Features & Images » Feature Story

Carpe Diem - Winter 2017-18

Stars align for Whistler Blackcomb in countdown to Opening Day

by

comment

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) announced it was opening early for the 2017-18 season — one week ahead of the originally scheduled opening of Nov. 23.

Make no mistake — it was a massive effort to get to that announcement, including converting a staggering 189 million litres of water into snow within a two-week period.

Mother Nature, a fickle beast, came through; the rest was up to WB. There was no other choice but to seize the day.

"You have to live in that moment," says Doug MacFarlane, director of operations, of the decision to open early.

But this is just the beginning. And this is the story of how WB got there.

Whistler, Nov. 2 — 22 Days until official Opening Day

The whole town is counting down and there is one question on everyone's minds: Is WB opening early?

The first significant snowfall has finally blanketed the valley floor. And it's really cold outside. It's the kind of cold that smells as though winter is coming; it's the kind of cold whose very description: "an arctic flow," makes you shiver; best of all, it's snowmaking kind of cold.

Snow is just one part of the complex equation as WB readies to welcome the world this winter with its sights set on another 2 million-plus skier visits.

It's already been a huge effort — training thousands of new recruits, hauling supplies from valley to alpine, making the mountains safe. With three weeks to go and a prescient drop in the thermometer, WB is now mobilizing its snowgun power to press its weather advantage as the countdown continues.

Today is a watershed day as each snow gun, dormant for months, finally gets fired up. And there's a realization that WB will now be working around the clock every day and every night for the rest of the winter season.

It's go time.

"Once we're turned on now, we're turned on 'til next spring," says MacFarlane. "We won't shut down."

For now, three weeks out and counting, it's a war on time, a war on weather, a war on manpower.

You can feel the pressure building throughout Whistler.

The Generals On the Ground

In a small outpost building at Base 2, a massive TV looms large on the back wall, dominating the work office. Pat Labrosse and Mike Hamilton stare at the screen like generals surveying the battlefield — calculated and calm.

They can see every snowgun in real time on this massive Google Earth program. It's custom-made software, designed by in-house staff, including Hamilton, senior snowmaking operations supervisor on Blackcomb. Hard to imagine working from the giant pinboard still hanging on the wall that was last year's operational motherboard.

Now, anyone on the mountain can log on and see WB's snowmaking fleet — all 315 guns. They can see where the guns are making snow and how much.

More than 100 guns are online with more coming on with every moment — no mean feat on this first real day of snowmaking with a foot and a half of snow on the ground and a chilly storm blowing on the mountains. There are equipment glitches, early-season hazards on the mountains, rookies expected on the job tomorrow, not to mention the rookies who have yet to be hired — an ongoing worry as Labrosse thinks about the season ahead and what needs to be accomplished.

The walkie-talkies are buzzing practically non-stop.

"For now, it's full steam ahead," says Labrosse. "This is our first fire-up of the season. We've got six or seven days worth of snowmaking temperatures ahead of us."

The current objective is clear: snow on the main arteries for opening day. That's Big Red Express and Emerald Express on Whistler, Solar Coaster Express and Jersey Cream Express on Blackcomb.

It has to be enough terrain to accommodate the roughly 4,500 skiers and snowboarders expected for the busy American Thanksgiving weekend.

When that's achieved, the crew will start to move the guns down the mountains as fast as possible.

"It's a race to the valley," adds Labrosse, working to achieve at least that "thin white line" to the valley floor.

They need to take advantage of the cold temperatures for as long as they last, working around the clock to make as much snow as possible. For the early season, WB relies on man-made snow. It's much denser than the real stuff, more durable for building terminals and road systems and braking areas.

If they don't take advantage now, they could be locked out.

With 13 years under his belt, Labrosse knows what to expect. He's been through the early-opening powder seasons and the lean, mean seasons of struggle. Snowmaking is key to WB's success, covering 127 hectares on Whistler and 155 hectares on Blackcomb.

On average, each year the snowmakers (a team of roughly 45 working in pairs) turn 490 to 680-plus million litres of water into 260 to 365 ha. of snow that's a little less than a metre deep. Picture a NFL football field that is more than 200 m. high.

"Like farmers," says Labrosse. "Farmers make hay while the sun shines. Snowmakers make snow when it's cold."

You either love the job or you hate it, there's no in between, he adds.

This first day, it's blowing sideways — -15 Celsius with whiteout conditions on a challenging 12-hour shift. The afternoon light is quickly fading and it's about to get dark.

"I've never met anyone that was on the fence about this job," Labrosse says.

With three weeks out, he still has to find 10 more new hires. Housing continues to be "a challenge." Without a place to call home, it's hard to offer a job.

Of course, that's not just a snowmaking problem; that's a Whistler problem.

The Tacticians in the Boardroom (When Not on Skis)

WB's operational decision-makers are gathered in a boardroom trying to answer the question on everyone's minds: are we opening early?

"It's really a big chess game," says MacFarlane.

They are all self-proclaimed "weather junkies," all the better to make decisions, refine strategies, maximize opportunities and let the true "star of the show" — Mother Nature — shine.

Though it adds another layer of pressure, everyone in that boardroom wants to open Whistler early. They know what kind of message it sends to the world, that WB is setting up for another killer season. More people will book to come for U.S. Thanksgiving that way, more people will start to think about a January ski holiday. Not to mention, it raises the collective mood in town.

"It's great for business. It's great for the town. It's great for the whole community for us to get open," says MacFarlane. "We, in this world, feel that weight. The community needs us to get this place rolling... and get that whole machine turning.

"There's a lot of pressure on the team to deliver."

All the work since the end of last ski season has been geared towards this very decision. Summer work is executed with winter always in mind.

"We basically spend our whole summer trying to make the mountain smoother so that we can open it with less snow, if ever that happens," says grooming manager Stan Kelly.

All summer long, trail crews cut brush in an effort to manage the weeds that grow like crazy.

They put cross-ditching on ski runs to collect the water in the spring melt. They place logs across ditches to suspend the snow.

This summer, for example, crews removed 8,000 cubic metres of rock from skier's-left at the once-claustrophobic entrance to The Saddle on Whistler.

The rock — picture a 20-tonne truck moving 800 loads over a four-week period — was placed skier's right of the run at the entrance to Burnt Stew. Now, you'll be able to see The Saddle as you're coming down Mathews' Traverse.

Although the pitch will stay the same "Whistler blue," psychologically, the Saddle will look different.

"I don't want to say that the Saddle is going to be any less steep than it ever was," says Kelly. "It's just not as intimidating going in cause it's a lot wider."

Improving the ski experience in the height of summer is what it's all about.

In the background, work continues on the complex matrix of maintenance on lifts and machinery. As soon as the bike park closes for the summer, it's a short window to get the remaining lifts ready for winter. MacFarlane likens lift operations staff to "an Indy pit crew."

Fast, efficient, always aware of timing.

In many respects, it's the way it's always been, and nothing much has changed on the ground operationally despite WB's new ownership. Vail Resorts bought WB in a friendly $1.4 billion takeover in August 2016. This is the first ski season under new leadership.

Despite the constants — the grooming, the mechanics, the snow — there is one underlying factor that has been subtly changing of late: business.

It's simply getting busier.

"There's more pressure on us to have more terrain open faster," says MacFarlane. "People's expectations of standards and quality of experience continues to rise."

And to that, they say, bring it on.

The Troops: Training Thousands in Great Guest Experience

No one knows better than WB that a family ski holiday can be a stressful experience. Getting kids up in the dark, cramming feet into snow boots, overheating in underwear while you wait in line, cold fingertips, lost mittens.

"We're aware that when you go on a beach holiday, you throw the flip flops on, throw the towel over your shoulder, and you're alright," says Matt Davies, senior director of guest services. "People have made an investment in money and in time and all this work to come skiing. It's our job to make it really amazing. To make that skiing holiday... so much more memorable than their beach holiday. That all the work that they do is worth every minute of it."

It's not just the little things that get perfected year over year — mailing out new passes to avoid lineups, hot chocolate at the base on busy weekends, DJs playing on patios to keep people entertained, moving people out of line if they don't need to be there.

This year, the Guest Services offices have opened earlier than ever in an effort to ease the transition to Vail's new pass system — although there have been some bumps along the way as guests have reported not receiving their passes in time for last Friday's opening day.

"If anyone needs their pass, we want to do everything we can to get it in their hands and make that opening day awesome," adds Davies.

But how to communicate this excellence-in-service philosophy to hundreds of new staff, and re-impress on returning staff this critical component of how WB does business?

As much as opening day is about snow and Mother Nature and prepping all summer long, it's also about people.Consider the sheer logistical feat of bringing on thousands of staff in the matter of weeks and getting them up to snuff to face the world. They need to be vetted and trained; they need uniforms and passes; they need to understand Whistler and its one-of-a-kind culture. And, at it's most basic, they need to know the difference between Solar Coaster Express and Symphony Express.

Roughly 80 per cent of guest services staff are new.

Brian Good, manager of human resources, says the guest-services training is going to the next level.

"To make sure our guest service stays at the highest level," he adds.

The service philosophy is just one part of the training; knowledge of all WB's product is another critical part.

"We have to get it right," says Davies.

"If we gloss over the details of what we have to teach them and they give the guest the wrong information, it snowballs. So (the training) is very involved.

"Our guests have very high expectations."

WB's workforce grows from 700 year-round employees to a winter peak of 4,400. More than one-quarter of those, about 1,300 people, are fresh-faced, brand-new staff. They come from across Canada and around the world. Some have never skied or snowboarded before.

"We're bringing on more people than some resorts have," adds Good.

When you throw a resort-wide housing crisis on top of the mix, and then the massive feat of integration with new company-wide Vail computer systems and procedures, the countdown to opening day 2017-2018 gets a little more interesting.

A Season in Whistler: Starting with a Bang

Coming to Whistler is a bucket-list kind of experience when you're 25 years old and living in the heart of London, England.

Monique Meledje has finally arrived, making her way west across Canada after a season in Blue Mountain last winter, and then a summer in the Rockies.

"I just wanted to have the whole Whistler experience," she says from her room at the H.I. hostel in Cheakamus as she desperately waits for a more permanent set-up to become available.

But so far, so good — the Whistler experience has lived up to her expectations, and then some. And she's yet to even get on her snowboard.

She's in the thick of training, gearing up for frontline ski school sales. A lot of take in, to be sure, but during training she's hearing from returning instructors about all the different lessons offered at WB and how no day is ever the same because of the sheer size and scale of the mountains. It's almost hard to fathom.

"It sounded so exciting and amazing," she says.

"I can't wait for the mountain to open."

With just a few weeks in Whistler under her belt, she adds: "Right now I'm hoping to stay for the whole season. But, I have been told that summer is amazing as well so...."

The Vail resorts Factor

Though there have been big changes at the highest level, with several key players no longer at WB, collectively there are still hundreds of years of experience going into opening day.

This may be Pete Sonntag's first time on the job as Chief Operating Office for WB, a role he's been in since June, but he's been here — on the cusp of opening day — 33 times before, albeit at different resorts.

So, he knows exactly the pressure the snowmakers are under, he knows that guest services will be dealing with pass issues despite all efforts to ease the transition to Vail Resorts' systems, and he knows exactly how the new recruits are feeling. That much is obvious in their faces at orientation sessions he's attended, and he can sense it in the nervous vibes in those rooms.

To his new staff, he says with a hint of an American drawl: "I, and we, are as excited to have you as you are excited to be here. I think that's one of the things that I love the most about this is that every year there's a new bundle of energy we inject into this resort — and it's contagious."

That energy is no different at Vail or Heavenly or Keystone. But there is a culture unique to each resort.

It's hard to put into words, says Sonntag, the feeling that people get when they come to a certain place. That feeling that is in large part driven by the staff. Whistler has proved itself on the world stage in part because of that culture.

"My goal now is to understand that in a way that allows me to help capitalize on it going forward, and really build from the base that we have here right now."

At this very moment, however, most of Sonntag's brain capacity is filled with thoughts of opening day. It all comes down to one all-encompassing thought: have we checked every box?

"No matter how many times you go through it, that's still your mindset going into the season," he admits. "I don't know how else to describe it. It's just an intense time."

Inevitably, though, the lifts start turning (maintained and prepped in good order), the cash registers start ringing (aligned on the new Vail Resorts systems), the snow starts sticking (Mother Nature bestows her blessing), and the guests are smiling (guest service exceeding itself as planned).

There is a brief respite. Very quickly, thoughts turn to the Christmas season and the most demanding of guests.

At the core of any business' success are the people. That's what differentiates it.

"We'll continue to see automation in certain parts of the business, but it will never take away the need for awesome people, and I'm kind of glad about that," says Sonntag.

 

OPENING DAY BY THE NUMBERS

15,000 new uniform pieces

1,300 brand new employees

2,400 returning seasonal staff

4,400 WB's winter workforce

189 million litres of water turneD to snow

29 years Doug MacFarlane's tenure at WB to date

20 runs opening day terrain

8,500 cold Kokanees ready to go for Opening Day

280-plus gondola cabins of food shipped to Whistler's alpine

Add a comment