistler? If the ski business were to die Down Under, that source of young skiers and snowboarders would eventually dry up and die too.

"We have to accept that globalization is here," adds DeJong. "What happens in the rest of the world has an impact on us. Interdependence is a reality." He pauses. Sighs. "That's why there is great value in the teaching and exchanging of ideas within our industry. And

I really saw that at work in Australia this time. The resort representatives there all realized the common quest we were on; the common challenges we all faced."

In other words, he says, "there's a greater realization today that we are partners, not competitors. We're reaching for solutions together."

These are disturbing times for the Canadian tourism industry. In a recent interview, David Goldstein, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, came out with some very troubling numbers. Between 2002 and 2008, he claims, Canada's global ranking (meaning its ability to attract international visitors) dropped from seventh overall to 14 th ! We went from vying with such powerhouse tourism countries like France, Italy and Spain to being ranked below such once-lowly performers as Ukraine, Turkey and Mexico.

The message: everyone is competing for the same tourism dollars now. There's no room for complacency here. Get lazy and you lose market share.

Unfortunately, argues Goldstein, Canada's tourism industry has suffered from "benign neglect" in recent years. Despite what Canadian policy makers might think, explains Goldstein, the Maple Leaf can't sell itself.

"Self-promotion might not come naturally to Canadians," he concludes, "but aggressive marketing is essential in the competitive world of international tourism."

It's a message that DeJong embraces fully.

"Look at the snowsports industry," he says. "There's so much more we could be telling our customers. Our business isn't just about riding powder and hitting jumps. It's a lifestyle - a passion. What about mental health and physical fitness and family values? What about the spiritual components of mountain play - or the freedom and romance of sliding in snow in wintertime? These are all incredibly powerful motivators. I mean, how many sports can boast the participation of three - or even four - generations all at the same time?"

He smiles, but there's more frustration there than happiness. "Unfortunately, too many of us reduce all this richness to 'selling a product,'" he says. "And to me, that's selling the mountain experience short."

In recent years, much of DeJong's efforts have been focused on creating a long-term, coherent strategy for summer development at WB. "It's a no-brainer... While we are incredibly lucky to be living in B.C.'s Coast Range, and are far up the mineshaft from Australia 's resort canaries, we're still facing a fast-changing weather environment. The sooner we can spread our business over four seasons instead of one the more sustainable we'll be."

Still, he says, "As we embrace summer in its broader context, we can't help but look over our shoulder and think that 'yes, maybe we did miss something in the winter experience.'" He grins. "Getting into the mountains in summer, you get to experience everything you'd felt in the past all over again." And that's an extremely valuable interaction, he says. Why? "Because it helps us to look at our natural assets with a much broader experiential perspective."

Oh, and one last thing. Before we part, Arthur wants me to know that the Australian resorts all opened for business last week on schedule - and with good snow cover across the board. "And that," he's quick to remind me, "is great news for everyone in the business - not just for those living Down Under."

I guess that means Whistler won't be short of workers for another year at least...