Opinion » Alta States

Top of the food chain

Sustaining snowsport culture in the 21st century



It's that time again. With the summer business season slowly winding down - see that bit of new snow on Mt Currie last week? - Whistler enterprises are already beginning to gird their loins (so to speak) for the coming winter. And what a winter that could be...

Like the polar bear and the Bengal tiger, Whistler is considered by many to be the apex predator of its domain. Don't smile. While I was lauding Aspen Ski Corp the other week for the client-centred manner in which it was dealing with the recession, my counterpart at the Aspen Times was going gaga over this place.

"Whistler Blackcomb is Aspen's competition, not only as a draw to skiers, but as exemplar of a resort that celebrates mountains and community, and focuses the resulting synergy on the local economy." gushed columnist Paul Andersen after a recent visit here. "All this makes it hard to resist wanting to ski Whistler Blackcomb, even if you do live in Aspen."

Funny, isn't it? The snow always seems to be deeper on the other hill...

But seriously - being an apex predator also has its downside. Just ask the bear and the tiger. I mean, it's great to be at the top of the food chain when your natural environment is rich in resources. But when times get tight, you're still stuck with the biggest belly to fill. And no amount of algae will ever replace seal as a food source.

Know what I mean? Summer business at Whistler is doing okay and all. But let's talk yield for a moment. Does anybody in this valley really make money during the summer months? I, for one, just can't see it. Sure, there's a lot of big talk and bold objectives, but the countless ads for $99 rooms says it all...

Like it or not, Whistler is still primarily a winter resort town. And I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. But even our winter success is less assured than it once was. Think about it. Whether or not Whistler's bloated infrastructure is ultimately sustainable is entirely dependent on how many aspirational skiers and snowboarders exist on this continent.

It's all about selling the dream. Someone living in the prairies, for example, has to be seriously motivated to travel halfway across the country to come for a snowsport holiday in coastal B.C. Indeed, snowsports have to play a very big part of folks' lives before they'll plunk down their hard-earned stack of semolians for a Whistler holiday. But wait. It gets even more tenuous: if there's no local hill for neophytes to hone their skills on, what are the chances that snowsports will even enter into the holiday decision making process? I'd say slim to none...

And therein lies the scary part. I think it was Edgar Allen Poe who wrote that ol' cautionary tale about a group of elites who shut themselves up in a chateau and party their brains out while the plague rages outside - only to discover in the final frame that there is no place to hide. Well, given the dire straits of North America's "breeder/feeder resorts" (you know, those mom & pop ski hills we all grew up on), it really begs the question: are Whistlerites ignoring the operational plague that is now decimating the ski resort business? And will it be too late when we all wake up and realize we too are covered in boils?

But enough metaphors already. What are we doing to grow the snowsport business?

Casting my eyes across the mountain resort landscape, I find it intriguing that Aspen's primary marketing message this winter is all about the "adventure" of skiing. Harkening back to the roots of the sport, their advertising for 2009-10 focuses on some of skiing's more soulful aspects - hiking for one's turns, stepping off the beaten path, getting in touch with the real mountains. From what I gather, their message isn't about "high performance" or "young is cool" or "look how many lifts we have" but rather about the transformational elements of the high-mountain environment.

What I find fascinating in this campaign is that the company's marketers are not selling Aspen directly. Rather, they're selling the joys of sliding on snow in wintertime. They're selling romance and dreams and getting away from the same-ol', same ol'. In other words, they're so confident in their place in the food chain that they can do yeomen's duty for the whole industry and promote the sport in general.

Yeah, I know. Poorly done, this could lead to some seriously cliché'd images. But I still believe Aspen is on to something here. As in: "It's not about the stuff, stupid. It's about the experience."

Closer to home, we have people like Brent Harley who actually work on the entrepreneurial front lines of the ski business. While Harley's mountain design firm, BHA, creates master plans for ski resorts throughout the world, he makes a point of dedicating time to work with emerging resorts trying to make a go of it in this difficult market. Pro bono work is a given there. "It's pretty straightforward," says Harley. "If the country's feeder/breeder resorts can't survive then we're all done for. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But the end is going to come no matter how much we want to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the obvious.

"The destination ski resorts need to take on a more active role in the sustained prosperity of the feeder areas. Things like sharing what they know about facility design, markets and service, hosting staff exchange programs, providing used equipment and sponsoring small area conferences and training programs. It's like the NHL... where would they be without the junior farm teams."

Although Harley's admonition offers a less than sanguine take on the current health of the ski business, he still considers himself an optimist.

"Actually, I just got a huge lift from a trip back east last week," he tells me with a smile. Turns out a group of investors from Russell, Manitoba recently hired BHA to help them design a new master plan for their local ski hill. "It's a riverbank resort," he explains of the almost-onomatopoeic Asessippi Ski Area. "And by Whistler standards, it's tiny. But what really struck me there was the quality of the people. These are salt-of-the-earth types. And their passion and enthusiasm for skiing is truly impressive. I couldn't help it. I was drawn in to their dream immediately."

And why not? Located on the eastern edge of the prairies, on the banks of the mighty Shell River (with the closest big town, Regina, a hefty three-hour drive away) little Asessipi still manages to register 90,000 visits each winter. Doesn't sound like much next to Whistler's two million skier visits, does it? But let's compare apples to apples, shall we? When you consider that B.C.'s new-hotshot-on-the-block, Revelstoke, barely managed Asessippi's numbers last season, it kind of puts things in better relief.

"They've got a great thing going," points out Harley. "The school program at Asessippi is huge! And their race program is really healthy." And while he's quick to acknowledge that the hill can't provide the kind of adrenalin-fueled fun on its 25 runs and 150 vertical meters that B.C. skiers and riders experience every day, Harley also wants me to know just how well the resort is run.

"Here's a group of businessmen who've done their homework and know exactly what their ski hill is about," adds Harley. "They also know how important their resort is to the local culture. You see, 90 per cent of their market will never ski anywhere else. That's why the owners are ready to go the extra mile to satisfy their clients' needs."

From indoor ticket booths (they say it gets mighty cold there in winter) to round-the-clock snowmaking (they don't get a lot of natural snow there) to a hopping après-ski bar scene that reminds some of the Laurentians' glory days - the folks who own and manage Asessippi have made the most of their site's modest attributes.

Which is exactly what Harley is keen to point out. "I came back from Manitoba totally inspired," he says. "You know, it's places like this where people actually learn to ski, where people first develop their passion for sliding on snow in wintertime. This is where the hunger for new mountain experiences is born. This is where people say: 'Hey. I've been skiing here now for five years. Maybe it's time for a trip to Whistler...'"

Harley suddenly stops talking. Sighs. "And yet, so many people in our business fail to see just how crucial these feeder resorts are to the overall health of the industry." He cites a recent interaction as a case in point. "I was telling a colleague from Revelstoke the other day about my upcoming trip to Manitoba and he responded with 'must be the highpoint of your career.'" He smiles sadly. "That got me thinking. Why the snobby attitude? Why the easy dismissal? It doesn't make sense. After all, we're all in this together."

We certainly are. So the next time you're about to drop into your favourite powder hole spare a thought for those prairie skiers and riders at Asessippi. And don't hesitate to give thanks. After all, without them your life at Whistler would be just another fantasy...