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Hoping for the best, but ready for anything

Vail Resorts executive meets Whistler's business community



Despite a challenging start to the season, Whistler Blackcomb's winter programming is moving forward as planned.

The Whistler Blackcomb Snow School, long popular with local kids, is operating on limited terrain, gearing up for its main programming to kick off in December.

And as of Monday, Nov. 26, Whistler Blackcomb employees have been back on the slopes. In an effort to guard against crowding, employees and dependents were restricted from riding on Opening Weekend.

At a Nov. 22 Whistler Chamber of Commerce lunch, Whistler Blackcomb Chief Operating Officer Pete Sonntag and Pat Campbell—head of on-mountain operations for all 18 of Vail Resorts—expressed optimism about the year in store, noting that things are just getting underway.

In an interview with Pique following the event, Campbell said that one of the strong suits of the Vail model, with its numerous resorts around North America, is that it enables the company to support resorts that may be facing challenging times.

Being a part of a bigger company can be an asset, she said.

"When you see your competitors around you, laying off employees and not being able to invest in the basic capital of the resort ... Those are not things that our resorts ever have to worry about," said Campbell, who has served as CEO at both Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort.

"We just haven't had that experience ... We've built a model that we know can get us through tough times anywhere."

Speaking from an operational perspective, Sonntag said that the lack of snow hasn't thrown the mountain off course.

"We don't feel we're off-schedule from that standpoint yet," he explained. "Our plan would still be to have an expansion of terrain over the next several weeks, and still be able to have more consistent employment."

Vail Resorts has been on a buying spree of late, adding four resorts in the last six months.

And during the chamber lunch—which was skilfully hosted by Whistler Chamber CEO Melissa Pace—someone asked how the company manages its "overall objectives while maintaining the uniqueness of each resort?"

"This question comes up everywhere," said Campbell. "In my experience—over three decades and working at a number of resorts and getting to know the broader industry better—what's great about skiing and ski resorts is that they are unique and compelling experiences that exist."

The duo was also asked a number of prickly questions as well, including on the effective discontinuation of the parent pass and the Whistler Blackcomb website that one questioner said had "become a giant sales pitch."

While there is no plan to bring back the parent pass (other than for those who have a grandfathered pass and still meet the criteria), Sonntag said that Whistler Blackcomb has heard the feedback on the website and is "making adjustments."

Reflecting on the question and answer period, Campbell said that was an important exercise.

"We welcome all the questions even if they are hard or challenging topics," she said. "It's our goal to be transparent, and that means answering the questions and let people know what our thinking is. I don't take it personally ever."

Meanwhile, on the mountain, a mandatory download is still in effect. On Whistler, the Whistler Village Gondola, Creekside Gondola, Emerald 6 Express, Franz's Chair, and Big Red Express are turning.

And on Blackcomb, the Excalibur Gondola and Excelerator Express are both open, as well as Jersey Cream Express and Catskinner Express.

The Peak 2 Peak is also operating, and the new Blackcomb gondola—which will depart from the Upper Village—is scheduled to open on Dec. 14.