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What does Vail's takeover mean for the future of the Spirit Pass?

Chamber recognizes risk of cheap passes pushing workers out of training program



Many questions are still to be answered following last week's announcement of Vail Resorts' $1.4-billion friendly takeover of Whistler Blackcomb (WB). Chief among those is how pass pricing could be impacted by the deal. Vail Resorts has already said it would slash the price of a season pass — which sells for $1,649 — and fold it into its 13-resort Epic Pass for the 2017-18 season. The Epic Pass, which grants unlimited skiing, currently retails for US$809.

While many have surmised that the U.S. company is likely to bump the price of its lift tickets, as it did last year at several of its resorts — a single-day adult holiday ticket at Vail, for example, runs for US$160 — CEO Rob Katz said costs in Whistler would follow WB's current pricing trajectory. A one-day pass at Whistler Blackcomb this January cost CAD$129.

Of course, there are numerous ways to cut back on costs in Whistler, and the Spirit Pass is one way to save a few bucks. The unlimited season's Spirit Pass sells for $1,439 and offers several additional benefits to employers and staff who attend a Whistler Experience training session.

But with a regular season's pass price expected to come down significantly, will the Spirit Pass still hold the same value to resort workers? Pique posed the question on social media.

"Unless the Spirit program is revised to provide a worthwhile discount to local employees, there is little incentive to go in the Spirit program if you are able to take advantage of the early-bird pass," wrote Kevin Welsh on Facebook. A Whistler Blackcomb early-bird pass retails for the same price as a Spirit Pass, but offers different perks, such as discounts on WB gift cards, and also doesn't require the user to attend training sessions.

"Why would you stay tied to an employer when you could skip work on a pow day unless you were offered a heavily discounted pass to warrant staying there?" wrote Paul Leo Clark.

Val Litwin, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, which facilitates the customer service training sessions in partnership with the Gustavson School of Business, acknowledged the risk of resort employees foregoing the Spirit Pass, but feels the value of the program is enough to entice the workforce.

"I think what I've heard from across the community and when I look at enrolment numbers, and I look at how people are now attending the Gustavson workshops irrespective of whether they get a pass or not, that to me is an indication that we're moving in the right direction," he said.

There were roughly 4,100 Spirit Pass users this past winter, Litwin said. Approximately 1,400 non-pass holders also attended training sessions.

"We've still got healthy numbers on the Spirit Pass side, but we're seeing a huge jump in participation in the program, so learning and education are an end in themselves," he added. "The training is the carrot."

Considering the anticipated growth in visitation brought on by Vail's takeover, compounded with Whistler's current staffing struggles, the Whistler Experience program is as important as ever, according to local Shari Burnett.

"The Spirit Pass has a real goal of trying to educate newbies and create positive ambassadors to improve the visitor experience," she wrote. "That certainly is needed now more than ever."

Any change in price to the Spirit Pass is ultimately up to Whistler Blackcomb, which declined to comment until the transaction receives final approval from Investment Canada, which is expected in the fall.