Getting the go-ahead for an $18 million capital lift expansion is a sure sign Whistler Blackcomb is feeling optimistic about the future and its potential to grow the business, according to industry watchers.
The optimism that began in the boardroom of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. (WB) as the seven-member board gave the thumbs-up for two lift expansions in the ski area is now rippling throughout the community and beyond.
The board's decision to replace the Harmony Express chair with a new six-seater chair, and replace the Crystal Chair with the Harmony Express, is sending a message: WB has its sights on becoming the best mountain resort in the world, and this is a significant step in getting there.
Standing on the deck on the Crystal Hut, an area that will be revolutionized in this year's project, company president and CEO Dave Brownlie shared Whistler Blackcomb Holdings' message in no uncertain terms.
"After two years (as a publically traded company) we're on track with where we want to go in terms of, quite frankly, building the best mountain resort in the world, and this is kind of that first stage of a significant capital investment that I think will start to take us in that direction," said Brownlie. "So (it's) very exciting for us."
Hotelier Jim Douglas, general manager of the Pan Pacific hotels and head of the local hotel association, called it "wonderfully powerful news for our community."
"It's really positive," he said. "(We're) thrilled with the changes at Whistler Blackcomb, and the fact that they continue to make those investments is testament to their expectations of the future.
"They wouldn't be spending money if they didn't think they were going to get it back."
Further afield, on the other side of the continent, Rick Kahl, editor of Connecticut-based Ski Area Management magazine agreed the move is a statement by the board of WB that they're confident they will get a good return on their investment.
"It shows confidence in Whistler Blackcomb in particular and in the Canadian market generally," said Kahl.
That confidence was tangible on the sun-drenched deck of the Crystal Hut this weekend.
There Brownlie, surrounded by key members of his management team including Doug Forseth — who signed the contract with Doppelmayr for the new lift on Friday — talked about the details of the project.
Putting in the new "six pack" at Harmony — Whistler Blackcomb's first six-seater chair — will improve the guest experience in that area and help access the Symphony Amphitheatre area.
"The Harmony area, it is some of the best terrain in North America," said Brownlie. "We all know that but we also know that there's always a huge line-up there... So putting the six pack in there is going to be a big improvement in terms of the guest experience."
The old Harmony quad chairlift will then be moved over to the Crystal zone on Blackcomb Mountain, an area Brownlie called "near and dear to our hearts" with runs like Rock'n'Roll, Ridge Runner and the gladed tree skiing in the area.
It's so near and dear to the hearts of locals that there was even some light-hearted booing at this weekend's Deep Winter Challenge event when the expansion was announced. The change will open up the area to more people, which means more people accessing favourite untamed spots.
The bottom terminal of the chair will be moved 158 metres lower than the old Crystal Chair and below the Glacier Road in the area of Rock'n'Roll. Rather than taking the long ski-out back to the Excelerator Chair when skiing the Blackcomb Glacier and the Crystal zone, skiers and riders will be able to lap the area using the new chair.
The chair will increase the skier carrying capacity by 65 per cent to 2,400 skiers per hour. The six-pack at Harmony will increase uphill capacity by 50 per cent from 2,400 skiers per hour to 3,600.
All pointing to the fact that Whistler Blackcomb is preparing to handle more skiers.
Last year the company welcomed more than 2.6 million visits in the winter and the summer (2.1 million and 500,000 respectively).
"We'd like to get this place to over three million visits in winter and summer," said Brownlie.
"There's no question investments like these bring more people here."
The president and CEO of Canada West Ski Areas Association, David Lynn, said it was great to see WB, as a leader in the industry, making changes to improve the business.
"It shows that the industry is continuing to invest in itself to improve the product and to continue to grow skier visits," said Lynn, who was in Whistler for a board of directors meeting this week.
"Obviously the magnitude of what Whistler is doing is very significant at $18 million... We've certainly seen other capital investments in the industry and I think that's really positive in terms of continuing to improve the quality of the product that we offer skiers."
In the grand scheme of capital on-mountain investments, this project is perhaps second only to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, said Brownlie.
"This is really about providing the best guest experience that we can on these tremendous mountains that we have," he said. "And I think this will do a lot to just enhance that guest experience every day of the year and it will bring more people here and more people will have a great time. And then that will allow us to continue to grow our business and then do many more things, if you've looked at our master plans. We've got lots of ideas and lots of things that we want to continue to do over the next many years."
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