Did the earth just move in Whistler? It feels like it did.
For years we have been writing about how the resort, and indeed Whistler Blackcomb (WB), does not want to be Vail, how Vail gets things wrong, and how we can improve on our nature-based product and our community by not doing what Vail does.
And now Vail Resorts hopes to close a deal to buy Whistler Blackcomb Holdings by this fall.
And what every resident is now asking themselves is "What does this mean for our home and our future?"
First of all, let's be clear that Whistler Blackcomb Holdings is not Whistler and Vail Resorts is not Vail. The former in each case is a huge corporation that answers to its shareholders. The latter are communities made up of people who think and vote for what they think is best for each other.
It's too early to have definitive answers as to how this change will impact Whistler, the community. We know that visitors here will likely greet the news with either a shrug or maybe a thumbs up as they consider that Vail Resorts is the largest ski resort operator in the world, and generally speaking, its products are high quality if, in many instances, expensive.
Many locals and travellers alike will no doubt be gleeful about the news that the 2017-18 season pass will see a huge decrease in price as Vail Resorts introduces is multi-resort Epic Pass here. Not-so-good news might be the high food and beverage and other service costs that WB's new U.S.-based owner is well known for.
And one can't help but wonder what impact this much cheaper pass might have on the number of on-mountain volunteers who help out in return for a pass and even its impact on the Spirit Pass program and the Whistler Experience program.
I believe the success of the Experience program can be directly linked to our strong performance in customer service.
We also can't escape from the fact that even though we feel crazy busy, our overall occupancy rate hovers just above 60 per cent, so there is room to welcome all the new skiers and summer adventure seekers that Vail Resorts might entice here.
That's good news for the future of Whistler and the many local businesses that make this town their home.
But considering the real challenges we have had with getting employees here, finding them a place to live, keeping them here on a living wage, traffic woes, and even just the perception that we are out-of-control busy, some hard questions need to be asked about our future.
Council and other stakeholders, including WB, the accommodation sector and our Chamber of Commerce are already grappling with what solutions might look like. Will Vail Resorts step up and be part of the solution?
For Vail, the company's solution for employee housing woes was to ask workers to double bunk in rooms (a position they had to retreat from last December), and to house workers out of town. It has recently committed US$30 million to workforce housing across three states. Could we see the same commitment here?
Before we get our hackles up too much about this impending buyout of WB Holdings let's remember that Whistler is a town that dictated its own terms for success for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the end, Vail Resorts is a partner at the table with the community — a community that has matured and chosen a path of controlled growth governed by regulations and bylaws that everyone has to abide by — even Vail Resorts.
It's no surprise that Whistler Blackcomb shareholders embraced the offer, which sees their shares now valued at $36. Denver-based KSL Capital Partners, which holds 24 per cent of WB Holdings' shares, was always going to be on board, surely, given that its top brass has a long association with Vail Resorts. Both chairman Michael Shannon and CEO Eric Resnick worked for the company that became Vail Resorts. Both men serve on various boards in Vail as well. (KSL bought WB Holdings stock for US$12.75 a share in 2012.)
Let's hope for the sake of our community that Vail Resorts sees the success of its company and the success of Whistler as inextricably linked — understanding that it's the people who ultimately drive the long-term gains.
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