Le nouveau Tremblant The future is shaped by many of the principles that made Whistler successful By Bob Barnett Prior to Intrawest’s purchase of Mont Tremblant in the spring of 1991 there was a good chance the second oldest continuously operating ski area in North America would not open for the 1991-92 winter. Hydro Quebec, owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, had cut the power off. Staff were surly and skiers — some of whom had been faithful to Tremblant for decades — found that skiing was a more pleasant experience if done elsewhere. It was against this background that Intrawest, parent company of Blackcomb and now Whistler Mountain, decided to purchase the resort, for a reported $25 million, and pour $350 million into it over the first five years. "The separatists said our investment was a sign that Canada could live with a sovereign Quebec, while the federalists told everyone it was a show of faith that Quebec would remain part of Canada," an amused Joe Houssian, president of Intrawest, told a Whistler audience shortly after his company acquired Tremblant. While Quebec’s political future is as uncertain as ever, Tremblant’s is as bright as that of any mountain resort in North America. In fact, in an October 1996 article entitled The Charms of Tremblant, Snow Country magazine said the Quebec resort "offers a view of skiing’s future." To those who know Whistler, that future is very familiar, for Tremblant’s reincarnation under Intrawest follows many of the same principles that have made Whistler successful. To begin with, the raw materials are there. Mont Tremblant, at 3,001 feet and offering a 2,131 foot vertical drop, is the highest peak in the Laurentians, and only 90 minutes from Montreal. Lac Tremblant is virtually at the base of the mountain, and dozens of smaller lakes dot the valley floors throughout the Laurentians, providing a variety of recreational opportunities in summer and winter. And perhaps most important, there was plenty of land available at the base of the mountain. Some familiar names were then dispatched to build a pedestrian village on that land. Eldon Beck, the San Francisco architect who designed Vail and both the original Whistler Village and Village North, was responsible for overseeing the overall design of the new village at Tremblant. Beck incorporated many of the same elements in the new Tremblant village that were used in the original Whistler Village: underground parking, retail and restaurant space on the ground floor and condo-hotel units above. All units go into a rental pool when not being used by their owners, to ensure there is always plenty of people in the village and it remains vibrant. Like the original Whistler Village, the new Tremblant village is compact, not overrun with coffee shops and souvenir stores and, for now at least, there are no retail vacancies. Approaching the mountain on foot, you pass the old buildings of Vieux Tremblant and are led up to the mountain through the corridor formed by the new Johannsen and Deslauriers buildings, carefully planned to include interesting twists and nooks and crannies like an ancient European town. At the top of the corridor you arrive at the Place St. Bernard, which opens up to reveal Mont Tremblant itself. Roger McCarthy left Whistler to oversee the development of the village and the modernization of the mountain. He began by removing 60,000 cubic metres of rock at the base of the mountain, so the Place St. Bernard is 15 feet lower than it would have been. This ensured that getting to the lifts from the new village is a flat, easy walk, rather than an uphill hike. While many of the principles that have made Whistler successful were incorporated in the redevelopment of Tremblant, the resort’s substantial history is respected. Members of a Montreal ski club held the first North American Kandahar race on Tremblant in 1932, likely the first downhill race on the continent. But it was a Philadelphia millionaire, Joe Ryan, who put the first chairlifts on Tremblant in 1939. Sun Valley, which opened in 1938, is the only North American resort to have been operating ski lifts longer than Tremblant. And just as Sun Valley attracted the wealthy and famous, the Ryans — Joe and his wife Mary — made Tremblant a country club retreat for the likes of Bing Crosby, Lowell Thomas and other high profile friends. As the chairlift — a Sun Valley invention — caught on skiing became more popular and numerous ski areas were developed in the Laurentians. But Tremblant, the first and the biggest, maintained a special mystique. The legendary Ernie McCulloch, pioneer Canadian ski racer and coach in the 1940s and ’50s, became ski school director at Tremblant, where he often trained Canada’s first world champion skier, Lucile Wheeler. Peter Duncan, who raced on the World Cup and pro circuits in the ’60s and early ’70s, was also from Tremblant. The names of Duncan, McCulloch, Ryan, Thomas and Jackrabbit Johannsen, the man who built a network of cross-country skiing trails throughout the Laurentians and was still skiing past his 100th birthday, are still alive on Tremblant, each being a major run. Even the original Kandahar trail survives, although it has been widened and manicured for skiing in the ’90s. Joe Ryan maintained Tremblant as an exclusive retreat until his death in 1950. Mary Ryan continued on with the resort until 1966, when she sold it to a group of Montreal businessmen. Tremblant changed hands several times over the next 15 years until Intrawest bought it in 1991. Tremblant was Intrawest’s first resort acquisition, after Blackcomb, and in retrospect marked the Vancouver company’s first foray into the current consolidation craze that has seen many of the major North American ski resorts gobbled up by Intrawest, Vail Resorts, the American Skiing Company or one of a handful of other companies. It took vision and considerable courage to invest millions in Tremblant in 1991. The Quebec government, more familiar with companies leaving the province than investing in it, recognized a good deal when it was handed one and responded by assigning deputy ministers to see that approvals for Tremblant’s rebirth went ahead in a timely manner. The results are now attracting more than 500,000 skier visits annually. Below the new village, with its Old Quebec-influenced architecture, several of the original Ryan cabins, one-storey wooden houses with the traditional curving roofs of Laurentian farm homes, were relocated. The buildings, which now house restaurants, shops and a micro-brewery, have become Vieux Tremblant and present an interesting juxtaposition of the past and the future of Tremblant. Over a La Diable beer a long-time Tremblant skier praises Intrawest’s efforts to breathe new life into the ski area. Western Canadians doing business in Quebec fuels optimism. "We are all Canadians," he says, "and Intrawest is a good Canadian company." That Canadian company’s philosophy of hanging on to visitors 24-hours a day during their vacations, and to keep them coming back in all four seasons, has taken hold at Tremblant. Intrawest controls real estate, accommodation, some retail and restaurant facilities and, of course, lift ticket sales. For summer visitors, one new golf course is completed and a second is scheduled to open in 1998. The sales pitch for people who want to buy into this resort experience is repeated often: "Imagine buying into Aspen or Vail 20 years ago, or Blackcomb at Whistler a decade ago. The similarity to Tremblant today is remarkable." The re-born Tremblant is a great vacation experience. With five high-speed quads, more than 70 runs, ski-in/ski-out accommodation and a charming village that combines history and tradition with modern comforts it’s easy to settle into the resort. It’s also easy to see that the future of ski resorts is increasingly the domain of a few large companies. That may not sit well with everyone, but it’s a long way from where Tremblant was in 1991.