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Looking for answers

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We are almost through our first real season with Vail Resorts at the helm of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains—and let's be honest, it has had its ups and downs (OK, that may be an understatement).

No one really believed that when the American ski resort giant ponied up a whopping $1.4 billion for North America's No.1 ski resort that we wouldn't notice, but I think it's fair to say we didn't realize, well ... how American Vail Resorts really is.

Let's be fair, the local leadership team at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) clearly recognizes the hornet's nest it continues to operate in. There has been authentic recognition that mistakes have been made and the company is working to try and get its local mojo back.

But the simmering discontent is not going away. And last week when Bloomberg, an internationally recognized media outlet used by the big guns such as the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, carried a story dredging up all the angst of customers and locals it was back to square one for Vail Resorts at Whistler Blackcomb.

This time though, WB's COO Pete Sonntag has come out swinging from his own corner. He did a blitz with Vancouver media and dropped by Pique's offices to update us on the season.

"We have really made an effort to fix the things that aren't working," he said. "And I felt like we have made improvements and we have established relationships in the community ... then something like this comes out and it's like, 'Wow, we are not there yet.'"

Sonntag has brought in an independent third party to run "listening sessions" to gather the concerns of staff and said he will be looking at the feedback in the coming weeks.

"We're only going to turn it around through our actions, consistently over time, reinvesting in the community and doing the right things and being involved in the right conversations," said Sonntag. "That absolutely is key. We won't achieve our business objectives if we have a community that's in complete opposition to Vail Resorts and Whistler Blackcomb."

There have been "actions," of course. Vail Resorts partnered with Gibbons and got World Ski and Snowboard Festival off the ground this year when it was in danger of disappearing, it has supported the WB Foundation, which has just given $400,000 to the Whistler Community Services Society, it has created meaningful partnerships with the Lil'wat and Squamish Nations and helped their youth embrace the slopes, it has supported workers financially through emergency relief grants, it kept its partnership with the Whistler Chamber and the Spirit Pass, and after a public outcry it put a version of the parent pass back in play for those who had previously bought it.

But it's still out of favour.

You may have noticed that Pique gets "Letters to the Editor" almost every week from people upset about trickle-down effects of the take over. From frustration at losing long-offered perks (two free ski passes with a WB season pass) to concerns over the change in the culture of the operation.

What is driving this deep dissatisfaction? After all, it's not like Vail Resorts is the first new owner of WB the community has experienced.

It is, however, the first to try and reinvent an operation that was already the best of its kind.

Some insight from Sonntag: "We knew we came into this partnership not being popular, because we were the enemy. It's like when you wake up every day and your goal is to pound the opposition, and all of a sudden you're partners with the opposition, you don't just flip a switch and have that turn around. That was true for our staff and it's absolutely true in the community as well."

I know one thing for sure. Whistler, the community, is proud of the resort and the mountain operations. We all feel ownership of it and that drives a great deal of the criticism—we want it to be the best in the world. When things happen or we are forced to accept things that we believe are detrimental we speak up.

We are driven by passion. We are more than just a ski resort looking at its bottom line. We represent the best of Mother Nature and we offer everyone a chance to leave the everyday behind and capture that magic.

Making skiing unaffordable to the thousands who have previously enjoyed it through the old WB pass options (one and three-day Edge Cards) hurts, restricting the parent pass hurts, appearing to think of our mountains as only a bottom-line-driven business hurts.

And actions speak louder than words.

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