By Vivian Moreau
Driving through Colorado after leaving his job as president of Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation in 1993, Pat O’Donnell had a revelation. Passing through ski resorts like Keystone, Vail, and Steamboat Springs that were laden with big box and outlet stores he wondered what had happened to the ski experience he’d grown up around. Looking for a way to market Aspen Skiing Company, the job he was driving to, he decided to promote what he knew best: pure skiing.
“I felt that the true ski experience really might be about open space, preservation of habitat and what people who’ve never skied really dreamed of what the ski experience might be like,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview.
O’Donnell, a rock climber, skier and snowboarder as well as former industry executive with Patagonia and the Yosemite Institute, set about promoting Aspen, with its one million visitors a year, up against the big name resorts with three to four million visitors annually by setting apart the resort as an environmentally-aware community. Starting with incorporating green building standards in new construction, utilizing bio-diesel fuels in its snowcats and purchasing wind-powered energy instead of fossil-fuel, O’Donnell then set out to tell the world about it through what some say is controversial marketing that makes no bones about what global warming might do to the ski industry.
“People (in the ski industry) looked at us and said ‘What are you doing, you’re drawing a lot of the attention to us… and we don’t need to be a lightning rod here,” he said.
Although backed in his green strategies by Aspen Skiing Company’s Chicago-based family owners, O’Donnell said trying to get the environmental message heard 10 years ago “was pushing a rock uphill.” But he said conscience and a desire to ensure skiing and snowboarding survive as industries made him persevere.
“I felt a moral and ethical obligation from an environmental perspective that we should give something back and that means we should preserve it,” he said from his 50-acre riverside home west of Aspen.
O’Donnell, who retired from Aspen Skiing Company last year, will be a keynote speaker at the 32 nd annual Mountain Travel Symposium, to be held April 15-21 at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, to talk about his environmental activism and be honoured with a lifetime achievement award for his work, says the symposium’s top organizer.
“For all the work he’s done throughout his career, mindful of not just the bottom line for the company that he works for but for the surrounding community and the environment — the three bottom lines,” said Ralf Garrison.
Over 1,100 registrants from across North America, a record gathering, will take part in the seven-day, three-event symposium that will bring travel industry buyers and suppliers together for a two-day trade show, as well as provide two-day group exchanges between ski association decision makers. But the origins of the symposium, which began at the close of the 1975 Colorado ski season with a dozen colleagues comparing notes around a keg of beer, will be continued with two days of workshops that review recent season results and also examine changing trends, Garrison said.
In addition to O’Donnell, speakers will include Guy Kawasaki, one of Apple Computers’ original innovators who will speak about how established companies can energize themselves by re-examining start-up company strategies. Guerrilla marketing guru Greg Stielstra will also speak about the unconventional advantages of stepping beyond traditional advertising.
As to Whistler’s former CEO, O’Donnell said the week will be a chance to spread the green word but also a chance to re-connect with friends and colleagues he and wife Jennifer haven’t seen since they left 14 years ago.
“We loved Whistler, just loved it,” he said. “If it was any place but Aspen we would not have left, we were just so happy there.”