For a town that spends as much time as Whistler does touting its exceptional guest experience, it certainly feels like we've been dropping the ball on that front lately. By now it seems redundant to prattle off the long list of less-than-desirable side effects of the resort's unprecedented busyness. But in case you made the wise decision to stay at home with your Netflix subscription, I'll use this past weekend — the finale to Crankworx, historically the busiest on Whistler's bloated event calendar — as a quick refresher on everything you missed: bumper-to-bumper traffic, two-hour restaurant lineups, a rash of bike thefts and vehicle break-ins, store shelves that looked like they'd been picked over by hordes of post-apocalyptic marauders, and nary a parking spot to be found.
"It's a good problem to have," the powers that be keep telling us, dollar signs cha-chinging in their eyes. Sure, visitors are great. Being busy is great. Money is pretty cool, too, and tourists have plenty to burn. But keep compromising the very experience Whistler has spent decades cultivating, packaging and promoting to the world, and how long before that good problem becomes the worst problem?
And for as superior as we grizzled locals sometimes like to feel over the wide-eyed, fanny-pack-sporting tourist, they're not stupid. Sure, they may put up with all the headaches that come along with Whistler's latest boom period for a weekend or two, but you've got to think Revelstoke or Silver Star or Jackson Hole will start to look a lot more appealing the next time they're considering that next mountain getaway. Heck, maybe one of the other 13 mountains in Vail's Epic Pass will seem more enticing after a visit to our busting-at-the-seams resort.
Let's face it: our unparalleled terrain can only get us so far, especially with the beginner skier that Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and Vail Resorts seem so intent on catering to. And yes, I realize WB's shiny $345-million expansion plan, dubbed Renaissance, is designed for this very customer, with its ambitious plans to add a sprawling waterpark, roller coaster and a handful of other four-season, weather-proof attractions. But with expansion comes more bodies — a predicted 400,000 incremental visitor days a year, to be precise — and with more bodies comes the inevitable and continued erosion of the guest experience.
"It's all very well to say we're going to plunk (millions of dollars) into something, but if it ties up our streets, and you can't get a restaurant seat, and you can't find anybody to work in the restaurants, I think you're defeating the purpose to some extent," said Whistler Real Estate president Pat Kelly in an interview this week.
"We can handle it," officials also like to say. "Our occupancy rate is only 60 per cent!" But that figure is an average; the reality is our busy weekends hover closer to 80 or 90 per cent. And even those numbers can be misleading once you factor in all the unregistered condos and illegal nightly rentals — another worrying issue the municipality has yet to get a handle on — aren't counted in the tally.
Then you get to a second experience that is just as crucial to Whistler's success: the employee's. Whether the sky-high living costs, the tightening rental market or the doldrums of being another overworked, underpaid cog in the tourism machine, the life of a Whistler worker bee ain't what it used to be. It's why short-staffed restaurants and retail shops are forced to close during what should be the most profitable time of the year, and it's why the Chamber of Commerce spent months developing its resort-wide employee recruitment and retention strategy.
Compound that with Vail's discounted Epic Pass, expected to undercut the cost of a Spirit Pass, and there's much less incentive for frontline workers to sign up for the Chamber's customer-service training sessions.
Add up all those ingredients: a disgruntled, undertrained workforce and ballooning visitor numbers that businesses can't hire staff fast enough to accommodate, and you don't get a recipe for success.
Many, if not all, of these issues can't be solved overnight. And frankly, I'm not sure what the answers are, although paying workers a livable wage, cracking down on Airbnb, and slashing the price of the Spirit Pass is as good a place to start as any.
All I know is that improving the guest experience shouldn't be something that gets put on the backburner, weighted down by a series of high-level municipal studies. We need to act and we need to act now, or else face the reality that all the things that make Whistler so attractive will become bygones of a different era. Bigger, after all, isn't always better.