After three years in Whistler, Val Litwin is settling into his new role as head of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Prior to taking on the job, the author and entrepreneur helped usher the Whistler Chamber of Commerce through a period of tremendous growth, driving membership, growing the Whistler Experience program and inking an educational partnership with the Gustavson School of Business.
Now the leader of B.C.’s largest business organization, Litwin spoke with Pique last week about the direction the resort is headed, attracting and retaining frontline workers, and the role businesses should take in the ongoing conversation around Whistler’s housing shortage.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pique: How will you look back on your time at the chamber?
Val Litwin: I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve really evolved the conversation around how we develop people in town. When I look at the (municipal Economic Partnership Initiative) document now, and looking at developing, nurturing the next generation of leaders, there’s this resort-wide commitment at a whole new level to deep customer service training and, really, post-secondary education (through the Whistler Experience program). I’m just so excited for the future of Whistler.
Pique: What do you think were some of your biggest accomplishments during that time?
VL: I think our partnership with the Gustavson School of Business has been a game changer. I think we have become a much more data-driven organization when I think about the most recent employee survey we did. To get more than 1,300 responses means we’re getting insights that can guide the right kind of strategy and tactics moving forward.
Pique: What role should employers play in resolving the housing shortage?
VL: You can’t possibly have that conversation or come to a solution without the business community. I love this (100-bed employee housing development) that’s coming online down in Cheakamus with the opportunity for businesses to lease new units through the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA).
We’re going to need to make sure the business community is there ready to step up and lease these units to make sure the model is viable.
Pique: I think there’s this sentiment that exists in some segments of the community that the business sector isn’t doing enough to ease the strain of the housing crunch. What’s your response to that?
VL: The first thing I would ask is: what coffee shop in Vancouver has to contemplate housing for their staff? It’s a unique situation in Whistler and to make a blanket statement that businesses aren’t doing enough doesn’t really capture the complexity of the issue, nor does it capture the phenomenal efforts the business community is already making to help solve this issue.
There are a lot of businesses in this community that have pushed wages up to the edge of what their business model can support. They’ve looked deeply at their benefits, everything from lifestyle to health, and they’re becoming much more innovative about the recruitment and retention strategies. I think Whistler businesses are a notch above in that regard.
Pique: It’s clear that frontline workers from Canada and around the world aren’t as motivated to come to Whistler as they used to be. Do you feel like businesses are doing enough to entice staff here?
VL: This is a classic problem that doesn’t have a silver bullet. But if we’re not looking at all the five-per-cent opportunities for improvement, we will fail, we will face-plant. That means we need to be marketing nationally, which we’re already doing through the Whistler Spirit program. We need WHA to bring online this rental housing product as fast as they can. That’s going to solve five per cent of the solution. We need businesses, where they can, to think about the most competitive wage they can possibly offer without hurting their business model. That is, in my opinion, what it will take. Short of going down to the Lower Mainland and literally lassoing them onto a truck, there’s nothing else we can do. I feel like Whistler has tweaked every single lever that’s available, from recruiting fairs, to world-class partnerships, to the benefits that come with the Spirit Pass. What other community does that?
Pique: Are you confident the business sector is equipped to handle the pace of growth Whistler is currently experiencing?
VL: I think it’s going to be hard for a lot of businesses to manage this growth and it’s all about those key inputs to run a successful business, starting with labour supply. I think it’s going to be hard, but of all the communities I’ve seen here in B.C., we’re the most well poised to meet that growth and capitalize on it.
I would just reiterate there’s a basket of issues around the growth that will be chokepoints if we don’t stay disciplined and on top of them, and that’s everything from housing to recruitment.
Pique: You took over the BC Chamber of Commerce last week. What role do you see Whistler playing at the provincial table when it comes to business?
VL: I hope my successor picks up the mantle of strong, consistent advocacy on the labour file. I think Whistler was really the tip of the spear in B.C. and I know there are a lot of communities and jurisdictions across Canada that look to the work the Whistler Chamber did to elevate this issue to the federal level. I hope Whistler will continue to lead on that file because I think we’re the perfect poster child for it.
Given that perhaps some of our economic dreams of the future provincially are not materializing perhaps the way we thought they would, the visitor economy is looking more and more like a great opportunity… for growth. I think Whistler can teach the province a lot about how to maximize that visitor economy.
Check out Pique's interview with new Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Danny Tuff in this Thursday's issue.