By Andrew Mitchell
With snow a-plenty and a thriving village scene, Whistler put its best face on over the holidays as the resort hosted Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and his family for eight days.
Al-Waleed is a member of the Saudi royal family, and a prominent international investor who was ranked the eighth richest person in the world by Forbes in 2006.
His visit to Whistler was a mix of business and pleasure. The prince currently owns a 23 per cent stake in the Four Seasons luxury hotel chain through his Kingdom Hotels International, and in November he announced plans to partner with Bill Gates’s Cascade Investment LLC to buy a majority stake in the company that would effectively take the Four Seasons private. The deal will still need shareholder approval as well as the approval of regulatory agencies, but is expected to go ahead in 2007.
Naturally the prince stayed at the Four Seasons, but he also spent time dining at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Kingdom Hotels partnered with a U.S. firm to buy Fairmont Hotels and Resorts for $3.9 billion U.S. in January of last year. He also visited with business interests in Vancouver.
By all accounts the visit was good for Whistler, as the prince booked out restaurants, stores and movie theatres during his visit, and arranged special tours and attractions for family members and members of his entourage. He also spent several days skiing, and is described as a proficient skier.
Otto Kamstra, general manager of the Whistler-Blackcomb Ski and Snowboard School, has taught numerous celebrities over the years, including members of the British royal family during their last visit to resort. With Prince Al-Waleed his role was primarily as a guide.
“He has his own instructor, who he brought up from Aspen and who he has been skiing with for the last nine years,” said Kamstra. “(The instructor) has been teaching in Aspen for 44 years now. He’s an elegant skier, really quick-witted, and is able to keep up a banter with the Prince.”
The prince’s instructor came to Whistler three days early to familiarize himself with the runs, but they hired Kamstra for three days to be their guide. The rest of the family used a pool of about 10 ski and snowboard instructors.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy,” said Kamstra of the Prince. “He understands English well, and his quote about Whistler was ‘unbelievable’. He’s been everywhere to ski — Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, numerous places in Europe.”
Because of business commitments and logistics the prince and his family only spent about two to three hours a day on the mountains. His wife, Princess Ameera, was skiing for the first time with local instructor Jason Simpson, and made huge progress.
“Technically she was probably the best skier in the group, and by the time she left she could ski any blue run on the mountain,” said Kamstra.
Prince Al-Waleed’s adult daughter and son, Princess Reem and Prince Khaled, also headed up the mountain several days and were strong skiers and snowboarders respectively.
The visit kept Whistler jumping, as the family made elaborate plans every night and dispatched staff members to carry them out — sometimes at short notice. One night the young royals and members of the entourage had a bonfire on the spit at Green Lake that featured live music, a performance by First Nations, and fire dancers, followed by a late dinner at Nicklaus North Golf Club.
Although it was difficult to provide that kind of service given how busy the resort was during the holidays, Kamstra said local businesses came through and the royal family left happy.
“You never expect a royal visit and it’s always nice when it happens,” he said. “I know our staff worked very hard to deliver the best they could and that everyone in the Prince’s party was very pleased with it. We definitely put on our best face for them.”