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Making the little things add up

Up close with Doug Forseth, Whistler-Blackcomb's head of operations

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By Andrew Mitchell

The off-season is always a busy time for Whistler-Blackcomb, which is constantly changing and upgrading its facilities to maintain its number one status among North American resorts. This summer was no exception, with the ski operator investing more than $22 million in on-mountain improvements.

Almost half of that funding is for the new Symphony Express lift and the creation of new runs in the area, but between regular upgrades and Olympic improvements, visitors will notice quite a few differences this year.

Last week Pique Newsmagazine sat down with Doug Forseth, senior vice president of operations, to talk about what’s new on the mountains this year, and what changes are still to come.

Pique: Overall your budget is about $22 million, which is up quite a bit from last year, but Symphony isn’t the only new investment.

Doug Forseth: All told the cost of Symphony is about $9.3 million, $9.4 million including the chairlift, the new runs and so forth. In that sense it’s a bigger year for us, it’s been several years since we’re seen a budget of $20 million or more and we’ve only done that a couple of years since Whistler and Blackcomb merged. Usually our budget is in the $12-$15 million range for on-mountain improvements and improving our product.

Pique: A lot of money was spent last year on summer grooming and snowmaking. Was that a focus again this year?

DF: This year it was really a lot of little things that added up, but which people are bound to notice. Always snowmaking is one of our first priorities, and we’ve improved it in a number of places. A lot of those improvements are being done for the Olympic Games, and aren’t included in our budget, but there are other improvements as well.

One of the areas we’ve focused on is Pony Trail, which is the easiest way down the side of the not very easy Red (chair) side of the mountain. The run is about 60 to 70 per cent wider.

On Crabapple we’ve spent considerable money to put in snowmaking. It’s not all completed because we’re doing the project in conjunction with the Olympics, but it’s something we’d probably do even without the Games.

Pique: It follows a lot of improvements on Blackcomb to widen the ski outs. Was that the intention?

DF: It’s been a focus for the last several years to get people off the mountain a little more easily. We’ve always been pretty top heavy, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, and the way down can get a little crazy when all the runs come together. We’ve done some work to widen Mainline and Olympic Run, and now on Crabapple, and with Pony Trail we’ve involved Creekside this year (with Pony Trail). We’re giving more reasons for people to ski out.

Pique: What other on-mountain changes can people expect?

DF: Once again it’s a lot of little changes that might not seem big, but they add up — like putting flush toilets in the Crystal Hut on Blackcomb. It cost a quarter of a million dollars to do that. We had been counting on VANOC to open up Express Way and run the snowmaking lines and run the sewer with that, but those plans changed to hold all the events on Whistler. In the end we decided that this was something we could do ourselves. We’re also putting flush toilets in Raven’s Nest on Whistler.

We’ve also made some changes to our rental and retail concerns. We’ve added a Quicksilver store, redeveloped the Crystal Lodge Can-Ski location, and had the Can-Ski North location rebuilt and rebranded as Glacier Shop. We spent about $1.5 million to redo these stores, which were badly in need of it.

On the food and beverage side, there have been significant changes to the Roundhouse Lodge marketplace-food court area. There will be a whole new presentation of the food court, and the area has been re-engineered to better dictate the flow of traffic.

A lot of the other budget went into regular summer grooming, to fixing up lifts. We also purchased six new snowcats for our fleet, about 25 per cent of our fleet, as part of our regular upgrades.

Our summer operations were also included in that budget. We spent about $200,000 in the bike park for new bike carriers on the Garbanzo Chair, new trails. We also invested in the Highnote Trail, which we started the previous season but finished this summer for about another $100,000 or so in capital costs.

Pique: Is the Symphony Express on track for a Dec. 16 official opening?

DF: It is. We have our load test this week, we put on the last of the carriers (last week), and now we’re just fine-tuning the set-up, the electronics. The load test is the last step for the provincial authorities to get it licensed.

There’s a chance we could open the area earlier, but not knowing what the alpine snow conditions would be like we decided on Dec. 16. We usually have enough base by then and it’s prior to Christmas, which is important.

Pique: Has the Symphony Express generated a lot of attention for the resort?

DF: It’s one of a combination of things that is drawing response from the public this year. We sold a record number of early bird season passes this year, and while we don’t have the final numbers on our Edge Card sales, we’re tracking around where we were at this time last year, and we set a huge record last year.

These sales were driven by a couple of things. One is that we had a great year last year with snow, especially with the record snow in January. Another is Symphony, people seem to be very excited about that.

We were very careful to ensure that the area kept its look and feel. For example, we dug the tower footings in May when there was still snow on the ground, so we didn’t have to build any roads into the area.

We did logging by helicopter, and kept cutting to a minimum as we were going for a natural, gladed feel for the area, although we did build a run at the boundary for less experienced skiers and for safety, to prevent people from going out of bounds. There was very little disruption to the ground cover, we had a very light footprint.

The main run is Addagio, which is the widest run, and the other main run is just being called Founder’s Run on the maps. We’ve taken the whole concept of fundraising to this run… and every year the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation will auction off the right for people to put their own name on it for the rest of the year.

The only exception is this year, when the run will be dedicated to Jeff Harbers. He was the first president of the American Friends of Whistler who died in a plane crash this summer. In his honour the run will be called Jeff’s Ode to Joy, which has a story behind it. He had two small children, and his daughter was doing a piano recital. Jeff was not a musical guy, but he learned the piano to be able to do a duet of Ode to Joy with her. We feel the name sums up Jeff’s passion for music and skiing.

Next year it will have a different name on it, and every year after that as people are able to bid on the name.

Pique: There were a few slow years but after last season and a good summer, is there a sense that the excitement is back?

DF: There’s a lot of energy, you can really feel it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a record opening weekend. We made the decision to open the Creekside Gondola because the snow conditions allowed it, but also because we expect a strong turnout. Everything in the Roundhouse is totally open — even Steeps Grill is open, and I don’t think it’s ever been open this early before.

Pique: Will people notice any changes to runs that are being made for the Olympics?

DF: It wasn’t in the budget, but I can say we spent a lot of time on those runs over the summer and a lot of our staff were immersed in the task of building these alpine venues. That includes a lot of work on the ground.

The improvements to the Dave Murray Downhill are quite dramatic, a lot of changes had to be made for safety that will make it a better run in some ways. We’ve been working pretty closely with VANOC and FIS to ensure the end product is something we can be proud of and something that will compare favourably to the top downhill courses in the world.

It’s not totally finished. It was a two-year project, to be completed next summer, and there are two bridges we still have to put in, but it’s going to be a very different experience this year.

One of the areas where we’ve done a lot of work is Fallaway, which is steep as heck with a 90 degree left turn at the bottom. We’ve widened the turn by 10 to 15 metres, which should create a much better ski experience. We’ve also widened the way to Coaches Corner and added a new hot air at the ‘S’ turns which should also improve the view from the finish line.

On the women’s World Cup downhill course, we’ve made a lot of changes. There will be a whole new start. The run will be wider, but we’ve kept the special feeling of Franz’s Run, the roller coaster feel that made it such a great run.

By keeping a lot of the natural terrain features and rolling feel of the terrain, we think we’ll have a classic downhill course.

Really the guys and girls who have worked on the courses did a hell of a job, considering they were delayed starting for about six weeks while we waited to get our environmental approval from the federal government. All of a sudden we were behind the eight-ball, with three different companies involved waiting for the go-ahead. Fortunately they all stayed with the project, even if they could have moved to somewhere else, and we got back on track.

We had to work around everything, from the discovery of endangered frogs along the course, to the fire regulations that kicked in during the drought this summer.

Pique: I understand there’s also been a lot of work on Raven and Ptarmigan.

DF: Part of that direction comes from talking to the local ski club about their needs, and these runs will be set aside as a training area during the Games. The snowmaking will be put in place next summer.

Some of these new runs will be tested in March when we have the Canadian Nationals here, and in 2008 we will be hosting a World Cup with the men and women both racing the Olympic courses. These are pretty big projects, and we want to have them perfect by the time the Games get here.

Pique: I know Whistler-Blackcomb has been looking to test wind power in the next year. Are there any other environmental projects that are new this year?

DF: We are continuing our work with Sempa Power Projects, with phase two of the Roundhouse expected to cost about $250,000 for a hybrid gas boiler-electric system. This is a good investment for us, as the payback for one of these systems is three to four years. I don’t remember how many tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions we’ve reduced with other Sempa projects, but there is a positive environmental impact as well.

Pique: What about the plans to build a temporary lift to the Timing Flats to move spectators around? Has that project started?

DF: It could be next summer, we’re still working on that. There are other factors involved, we’re building a lift from Creekside to the Timing Flats, but we’re also looking at building a new lift from Creekside to Kadenwood for real estate operations. There are economies of scale there that would make more sense to do both projects at once.

VANOC and FIS would like us to put in the lift to the Timing Flats for the World Cup events in 2008, and we’ll be working on it over the winter.

Pique: Are there still plans to close the Village Gondola next year for upgrades?

DF: In next year’s capital budget there are plans to rebuild the gearboxes and drives, and other major components. It’s a major workhorse for us — it carries more people, works more hours, and is open more days than any other lift on the mountains. We should be spending about $5 million on that.

That’s why we’ll be closing Whistler early this year. We need about nine weeks to do the work and prepare for the summer season.

We’ll still follow the same pattern, just on different mountains. Blackcomb will be open through the spring and May, and will remain open in the summer for glacier skiing.

Pique: What about the recent purchase of Intrawest by Fortress. Has that had any impact on operations, or is it related to any layoffs?

DF: The recent layoffs were not Fortress-driven but Intrawest-driven. As we were being looked at by other companies, and got down into the shortlist, we were being asked a lot of questions that really focused on things we weren’t as focused on and made decisions regarding staffing that we would have made regardless of how things ended up.

There was not a big impact here for people; several positions that were opened up just haven’t been filled, while others who were in positions that were eliminated have found work in other departments filling other vacancies.

Pique: How involved is Fortress in day-to-day operations?

DF: We’ve met with Fortress, we’re a core business, and they want us to run that business well. We’ve had discussions over vision, core values, and they’re comfortable with what we are and what we’re doing.

One of the things they want to do is see the resort grow, and I know they are on the hunt for other (resort) properties, which we think is great and will only create a higher visibility for the brand. It will also create opportunities for people to grow within the resort group.

This is Fortress’s first involvement in ski areas, of 75 other companies. They’re very diversified.

Pique: Is there an advantage for Whistler-Blackcomb, now that Intrawest is no longer on the stock market?

DF: No doubt a public company is always looking to position itself for the next quarter report, and is in the earnings per share game. The goal is still to profit, but the company can take a longer-term vision how to grow and manage the company for success, which is a huge benefit for us.

Pique: Will it have an impact on the proposed Peak to Peak gondola?

DF: That’s still a work in progress. Fortress has indicated interest, but we’re not in a position yet to say, “yeah, it’s a go.” They have given us the attitude to keep the ball rolling, so it’s definitely not dead. I expect this thing’s going to get done… and in the next 60 days we should have some kind of an answer. Fortress is doing their fact finding, their due diligence on this, to make sure they make a good decision.

Before, when we were a public company, there was always the debt issue, and looking for a partner made things a lot more complicated. Our approach will be different with Fortress — if we decide to do it, then we’ll do it, and won’t worry about partners.

Pique: Last year Whistler-Blackcomb made the decision to change marketing plans to focus more on regional visitors and the value message. Will this year’s marketing be similar?

DF: One of the big priorities for us is to grow our destination business again. We had a record year last year within the regional market, and we’d like to keep that going on a price and value basis.

The destination market is down for many reasons. One of the main ones is probably the exchange rate, which is why travel to Canada is at an all-time low. Whistler is not unique in that sense; everywhere else in Canada is experiencing the same thing.

We do need to get that market back. We’re going to continue to work on the value story, that Whistler is an affordable destination.

Air travel is more expensive than ever, which is something we really have no control over, so we expect the value message — whether it’s bundling products and costs, or hotels and airfare — to hit home the hardest. We offer competitive rates with other ski areas, that’s a fact we have to drive home.

Pique: Are there any destination markets you will be focusing on more than others?

DF: There are three markets we will be doing most of our marketing. The first two are Washington state and California, which are in the same time zone as Whistler and can offer affordable rates to Vancouver by virtue of the fact we’re kind of in the same neighbourhood. That lowers air travel costs.

The other market is Central Canada, especially Ontario. It’s still a longer flight, but we have the same currency, and flights into Vancouver are still affordable.

We’ve been running national ads in The Globe and Mail, and so far we’ve had good response to our “book by” packages, which we expected to grow again this year.

Pique: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

DF: Food. We’re looking at some new concepts in food, and in a way we’re going back to the basics this year. We’re dropping prices on 20 to 30 per cent of various menu items, which means we’re also reducing our margins there. It’s more expensive to provide food on the mountain because of the transportation and preparation, but people still compare the prices in the Roundhouse Lodge with the prices in the village.

We’re offering more value combination deals, where you get an entrée, drink and maybe a desert item for under $10. There are going to be more soups, more sandwiches, all high quality ingredients. We’re listening to our guests, and meeting their expectations and needs.

The test kitchen is the Roundhouse, and I think people are going to like what they find.