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Building back better

Whistler enters a new, COVID-fuelled era of engagement

Ask any of the old guard, founders-club Whistler locals, and they’ll likely tell you that Whistlerites have always been an engaged bunch.

Even way back in the mid-‘70s, when the resort’s original leaders were still trying to settle on a location for Whistler Village and the town’s population still numbered in the hundreds.

“In those days, we’d certainly have regular public meetings and information meetings so people had a chance to kind of understand what was happening and get some input into it,” recalled Al Raine, one of Whistler’s original council members, in a 2018 interview with Pique about the resort’s early days.

“Those meetings, as I recall, we had one in the gondola base there, and the room was almost full. There was well over 100 people there. People were really interested, because the strategic direction for Whistler was on the table.”

Many things about Whistler have changed over the years, but that passionate, engaged community has remained a constant—even as the COVID-19 pandemic forces community members to stay apart.

Over the course of four virtual town halls in July, Whistlerites gathered online to share their experiences of the pandemic, and discuss the path forward.

“We tend to distill history into a single moment with a couple names, rather than all of the moments that made that one possible,” said Mayor Jack Crompton at the first session on July 14, after recounting some of the key moments in Whistler’s short but colourful history.

The mayor then shared a favourite quote from author and historian Howard Zinn:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change,” he read.

“History is instructive, and what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things—if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to the local newspaper—anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of story, and when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.”

The townhall sessions are a part of that story, Crompton said.

“They are the stuff of our future. It’s hard to compare today with town bankruptcies or major recessions or of course 9-11, but it’s safe to say that Whistler has always worked together to come back.

“It’s my firm belief that this is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Government will not fix this for us. It will take individuals, families, businesses, community groups and governments to deliver a shared response that is up to the challenge.”

Coming to our senses

Hearing the individual experiences of Whistlerites as it relates to the pandemic is an important, contemplative exercise for the RMOW ahead of actually taking action, said chief administrative officer Virginia Cullen.

“As humans, we tend to assume that our individual experience is ours alone, and when we talk with each other we can be surprised that there’s a collective experience,” she said.

“And when we see this, and we see that there are patterns in experience, it reminds us that we’re part of a larger system … If we find solutions that are associated with patterns, then we will find things that will benefit larger amounts of people.”

The ideas for how Whistler recovers from the pandemic are hidden in all of our heads already, Cullen added.

“We just need to create space and opportunity to surface them, and that’s why we’re having these conversations.”

Throughout the sessions, participants were invited to share their own COVID-19 experience as it related to the day’s theme: Sense of Place, Environment, the Tourism-based Economy and Community.

For Crompton, the weight of the pandemic hit home during a walk with his family on Friday, March 20—a crisp, late-winter evening that, situated in the middle of Spring Break, would typically be one of the resort’s busiest.

While the lights shone brightly on the stroll during that walk through the village to Marketplace at 9 p.m., there was no sound.

“My little family of six didn’t see a single other person as we walked through the village to Marketplace and back. It was like this incredibly crisp, wonderfully lit village experience was set up just for me and the five people in my family,” Crompton recalled.

“It was an experience I won’t soon forget, but what struck me was my feeling that it wasn’t Whistler. My COVID experience has been a very clear realization that Whistler is about people for me. I love Whistler the place, but without people, it’s not that thing that I love and I know so well.”

For Cullen, who officially started with the municipality on April 20, a full month into the pandemic, the experience was one likely relatable to many: anxiety over proper safety precautions, and a sense of loss for time with extended family.

“But I will say that in that emptiness, I’ve been able to find and notice vitality in other places in the community,” Cullen said.

Vitality in the driveway, where we connect with neighbours on a deeper level; in the forests, which somehow look greener than before; and in the kitchen where food is prepared with loved ones.

“So even though there’s been loss in some places, we’ve gained vitality in others,” she said.

“And maybe as it all comes back together again we will be more vibrant on a whole.”

Familiar patterns

If one of the goals of the sessions was to identify patterns, there were some clear consistencies arising from the first two meetings.

More than one attendee spoke of how grateful they were to be in Whistler when the pandemic began, surrounded by nature and supported by community.

Like Cullen, many found deeper connections with neighbours.

For Leslie and Shep Alexander, the slowdown of society has prompted them to think more about the things that have sat on the backburner for some time: shopping locally more often, FireSmarting their property, and even planting vegetables for the first time since moving to Whistler.

“Rather than getting together with a big group or going for a potluck or something, where you have all these little snippets of conversation, we actually sit with two other people on the patio, appropriately distanced,” Shep said.

“And you have longer, I think, better conversations, in a way, during this time.”

What’s great about that slowdown, and those deepening connections, is that it’s happening everywhere, said Mary Ann Collishaw.

“It’s not just us slowing down and appreciating where we live. It’s everybody,” she said.

“I’m really hopeful that it changes Whistler, but [also] that it changes the world. We kind of were getting on this crazy treadmill, or hamster wheel, where we have quick interactions.

“This slowed us down, we’re talking with fewer people for longer. It’s nice.”

While some patterns have already become apparent to Cullen, she’s holding out for the full dataset before making any assumptions.

“We’ve been collecting the info as we’re having the conversations. I haven’t had a chance to review all of that yet, so I’ll refrain on noting patterns, but there have been key insights that have come forward,” she said.

“One of them (on July 20) was around ecotourism, and what does that really mean, and how do we provide guidance and mentor people who are visiting Whistler on how to be a good tourist?”

While virtual town halls are a new frontier for Whistler community engagement, the process has been enjoyable, Cullen said.

“I think they provide an important point of connection for a diverse group of community members to come together, and they’re sharing experiences and reflections on where we find ourselves given our COVID-19 situation, so I’ve really enjoyed hearing insights from people as well as the concerns, and I’m grateful for their participation and willingness to engage,” she said.

“I also hope that this is the beginning of a new way of gathering information and input from the community so that we can make decisions that are well informed and aligned on what is needed going forward as a community.”

-Braden Dupuis


Striking a delicate balance between economy and community

The discussions Whistlerites have been having during these past few strange, trying months are ones that we’ve been having in some form for years: around managing visitation, protecting our natural environment, and making the community a more affordable, inclusive place for the young, seasonal workers that make this town run. But something feels different about the tenor of the current conversation.

Maybe it’s the opportunity to slow down, pause, and reflect the pandemic has afforded us, a rare luxury for so many locals caught up in the frenetic, breakneck speed of North America’s busiest ski resort. Or maybe it’s how times of extreme disruption tend to distill what’s truly important to us in a way that the good times never seem capable of. I’m positive the conversation has also been informed and deepened by the relentless calls for social and political justice that started south of the 49th Parallel and has pushed societies the world over—Canada included—to come to terms with their own histories of racial and economic injustice, and ultimately, strive for something more. Something better.

In a town that has it as good as we do here in Whistler, relatively speaking, you’re starting to see everyone from resort officials to local high-schoolers—Whistler’s recent Black Lives Matter rally organized by a group of four Sea to Sky teens is a prime example—begin to reckon, in truly profound ways, with their own positions of privilege.

“I’ve seen the best and the worst of Whistler,” said Chris Wrightson, co-executive director of Zero Ceiling, a non-profit dedicated to ending youth homelessness. “I’ve seen time and again the power of the community and the mountains to really transform people’s lives. I’ve seen amazing support for the young adults in our program, incredible generosity from the local foundations and all our businesses, who always say yes to the non-profits when they ask for help, and immense support for the other non-profits to fill the gaps in our community. I’ve also seen racism, sexual assault, physical assault, discrimination and stigma, poverty, financial distress, deep-rooted systemic issues and damaging colonial practices that continue today.”

Invited to host the fourth and final COVID Zoom talk, focused on Community, Wrightson asked the question that seems to be on an increasing number of minds lately: “How do we value every single member of our community?”

Touched by the swift and compassionate response locals had at the onset of the pandemic, offering help in whatever way they could to organizations like the Whistler Community Services Society that were inundated with demand for its services, Wrightson urged the community to build on that level of collaboration “so it doesn’t just happen as a crisis response but is the framework underpinning our community.”

“We know from working around the world that it’s the societies that have a high level of integration between the government, the private sector and non-profits that have the strongest woven social fabric throughout the community,” she added.

Of course, Whistler’s social fabric is weaved a little differently than most towns. In a place where the visitors outnumber the locals 250 to 1, there’s no getting around the fact that our resort doesn’t exist without the massive economic engine driving it. But with global travel patterns likely to look much different coming out of the pandemic, there’s no reason we can’t be more mindful about how and who we attract to our scenic little ski town.

“How will we manage volume in terms of the impact it has on who gets access to us? If volume has to be managed, and maybe visitation somehow altered—I don’t want to say ‘diminished,’ but altered—the big question for me is: do we want to make sure that Whistler doesn’t become a place that can only be accessed by the one per cent?” asked Origin Design’s Danielle Kristmanson, creative and marketing strategist for several big-name outdoor sport and tourism brands, such as Whistler Blackcomb, MEC and lululemon. “That is potentially a risk when we have to manage volumes in a particular way. Do we want to protect a degree of accessibility that we have when max capacity is possible to a broader range of people?”

It’s a dilemma that Whistler, and by extension our resort stakeholders, will have to face sooner rather than later, with the resort’s modern cash cow, the well-heeled, long-haul destination skier, more than likely staying closer to home this winter.

Our regional and domestic guests have long been key markets for Whistler, and will be an even bigger piece of the puzzle this winter, but are there opportunities to reach a different kind of guest?

“It’s a different market,” said Councillor Duane Jackson during the July 20 Zoom talk, hosted by Kristmanson, on the tourism economy. “Danielle, if you’re right about micro-tripping and all that, we have to get to know a new customer.”

Kristmanson gathered several key trends Origin has gleaned from their mountain resort clients, which includes Park City, Utah, Jay Peak, Vt. and Taos, N.M., during the pandemic.

Some of the insights you might expect: short-haul travel, or “micro-tripping,” is set to surpass destination tourism; large events and group business travel—a much-needed boost to the resort’s shoulder seasons—will become virtually non-existent, while so-called “digital nomads”—a growing subset of remote workers—may increasingly look to wild places like Whistler to set down roots.  

But there are other, less obvious trends borne out of COVID that Whistler could also capitalize on. Due in part to the stigma attached to air travel, both because of its outsized environmental impact and the inherent COVID-19 risk, the global travel population “may be becoming more thoughtful citizens of the world,” Kristmanson mused.

“Gone are the days when we didn’t understand the impact of our travels. Gone are the days where we couldn’t connect the dots between climate change and wildlife and nature management and pandemics and the impacts on tourism,” she said. “What we see is a bunch of people who don’t want to stop travelling but are becoming more cognizant of the impacts of their travels. I think it could potentially create a new class of leisure travel that is going to be more thoughtful in the ways it engages with destinations like ours.”

It was a trend Origin already picked up on as part of the rebranding work it did with Tourism Whistler in the fall, but the realities of the coronavirus and the tectonic shift to the way we as a society consider travel has thrust that discussion into the forefront.

“The big question is: Can we be the destination for enlightened global citizens? That’s something that’s really inspiring to think about,” Kristmanson said.

At the end of each Community Conversation, the facilitators have been asking participants to discuss an “a-ha moment” they took away from the discussion. Joining the call all the way from Sydney, Australia, Russell Meares and his wife, Win (parents to Zero Ceiling’s Wrightson) helped me arrive at my own a-ha moment: Whistler is uniquely positioned not only to reimagine what it can be in a post-pandemic world, but to actually put those ideas into action in a timely and impactful way.

“There are endless opportunities to move forward as a community. You’re small enough to talk to each other and know each other, but big enough to make a change,” he said. “Our community of Sydney is so big that we just drift along with the other 7 million people, pretty much. But in Whistler, you have a chance, a real chance to make change.”

View the public feedback as well as recordings of the Community Conversations at n

-Brandon Barrett