When the strategic combination of Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and Vail Resorts was announced last August, WB's senior VP of marketing and sales Stuart Rempel was already intending to retire after the upcoming ski season.
"I just turned 64 a little while ago, and I was actually thinking I was going to leave the company maybe last fall," Rempel said over coffee on Nov. 21.
"I want to travel. I might do some consulting work in the future, but no, I've worked more than 40 years straight, and I've had a fabulous career, and while I'm active and healthy, I want to travel and ski. That's my whole life."
Rempel was one of about 60 WB employees who recently learned they would be laid off next May, as a result of redundancies within the corporate structure.
"The acquisition by Vail (Resorts) kind of aligns with what my plans were, to retire after this winter," he said. "I feel great that we have an amazing team, I've developed some amazing individuals. We've all worked together, we've had great success, and so it's the perfect time. Totally perfect time."
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PIQUE: What's next for you?
Stuart Rempel: "I want to ski, I want to have fun. You know, I've skied every month of the year for 22 years, and this week should be my 265th consecutive month skiing, which is starting my 23rd year, so my goal is to continue that through the winter, and just keep going. It's a personal thing. It's certainly not a world-record attempt or anything like that, but you know, it's been my goal, working here and working for K2 and before that working for Salomon... to be connected, to stay up to date on what's going on, and the only way you can do that is to be on the hill, testing equipment, talking to our guests, and I've found that that's served me well."
PIQUE: You've been in the industry a long time. What are some of the most significant changes you've seen in your time?
SR: "In the ski business, the equipment has evolved tremendously, and in particular with shapes and widths of skis, and in the versatility of skis. You know, we used to ski, heli-ski, on 205 (centimetre) slalom skis, and now you ski on 182 (cm) skis that are 110, 120 millimetres underfoot... that plus snowboarding has opened up the mountain to a lot more people, both at the low end and at the high end, younger skiers and older skiers... for that reason, I think there's a really great future in the sport.
"In the mountain business, I remember when Blackcomb opened, I was here on opening day on Blackcomb Mountain, and there was fixed-grip triple lifts. Now we have high-speed quads, we have amazing grooming, we have snowmaking, and continuous improvement on the mountain, and since I've been at WB, in the 16 years, the continuous improvement of the product and the experience is really the most amazing thing here. Every year, there's something new and something better, and I expect that that will continue here going forward. Vail Resorts runs great resorts, they do a great job, they invest in their properties, and I expect that they'll do the same thing here."
PIQUE: Moving forward, how can WB keep innovating, and keep the momentum going?
SR: "Well bottom line is you've got to have the right people, and I think WB has amazing people. The staff and the team at Whistler are second to none in the industry. I think that's evident, being the No. 1 ranked resort in North America, and arguably in the world, so it takes people. It takes a strong brand, which Whistler has, and the company needs to be profitable for it to reinvest, and I think WB has been profitable, and has been able to reinvest in its product, and I expect that that will continue through into the future.
"What Whistler has going for it is an amazing community... (WB, Tourism Whistler, the local hotels), we all get together and we create this amazing alignment in terms of how we offer products to the market, and that's proven to be very, very successful... I think that model is not about to be broken, and it's going to be something that will drive business forward."
PIQUE: How can Whistler stay a top-ranked resort?
SR: "Continuous product improvement... since I've been here, the whole Symphony Amphitheatre and Peak to Creek runs were big improvements, we added a bunch of acres. Obviously the Peak 2 Peak Gondola was a really bold move, an idea that Hugh Smythe and Paul Matthews had at one time, and Dave Brownlie (COO) really was the driver of that project, along with the rest of the team, and that's a bold move. Other people haven't done stuff like that. Crystal Harmony, that we did a couple of years ago, the Rendezvous, the new cabins on the village gondola, this year the big improvements in the learning areas at Olympic station, improvements on-mountain, the Roundhouse deck that's going in now, the GLC... These are just constant improvements that I can see Whistler and WB continually doing moving forward."
PIQUE: Is there concern about the guest experience suffering as Whistler continues to grow?
SR: "I'm certainly concerned, and I know that the leadership at WB is concerned, and the leadership in the community is concerned, and there are a number of initiatives underway, at all levels, to try and alleviate the traffic issues, to try and improve the housing situation. WB houses more employees than any other employer in town, but there's still more work to be done. The highway, we've got to find ways to get people out of their cars, to get people carpooling... so those are the things that the local government and community leaders are working on, and it's not going to happen overnight, but I think it's important, because if we get known as being too busy and too crazy, then it will become an issue for the community, but you know, we're in an amazing place right now.
"I mean, the business has swings... the pendulum moves back and forth with economic forces, with exchange rates. We're on top right now, but in the future, we might have things that happen, unfortunate situations like SARS or 9/11, or the Canadian dollar being too expensive, so we have to be mindful of what is down the road, and really manage our businesses like that."
PIQUE: What does Vail Resorts bring to the table for Whistler?
SR: "All I can say is that Vail (Resorts) runs great resorts. I've been to all of their mountain resorts... and they do an amazing job. They have great people, they have great lift infrastructures, they provide great service, and I think the combination of the two companies will really be an amazing opportunity for Whistler, and also for Vail (Resorts)."
PIQUE: Any favourite memories from your time with WB?
SR: "Every time we open new terrain and new things, that's an amazing feeling. The day we launched the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, and then the day we opened (it), it was amazing. Like, you look back on it and you think what a bold move that was, and that was so much fun to be a part of that team that did that.
"There's another memory that is just indelibly printed in my memory bank, and that's the (2010) Olympic Games... to be a member of the community and one of the leaders on the mountain, as we all hosted the Games as a community, it doesn't get better than that.
"What I think is important for people in the community to remember, and I think lots do for sure, is that it's all these guests that come here that allow us to live here. That's important that we all remember that, every single day... if it weren't for (the guests) we wouldn't have what we have today, even close."
PIQUE: Will you ever stop skiing?
SR: "No. When I'm pushing daisies. There is no end. You know, one of the cool things about skiing is that it's a multi-generational sport that you can start when you're three years old, and you can ski until you're in your 90s, and you can ski with multi generations, and how many sports are there that can do that? And I know that it takes some resources, and a commitment to do that, but you know, some of my greatest pleasures in my life are skiing with my kids' grandfather and my wife and our kids — three generations, and I see this all over the mountain all the time.
"Our family programs and our kids' programs, both in summer and winter, in the bike park and snow school, these programs are growing, and that bodes well for the future of the business, but also we're keeping baby boomers and older skiers on the slopes longer as well, and that to me is a real bright spot for us in our business, is getting people in early, keeping them, and keeping them late through their lives.
"Whistler is an amazing place. A number of people have (asked me) when you retire, are you going to stay in Whistler? And yeah — of course I'm going to stay in Whistler. Why would anybody want to leave this place? It's paradise. It's an amazing community, amazing people here, and these mountains are inspirational. The mountains have been an inspiration to me for my whole career, and I'm not going anywhere. Ill travel, but this is going to be home."