A pure white snowshoe hare darts across the empty cross-country skiing trails at Whistler's Lost Lake Park. Now closed to Nordic skiers after an unusually short season, the trails are sprouting yellow flag irises near the streams, while green moss blankets the woods. Pausing to sit atop a heap of fallen tree limbs and ferns for just a moment, the hare seems acutely aware of its exposure and its limitations in the changing season.
Spring's advance arrival on the mountain also reveals the challenges Whistler Blackcomb faces to remain the premier ski resort in North America.
The future of mountain travel, including its vulnerabilities and its potential for growth, is being discussed at length by about 1,200 industry experts, tour operators, ski councils and alpine marketing professionals who descended upon the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for the 40th annual Mountain Travel Symposium (MTS) this week. The week-long conference, which is the largest annual gathering of mountain industry leaders in the world, offers a bridge between buyers and suppliers, as well as an educational component that discusses the evolution of mountain travel and provides attendees with a chance for comparison and self-examination.
"People have lots of choices in terms of where they spend their time and their money," Whistler Blackcomb president and CEO Dave Brownlie says. "You really have to continually look at your product, your experience, your price, and obviously challenge yourself to continually improve."
Brownlie, along with the leaders of major ski resort operators Intrawest, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings and Sunday River, are participating in the symposium's "View from the Top" session to discuss pressing issues for mountain CEOs. For Brownlie, one of his key points is that mountain travel can't stop at winter's close.
"When we look at our business, we still continue to see big opportunities in attracting more non-ski visits," Brownlie says. "We actually get a lot more unique visits here to Whistler in the off-season."
EMPHASIZING FOUR SEASONS OF TRAVEL
Branding Whistler as a four-season destination expands on a concept that Whistler Blackcomb has already proven. From its rugged summer mountain bike park, to the dramatic views atop the Peak 2 Peak gondola, to the zipline tours above Fitzsimmons Creek, four seasons of mountain travel will continue to be a significant focus for Whistler Blackcomb's identity. Although Whistler Blackcomb saw a 4.7 per cent drop in skier visits last year compared to 2013, non-skier visits grew by 8.2 per cent in the same time period. While non-skiers constituted less than a quarter of the roughly 2.5 million overall visitors to the resort in 2014, Brownlie says the non-skier demographic is a market with serious growth potential.
"It's actually a lot bigger and broader than the ski and snowboard market and there's a lot of opportunity to attract those folks to the mountain," he says.
Far less niche than Whistler Blackcomb's core base of skiers and snowboarders, the sightseeing audience can weatherproof a resort against a particular dismal ski season. Top resorts have to focus on their backup plans, says Michael Pierson, who serves as Mountain Travel Symposium's general manager, as well as the president of the company that produces the event.
"Where else do you have to rely on weather for the better part of four months to essentially make your year? You better do it well. You better evolve and use every bit of technology and use every bit creatively," Pierson says. "Get people up there the other eight months so you have an overall variable product."
Park City Mountain Resort's alpine rollercoaster in Utah and Jay Peak's indoor waterpark in Vermont are examples of the changing attractions for top ski resorts.
Brownlie says he could see both as applicable to Whistler Blackcomb.
"Those facilities are about kids and families having fun and it's about gravity. In a lot of ways, it does parallel to some extent, kind of that thrill of skiing and snowboarding," Brownlie says.
These types of innovative ideas for the off-season can introduce new customers to mountain destinations.
"From mountain biking to adventure parks to ziplines to mini golf, resorts are offering all sorts of interesting things in summer," says David Lynn, President and CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association.
Karen Goodwin, the vice president of market development for Tourism Whistler, who was involved with the bid for Whistler as the location of the Mountain Travel Symposium, says that the conference's concurrence with the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (April 10-19) is unique.
"Our resort in April is booming," Goodwin says. "When we go to the other resorts, (MTS) is often the only thing happening."
Lynn says the innovation must go beyond the summertime travellers. From tubing parks, snowcat skiing, heli-skiing, backcountry touring and ice-skating rinks, there are increasing opportunities to capitalize off activities outside of traditional alpine skiing in the winter, too.
Pierson points to the participation from major travel companies like Hotels.com and Booking.com in the Mountain Travel Symposium as an indicator that mountain travel needs to appeal to a wider market.
"Ski is a pimple to them versus all their business," Pierson says. "How do you put butts in beds, spin (marketing) toward the mountains and what do you have to do to stay up on other destinations?"
BACKCOUNTRY PUSHES BOUNDARIES
Ancient, skyscraper-tall sequoia and redwoods trees are the biggest draw to California's tranquil Sequoia National Park. At the park's southern end, a breath-taking and remote glacial valley known as Mineral King attracts backpackers to trek its treacherous peaks.
But in the 1960s, Mineral King was in the sights of Walt Disney and his company to develop a major ski resort. After the U.S. Forest Service officially approved Disney's plan for the proposed $35 million complex, including 14 ski lifts, 10 restaurants, two hotels and an ice-skating rink, as well as themed Disneyland-style attractions, the project was stalled in a series of legal battles and opposition from environmental activists. With the annexation of Mineral King into Sequoia National Park in 1978, the ski resort was scrapped for good.
Despite never getting off the ground, Disney's innovative plan may have come to fruition after all. With the growing emphasis on non-ski attractions, like swimming pools, roller coasters and adventure parks, some critics contend that major ski resorts are transforming into Disney-style amusement parks, complete with the long lines and jaw-dropping prices.
"It's an awful lot of people per acre that the high-speed lift pumps onto the slopes," says Jayson Faulkner, 56, a Whistler local and businessman, former councillor and a backcountry skiing advocate.
Not only are backcountry skiers searching for tranquility, but Faulkner says most are chasing fresh powder that is elusive at a resort like Whistler Blackcomb.
"On a nice, sunny powder day, the powder skiing with a high-speed lift is gone in two hours," he says. "If you're not a local who knows exactly where to go... chances are, you're not going to get much of a sniff of it."
It's no wonder that an increasing number of skiers are flocking to the backcountry. Although the statistics are hard to nail down, experts agree that backcountry skiing has been on the rise for the last decade. Faulkner attributes the new interest in the backcountry to the significant improvements in equipment over the last 10 to 12 years, which is better designed to handle skinning up steep inclines, as well as descending downhill. But gear doesn't come cheap.
"It's tough to buy a pair of backcountry ski boots for $200," he says. "You still need to get a transceiver, and you need to get a shovel. You need to get a probe...there's an extra 400 bucks right there."
While cost remains a large factor, Faulkner thinks the biggest barrier is knowledge and awareness. He says some skiers and snowboarders are scared of the backcountry because it appears to be a high-risk activity.
"As someone who's done backcountry skiing all my life, that makes me laugh," Faulkner says. "People say, 'Oh, but isn't that dangerous and isn't it extreme?' It's really just winter hiking."
Whistler Blackcomb, which is bordered by tremendous amounts of backcountry terrain, initially discouraged the backcountry movement outside its territory. But since the land is owned by the government, restricting access to the backcountry proved to be pointless. After a period of pushing back, Whistler Blackcomb has embraced backcountry enthusiasts. By providing skiers lift access to the backcountry, Whistler Blackcomb has been promoting the hunt for deep, untracked snow. Brownlie points to the enjoyment of skiers who hike the Flute Bowl, which was made more accessible following the arrival of the Symphony Express chairlift in 2006.
"That's actually a special experience for those folks that are doing that," Brownlie says.
One of the most popular backcountry spots in North America has been Whistler's own Spearhead Traverse, which links Blackcomb and Whistler mountains through a series of glaciers. Nicknamed the "Haute Route of the Americas," the traverse sees about 4,000 visitors each year. It will eventually host even more backcountry skiers after BC Parks approved a plan for a series of winter huts February 2014. The $1.7 million proposal, launched by the Alpine Club of Canada's Whistler section, will build three modest huts to accommodate about 35 people, available for a nightly rate of about $25.
Designed for backcountry skiers and summer backpackers, the goal for the huts' completion is at the end of 2018. With about $225,000 raised already, Faulkner says the feedback he's received is encouraging.
"There's no question that when those are built they're going to reopen some people's lives as to what's possible," he says.
While the partnership between Whistler Blackcomb and backcountry skiers is positive, if more skiers continue to abandon busy ski resorts in search of a quieter, more authentic experience, resorts may be forced to rethink their approach. However, until profits prove Disney-style attractions are siphoning away significant revenue, the focus is likely stay on Splash Mountain, rather than the actual mountains.
EXPANDING INTERNATIONAL CLIENTELE
The barren dirt patches on the faces of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains this winter were the most tangible reminder of an unpredictable environment for the ski industry. But the faces on the mountain, the faces of a growing number of international destination skiers, might be more telling evidence for the future of Whistler Blackcomb.
"We've certainly been very focused on the destination business, and growing our destination business," Brownlie says.
Forty-one per cent of the resort's skier visits were comprised of tourists outside of British Columbia and Washington state last year. Despite the majority of Whistler Blackcomb's skiers living locally or regionally, the resort depends on its destination skiers to spend more money.
"They come here. They stay longer on their single visit. They generally spend more in our ancillary businesses," Brownlie says.
Brownlie also points to the idea that destination skiers often book farther in advance, and are therefore less likely to be deterred by poor snow conditions.
Tourists who lock in their destination ski vacations "ultimately take some variability out of your business," he says.
The weakened Canadian dollar is another incentive for international travellers who can take advantage of the exchange rate.
"We'll see more tourists," Lynn predicts. "We'll see more destination skiers."
Although the United States remains the largest source of tourist arrivals due to its proximity, China is a distant number two after recently overtaking the United Kingdom in visitors, Lynn says. Overnight custom entries to British Columbia grew by about 26 per cent last year compared to 2013.
The present opportunity with Chinese tourists is primarily the summer business and sightseeing, like gondola-based tourism, Lynn says.
But that's not stopping Whistler Blackcomb from investing its resources into the emerging market, says Brownlie, though acknowledging the number of Mainland-Chinese skiers is small.
"We actually have been going to China now for a couple of years in terms of building our relationships with certain resorts," he says. "Ultimately we think that will pay off in the long run."
Brownlie identifies Japanese ski resorts as having experienced success with marketing to travellers from other East Asian areas.
"They're seeing quite a bit of growth in those markets from China, Taiwan and Korea in particular, and so I think we're the next step away, so that's pretty exciting," he says.
This is the first year that Mountain Travel Symposium will host wholesalers from Japan, China, South Korea and Hong Kong, Pierson says.
"Vancouver is a huge entry point into the U.S. and Canada for a lot of Asian tourists," Pierson says. "The way the market is going to grow is not just in North America."
Tourism Whistler has partnered with Vancouver to expand Chinese visitors who might want to escape to the mountains for a weekend trip from the city, Goodwin says.
"We were working closely with Tourism Vancouver to drive awareness into targeting the ski resorts in China to talk to the people in China," she says.
Danielle Kristmanson, a presenter at the Mountain Travel Symposium and the principal and creative director of Origin Design, which specializes in mountain-travel marketing, says that foreign languages often present the biggest challenge to targeting international consumers. Whistler Blackcomb, one of the Origin Design's clients, has to use its marketing budget wisely.
"It's a real barrier to penetrate a market like China when they just don't have the budget for the small slice that Chinese skiers would represent of the total-skier market," Kristmanson says.
She says even the marketing campaigns in English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and Australia are much more tactical and less about content than about price points and packaging.
"We don't specifically target a U.K. consumer with key specific messaging in marketing campaigns the way we might to someone in California," Kristmanson says. "It's a bigger market."
There are also governmental hurdles to overcome for international travellers.
Brownlie points to restrictions in Canada's visa policy that affect "key destination markets that we would like to grow in."
The airline industry and its taxes and regulations are often a source of contention for ski resorts, too.
"Government policies limit competition within the industry," Lynn says. "Canada's relatively high airfares compared with the U.S. are a factor. Why choose Whistler if flying to Colorado is half the price?"
CURATING EXPERIENCES FOR MILENNIALS
The base of Whistler Blackcomb boasts a bustling village with outdoor apparel retailers, luxury hotels and a smorgasbord of restaurants and bars to meet every taste. But the core of the mountain and the greater North American ski industry is not simply rooted in Arc'teryx snowboard jackets or Salomon skis. It's based in one key demographic — the baby boomers.
No one helped the ski industry grow more during the 1970s and 1980s than the baby boomers, who defined ski culture and made it what it is today, Pierson says.
But the increasingly urgent question for the industry involves the future: Who will be the successors to an age group that is growing over the hill?
"Millennials are the big hope for the industry and its future growth," Pierson says.
The industry needs to recognize the potential of younger audiences before it's too late, he added.
"We're getting how fast baby boomers are leaving the sport," Mountain Travel Symposium spokeswoman Joan Christensen says. "Somehow we got old."
A large focus for the Mountain Travel Symposium involves attracting millennials to the sport through social media channels like Instagram or Facebook and savvy content marketing.
One of the latest winter campaigns Origin Design launched for Whistler Blackcomb featured local skiers and snowboarders shooting their own footage on the mountain using GoPro cameras. The "Any Day Lines" video series was created to showcase mountain runs in a variety of different snow conditions. Created to appeal to skiers who define themselves as "passionate," Kristmanson says the campaign was also intended to pique the interest of millennials and younger skiers.
"Millennials really understand what Whistler Blackcomb is all about, but there's definitely a bit of a blowback...to brands that present themselves as too perfect. There's a bullshit detector that goes off." Kristmanson says. "They're skeptical of anything really overly produced or anything that looks or appears too slick."
The videos were also made to appeal to the budget consumer, who wants assurance that regardless of the weather, it's possible to have fun on the mountain on any given day, she says.
Millennials are a target audience for many leisure activities, so the information they're presented has to be effective. Pierson says the comments from one of the younger conference participants stood out to him.
"She said, 'You people need to understand that as millennials we have a desire to travel, we have the time to travel and the money to travel, but you have to talk to us in the way we talk, in the language we use, and at the time we're thinking about our purchasing. You have to make it about us.' It's spot on," Pierson says.
Christensen says destination ski travel for millennials has evolved from a ski vacation to a total winter experience.
"Before, it was about bad chili and OK burgers," she says. "If there aren't tubing hills, or a broad selection of restaurants, forget it."
Mountain tourism's appeal to younger audience comes with some growing pains of its own. Lynn highlights demographic and lifestyle shifts that are evolving the ski culture.
"There are a shrinking number of young people in Canada," he says. "Immigrants are often from warmer climates where skiing is not part of the culture."
Today's children are not as involved with physical or outdoor activities, which might make the leap to skiing or snowboarding more unlikely or unnatural.
"People are pursuing more sedentary activities, like playing on a smartphone, email, texting, or playing video games," Lynn says.
One of the simplest ways to combat this disinterest would be to promote families to bring their children on a ski vacation to a destination like Whistler Blackcomb, so they become immersed with mountain sports at an early age.
"We'd like to see more families here," Brownlie says. "Although we get a lot of families and a lot of kids, if you look at the family market as a percentage of the overall market here, I think that's an area where there is some growth opportunity for us."
Engagement with millennials and younger audiences will be a pillar for the success of the ski industry moving forward. Without an expanding and growing customer base, mountain travel won't have a chance at survival.
EVOLVE OR DIE
The atmosphere of North American mountain tourism today looks vastly different than it did 40 years ago. It's evolved from locally-driven, mom-and-pop ski areas to a beast of ski industry conglomerates like Vail Resorts and Intrawest, along with large publicly-traded corporations like Whistler Blackcomb.
As the smaller ski resorts struggle to stay afloat due to increasing unreliable snowfall, bigger corporations are proving to be more resilient in their efforts to weatherproof their destinations. It's a test of corporate natural selection.
For example, Lynn expects that the mild weather will cause a drop in total skier visits by about 10 to 15 per cent across the 298 ski areas represented by Canada West Ski Areas Association this year.
"It's a very financially challenging business," Lynn says. "Even last year, about half the operators reported losses at the net income level."
Attracting new customers and taking advantage of growing international markets seem to be the surest ways to gain a foothold in an industry that's been listed as "endangered" for at least a decade.
Like the snowshoe hare that must molt its white winter coat in favour of better-camouflaged, rusty-brown fur for the approaching summer months, how fast the ski industry can adapt is essential to its survival. Like the hare, and its susceptibility to predation, the ski industry cannot afford to be patient.
Only the fittest, biggest and most innovative ski resorts will survive.