Opinion » Maxed Out

'How can I help you?'

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I was tempted to wade into a third part of the Annals of Ignorance this week, but giving the topic more thought, decided arrogance was the human frailty that lay at the heart of this missive more accurately than ignorance. It was a close call since there is enough overlap to go either way.

Long before Whistler, the resort, gained a reputation for world classiness, nosebleed pricing and a swish factor saved largely by the gnarly terrain challenging unsuspecting skiers and boarders visiting from other resorts, it had a reputation for outstanding customer service. Problem with your gear? We can fix that. Problem with your pass? No problem at all; we can fix that. Chairlift dripped black yuck on your Bogner? We'll have it cleaned to your satisfaction. Conditions not to your liking? If you decide in reasonable time, we'll refund your ticket.

The historic reasons for that were twofold. First was the creation of Blackcomb. When Blackcomb opened for the 1980-81 season, it didn't have a lot of skiing to offer. What it had—and what it developed to a fine art—was service. As Hugh Smythe, who had the daunting task of managing, well, mostly everything about Blackcomb in the early days recalled, "I had some fairly simple philosophies. One was building a culture based on outstanding service, friendliness and delivering the total experience. It was a way of differentiating ourselves from Whistler Mountain. To me, it just made good sense."

This meant little, unexpected things, like Sniffle Stations and really unexpected things like staff, Hugh included, clearing snow off guests' windshields late in the day. It meant better food than Whistler Mountain served. It meant friendly lifties. And it meant empowered guest-relations staff whose mandate was pretty simple: Fix it!

The second reason was a blend of Whistler mountain's family-owned paternalism and the decision of both mountains to engage in "friendly" competition. Once Blackcomb reached a size that even Franz Wilhelmsen had to take seriously, a third entity was created: Dual Mountain.

It was pretty clear visitors to the resort were going to want to ski both mountains and even clearer having to buy two different tickets was going to be a pain in the posterior. So détente was struck by the accounting challenge of dual-mountain tickets, good on either side of the divide. Blackcomb was the brash, corporate upstart with this whole service thing going; Whistler was the stalwart pater familias with familiar faces who'd been there since the start and weren't going anywhere. Think Bob Dufour.

That was then. This is now. Welcome to the Age of Arrogance.

Having weathered the downside of success, which is to say being purchased by Pirate and Fortress, in that order, Whistler Blackcomb's juicy balance sheet and dominant position in North America made it ripe for the new corporate masters to absorb it into VailBorg: Welcome 13 of 19 to the collective. Unlike the first two carpetbaggers to own us—who didn't know diddly about running a ski resort and therefore left management to do that voodoo they do so well—Vail Resorts, perennially ranking second or third behind Whistler Blackcomb, knew everything about running ski resorts. So now they're running things ... into the ground, thank you.

The two letters in last week's Pique captured, in fine detail, the utter arrogance of Vail Resorts' centralized, corporate, our-way-or-the-highway management. In both cases—and these two are by no means the only ones—customers, guests, the very people we rely on to keep us in business, either purchased or were sold the wrong season pass. They discovered they'd purchased Epic™ Local Passes instead of Epic™ Passes after they'd skied their 10 days here and their passes didn't work any more.

I'm not going to delve into the confusion of something called a Local Pass that doesn't work locally, duh. After all, this is about arrogance, not ignorance. And I'm not interested in whether the people in question purchased the wrong pass or were sold the wrong pass. Not an issue.

Pre-Vail Resorts, if someone walked into Guest Relations with this story, the answer would have been, "No problem. Let's get you the right pass."

Maybe you're wondering how I can be sure of this. Unlike many weeks when I write about things I know nothing about, I know about this. Eighteen or 19 years working in Guest Relations for Whistler Blackcomb is my cred.

Mistakes happen. It doesn't matter who makes them. The job of good customer service is to fix them. And working for a company that would pretty much bend over backward to deliver good service, I would have said, no problem. Looking in to the pass history and seeing what kind of pass these folks generally purchased, I could have fixed it on my own, maybe with one phone call to pass administration. Even if they didn't have a pass history, it would have been fixed and in all likelihood, they'd have been offered the pass they wanted at the price they would have paid at the time they purchased the wrong pass.

Problem solved. Have a nice day. That's how we roll, er, rolled. As frontline staff and managers, we were empowered to fix problems. We had the authority to do the right thing. Sometimes we went too far. That was considered a teachable moment. We were told, or we told staff, they'd probably gone too far to fix the problem but that was all right; we preferred they erred on the side of over-delivering, not the other way around.

To be told, as one letter writer apparently was, Vail Resorts' staff is all highly trained and know their products, is world-class arrogance and flies in the face of reality. My experience since Vail Resorts took over is that frontline staff frequently don't know their products despite whatever training they've been through. Last year, in April (!), I had to walk a ticket seller through a transaction to use one of my discounted sightseeing passes. On a number of occasions, I've had to help guest-relations staff find a product I wanted to purchase.

Heck, one time when I went south and skied at Vail, I even had to help the ticket seller there find my ticket! Easy enough since they used the same point-of-sale system.

It is not simple to do dozens, perhaps hundreds of transactions selling dozens of different products without making a mistake now and then. It's even harder when you have constant staff turnover, even during the season. Everyone makes mistakes. The difference between companies who believe in good service is how they recover.

Vail Resorts' recovery? Epic Failure.

Lesson? Please pull your heads out before you completely ruin the reputation Whistler spent decades building. Thanks ... and have a nice day.

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