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