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Feature - Old growth

Tapping into our elders’ wisdom to keep the ski industry and Whistler community alive

So, the numbers were disappointing. All winter long, Whistler-Blackcomb execs, Tourism Whistler staff and local business owners were huddling over spreadsheets and balances, worrying about the sag in skier visits. What’s fast becoming the usual suspects was blamed: the loonie’s brave stand against the greenback, a war in Iraq, a nesting instinct that surfaces whenever terrorists are about. Band-aid solutions were thought up: discount vouchers, free ski weeks, targeted marketing drives, bargain room rates. No one really dared to dig around in the wound, to ask the harder questions. Like, maybe it’s Whistler. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.

The facts are hard to come by, but according to the Canadian Ski Council, the facts are these: the Canadian skier is becoming rarer, older and richer. Foreign skiers are keeping the industry alive. Prices are increasing. The overall number of skiers is not. We’re fighting a custody battle with other ski resorts, not to mention the lure of all-you-can-eat cruises, Disney vacations, and genealogy tours. The key demographic sustaining the ski industry is the baby boomers – the 40-58 year olds, who at that magic date of 2010 will be making a mass exodus from the work place.

What this means is a game of speculation. It does seem to indicate that maybe those "sustainability" folk are on the money when they tell us that there is no such thing as unlimited growth. It suggests that to put bodies in the beds and on the boards of Whistler, we might need to turn our attention to the under 21 year olds. Almost as numerous as the boomers, the echo ranks have swollen slightly in the snowsports game, but the places enjoying that swelling are the fringe hills, the low key smaller surviving ski areas. Dare I say it, the places with character? Whistler might need an extreme makeover to attract these kids. Or at the very least some budget accommodations.

It also suggests that we need to bear in mind the changing needs of the boomers, who are starting to drift away from skiing, to cottages, to home renovations, to elixir-of-youth retreats. The boomers are integral to sustaining the ski industry – prices have increased in line with their promotions and salaries, they’re introducing their families to the sport, and they typically are the big-spenders that keep all the resort’s cogs spinning happily. Not only that, but as they retire and pack the sprogs off to university and independence, they’ll start to come outside peak holiday periods, and stabilize the non-peak periods with steady business.

But, how do we keep the boomers coming, as their knees go, as their lenses change shape so the flat light freaks them out, as they retire and become more price-sensitive?

Instead of re-marketing or re-branding Whistler, we may need to revamp the product.

It may be time for a new strategy. And rather than dropping the bomb on some consultants, we have the resources to draft up this strategy right here.

You don’t have to look any farther than the grey hairs.

Whistler’s own population is coming of age. In fact, the only demographic showing an increase in Whistler from the last two Census datum, is the populations over 50. That cohort comprises almost 20 per cent of Whistler’s population, and with a foreseeable trend of early retirement of active and wealthy Canadians, including the second home-owners, to Whistler, that number may grow.

"We have over 200 members (in Whistler’s over 50s club)", says club founder, Florence Petersen, who initiated the group in 1984 after taking early retirement from teaching. At that time, the first wave of retirees had arrived in Whistler – keen skiers and weekenders who had a little place to come to – to find something of a social void. When Petersen sent out invitations to a wine and cheese to test the waters for the creation of an over 50s social group, ("I invited people tactfully, asked my friends to tell me who they thought might be over 50. I said on the invitation, ‘I don’t want to rush you into the second half of your century…’" she recalls,) 75 people showed up, surprised to see so many fellow "grey-tops" in their midst.

Twenty years on, some of those people are still here, maturing in place, as the Mature Action Committee puts it. After a decade of working towards establishing a seniors housing community to enable long established residents to remain in the community as their needs evolve, MAC is beginning to build some momentum. Membership has doubled over the past five years, and MAC Treasurer Doug Deeks says, "that’s just the tip of the iceberg."

"Over the last three years, we’ve been active in promoting the needs for seniors housing within the municipality, and I think we’ve had some success catching their eye," says Deeks.

"The issue of seniors housing has come to the fore for a couple of reasons," explains Tim Wake of the Whistler Housing Authority. "We now have an organization, the WHA, charged with providing affordable housing for all residents. We also have an emerging seniors population. There is a shift occurring. Ten years ago, or more, we had people retiring to Whistler to ski, to be involved in the community, to volunteer. But they weren’t from here, and typically, when they became less active, in their real retirement years, they tended to go back to their real home, where they had come from. Whistler is a very young community, it’s only 35 years old. We are just starting to ‘graduate’ our first round of seniors who don’t want to go back anywhere else."

Councillor Marianne Wade chaired the Task Force on Seniors Housing, which presented its report to council last December. Wade is one member of council whose attention has been turned in this direction.

"Housing is a very specific area, and affordable housing is even more so. I’ve been fortunate to have that background," says Wade.

"My biggest push right now is to get some action. We could have built a whole golf course by now. The question as a community that has to be asked is ‘do you want to keep your seniors’? If yes, then I think the most important thing is to find a site because there’s a need for things to become available within three years. People are looking to move into something smaller within three years. I know there’s movement in the group already to downsize, but they’re having trouble finding the product."

So, do we want to keep our seniors?

These old-timers have spent nearly half their lives in Whistler, and have witnessed its transformations from a wild land of woods and wetlands, to its current Disneyfied incarnation.

"When you look at the membership of MAC," says Doug Deeks, "they make an incredible contribution to the community. Just look at all your volunteers. Mountain hosts are well over 55, at MY Place, down at the ReUse It Centre… so they are making a very social and economic contribution to the community, which if it wasn’t there, would still be needed, and someone would have to pay for it. They’re very much ambassadors for the community."

Councillor Wade asks: "What is the value of 20 years of sweat equity? What they gave and are still giving to make Whistler successful… We need that core group to function as a community."

Whistler’s "old-growth" are the canaries for social sustainability. They are no longer tied to jobs or schools. They are more price-sensitive than working people. Even those who are assets-rich don’t necessarily have mountains of disposable cash, but live off pensions that don’t increase with the cost of living. When the social fabric starts to unravel, and the soft infrastructure – like housing, health, education and culture – fails to meet their needs, the community’s elders, and the young families, are the ones who will relocate.

This risk is obvious to one 30-year resident who is preparing to move to Squamish this fall: "The people who build the infrastructure of the community will move out. Everyone will leave Whistler and we’ll be left with the young transient workers living in basement suites, and the wealthy off-shore property owners."

Like the coal mine canaries who warned miners when the air was unbreathable, the exodus of Whistler’s seniors and young families is a clarion call to the community, that there’s danger ahead.

Some of Whistler’s seniors have already elected to leave. One resident of over 30 years explained her frustration: "I’m tired of it. It’s time to move on. I know half a dozen seniors who have moved out of Whistler in the last two years. One of their main concerns is the cost. From my point of view, the council is really tourist-oriented, and I accept the fact that this is a tourist town and a one company town, and I don’t want to live here anymore."

Tim Wake at the Whistler Housing Authority says: "What you’ve just described (the loss of those people who are at the heart of community) is the whole reason I’m doing this job. We still have a great community, we’re not in dire straits yet. We just have to manage the erosion. We’re always going to lose people. But as we lose them, we have to replace them. There are always people who’d like to come and live here. But those people coming in have to have options."

One of the challenges faced by Whistler’s current elders is that they are real estate rich. Wake explains: "Some of the people coming up in the community who missed that real estate bonanza are saying, ‘why should we put all this energy into seniors housing when these people are so wealthy?’ There’s a real perception, which I think is unfair, that these people are wealthy. It’s a very common perception out there of most of us who live in Whistler. We have all the trappings of people who are well off, but mostly, it’s because we’re staff, and that’s our in. We have people who see Whistler’s seniors as wealthy whereas in a cash sense, they’re not at all."

And translating that real estate wealth into cash wealth, which they can apply to meet their changing needs, particularly if they want to remain in the community that they built, is not so easy.

Despite the challenges, many of Whistler’s mature-folk want to stay, provided their health allows them to. Doug Deeks explains: "Why did I move out here 15 years ago? It’s a great spot, and I’m physically able, so why not enjoy that? And I’m hoping to just continue. I don’t want to move out of here with all my roots and the friends I’ve developed."

The loss of these elders is huge. As American Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi said, when in Vancouver with the Dalai Lama’s visit, "The world needs elder minds. If you’re impatient and look only at the momentary response and the bottom line, then you run into Enron. You need the perspective of people who can think ahead for seven generations."

This long-term vision is something business owners and corporate executives lack. The farthest ahead companies look is usually a 10-year plan. That short-term, end-of-financial year focus is often compounded when the corner offices are stacked with young Turks, as at Whistler Blackcomb, where the average age of the company’s supervisors, managers and executives is 35. What insight do these guys have into the specific needs to Whistler’s older visitor?

Well, it’s as easy as asking our own Council of Elders.

Wake explains: "We probably have the most active seniors community anywhere. They mountain bike, they ski, they volunteer. They give us context. Not to mention the family aspect. We are blessed to have three generations of family living here in Whistler, and we’re going to see more of that."

They’re a repository of wisdom. A lifetime of learning and developing expertise in their professional fields is tempered with trial and error experience, incredible networks, and a longer-term vision. It is this more subtle understanding of the word "legacy" that makes our elders one of the most important resources we have. And untapped.

All we have to do is listen. And the great thing about sounding ideas with Whistler’s retirees, is that they’re no threat – they’re not going to steal your job, or snake your next promotion from you. We have nothing to lose.

"From a business and community and mountain point of view, a senior focus group would be very interesting, and very worthwhile," says Doug Deeks. "I know that the members of MAC would be interested – they sit on a lot of committees anyway. There’s a tremendous font of knowledge that could help (young people, and management especially), if they just stopped and listened."

Deeks, who has skied over 100 days this year, is more than willing to share his insights and ideas.

"Just the other day I filled out a comment card, and suggested that (Whistler-Blackcomb) begin seriously considering a grandparents/grandchildren package."

Deeks explains the changing economy of a family unit – once the kids come along, mom and dad, who used to ski, are working hard to pay down the family home, put away university funds… ski holidays are a luxury that fall by the wayside. But the grandparents have the time and the desire. If reasonably priced packages are put together, we harness those retired life-long skiers to turn their grandkids onto the sport.

Deeks’ insight also extends to ski school operations. "The young ski instructors don’t appreciate the needs of the older skier," explains Deeks.

This season, to combat the testosterone-fuelled mentality of many ski group lessons, Deeks and several friends formed the SST – the Senior Ski Team. The group skied with the same instructor every week – an instructor who understood that the group had certain needs to be catered to.

"We make pit stops on a more regular basis. Just 15 minutes, to catch your breath and because nature makes its own demands. We’re not trying to beat each other into the ground. We all filled out a self-assessment questionnaire, on where we felt we were, and what we felt we needed. The instructor geared it to that, after making his visual assessment of us. It’s been tremendous, and the progress of everyone has been tremendous. The key to it is that it’s not a drop-in. You don’t just roll people into the group. And it needs to be price-sensitive, not $600 a day per person."

To gain an edge over the Colorado resorts, Deeks points out an overlooked selling feature. "The top of Whistler mountain is only 7,500 feet. In Colorado, the village is at 7,500 feet. That can be a physical challenge for many people. That’s why the clubs like the Florida ski club and the Miami Ski Club come here. The physical exertion of high altitude is not here."

Even off the mountain, Whistler’s old-growth have some insights that could be harnessed by local businesses.

"When you’re young, you don’t mind shouting over the band or the background music. But as you get older, you want to be able to chat. That’s why many seniors just don’t go to these places anymore. They’ll find a place where they can see the menu, see what’s on the plate, be able to chat with each other. That’s not peculiar to Whistler."

Which might just mean that the 5 p.m. winter buffet could make a killing!

As Whistler struggles to plan for the future, to finalize the CSP, envision the Olympics, argue the bed-cap and in-fill, flesh out its cultural facilities, to enhance and manage its brand, our most valuable resource might be the grey hairs.

It’s something of a novelty for the visitor to discover they’re riding the chair with a genuine local. (You mean, you’re not Australian? You actually live here? Have for more than a decade? How unusual.) "The conversations are quite interesting," says Deeks. "Amongst the group, they’re very proud of Whistler and probably when meeting visitors will spend more time extolling the virtues of the community."

Aside from the contribution they make to the community, and the wisdom they’re willing to impart, a Whistler filled with raging grannies and grey-tops juggling skis, golf clubs and mountain bikes is an inspiring place to be as the birthdays keep clicking over and my own grey hairs become a little more numerous. After all, they’re what I want to be when I grow up. A few more role-models can never go astray.




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