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The forgotten equation

The role of employees in Whistler’s value proposition

Boiled Frog Syndrome is a staple analogy used by human resource experts that goes like this: A live frog placed in a kettle of hot water will jump out, but a frog placed in lukewarm water will stay still and tolerate increasing heat until it will literally be boiled. The analogy is used to illustrate the effect of complacency on organizations that are deteriorating but do not take action until they are faced with disaster.

In many ways, Whistler’s reaction to declining service standards reflects such a situation.

In an attempt to throw the frog directly into the boiling water, Whistler has embraced what’s known as the "Value Proposition".

Articulated in a letter to the editor by Tourism Whistler Chairman, Rick Clare, the value proposition is beautiful in its simplicity: Service X Price = Value. Clare doesn’t take sole credit for the model, as he explained that the concept of value had been on the minds of Tourism Whistler’s other board members for some time. It was formulated at a meeting this last June to address concerns in the business community. As Clare says, Whistler needed a way to explain guests’ "expectation of value".

In a community with an infrastructure built to world-class standards, on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, supporting our amenities takes big bucks. When it comes time to pay the bills, prices can only go so low and discounting can only be so deep.

Clare, who has lived in Whistler since 1980 and been a business owner here since 1984, offers some historical perspective and notes that because of rapid growth over the last 10 years, Whistler may have lost touch with the guest. "We didn’t have the depth of service because we grew so fast," he says.

Other local business owners agree; the resort has fallen victim to its own success and it was time to address the complacency.

Jill Dunnigan, co-owner of Extremely Canadian, says what many business owners think: "We used to think that being a great resort meant offering consistent snowfall, great amenities and a variety of services, and that was enough to keep us on top…. But it’s not."

Clare makes no excuses for the current business climate. "The last two years are not an anomaly, this is the reality. We can’t blame everything on September 11 th and a higher dollar. The problem is that we haven’t kept our service standards up with the pricing of our product." He added that people want value. It doesn’t matter what the price is as long as people walk away saying "that was amazing."

Dunnigan offers similar insights into what value means. "To many of our clients, time is more important than money. If they feel that the time they have spent with us was worthwhile, then we’ve been successful."

For better or worse, Whistler has become a global brand. With any recognized brand come expectations. For Whistler, at issue is how we retain our world-class status and provide excellent value.

Excerpts from a recent conference in London entitled Delivering Profits in the Global Economy, organized by The Economist and the Wharton school of business/INSEAD Alliance, gives some insights into what Whistler is facing. One conference panel focused on the challenges of growing a global business and the question of branding. Some of the conclusions drawn were that companies need to be quite clear about where their brand falls along the continuum between local and global, and companies had better be sure that their words and deeds match up, i.e. deliver on the brand’s reputation. Several experts also concluded that a brand must hold up not only externally, but internally – with everyone responsible for creating the brand.

An interview with Whistler Chamber of Commerce President, John Nadeau, struck a similar chord. Nadeau suggested a simple way to address the value equation: "Set a benchmark to exceed guests’ expectations and make sure you deliver on that promise."

If the brand known as Whistler is to remain viable, the responsibility lies with individual businesses and employees, not slick marketing plans. The task of maintaining the brand lies with those who strive to create an awesome guest experience day in and day out.

How to manage a global brand on the ground was one issue participants at the Economist/Wharton conference agreed on. Not surprisingly, they agreed that the skills needed to manage a global company are quite complex and difficult to find. The good news is that the "soft" skills – all those skills that can be learned, such as team leadership, change leadership and people development skills – are the competencies you find in effective leaders. And EQ (Emotional Intelligence) is a significant leadership asset.

A conversation with Cathy Goddard echoed similar sentiments. She indicated that the skills necessary for global brand leadership were just as relevant to Whistler’s employers as they were to the heads of multi-national corporations.

Goddard is the Owner of Whistler’s Personnel Solutions. In business since 1995, the company specializes in innovative personnel and outsourcing strategies. Primarily focused on placements in the accounting, administrative and management areas, it also boasts an outsourcing team of "solution experts" who provide training, management and leadership development, and coaching programs.

Goddard explained that there was high demand for computer, accounting and management skills, including management essentials such as time management, delegation, communication skills, how to run a meeting, etc. – "skills (that) are transferable across the board." Goddard also added that the soft skills were particularly important for managers who "treat their people right and who can develop a system to make that part of their business."

"Our people are our most valuable asset" has become the rallying cry for many organizations in recent years and the idea of creating a great work environment is pragmatic as well as altruistic. Leading companies have learned to leverage human resources practices to drive positive change and financial performance. The formula is simple: happy staff will work harder and are more productive; happy staff makes happy customers, happy customers buy more.

Nadeau seems to be on the same page as Goddard when it comes to assessing Whistler’s management needs, and where we need to improve. "The Chamber has to figure out how we can get returning staff, managers and supervisors more engaged in the service strategy," Nadeau explains. He defines "engagement" as three things: what employees say about your business, how they strive at work, and whether or not they stay.

Nadeau sums it up by saying, "As a resort, we need to identify how we do these three things."

Many of Nadeau’s sentiments are articulated in Kevin Thomson’s book Emotional Capital: Capturing Hearts and Minds to Create Lasting Business Success . Thompson defines emotional capital as the feelings and beliefs that motivate people to take positive action and explains that engagement is one of the prime ingredients of emotional capital. Engaging employees, turning management skill and emotional intelligence into emotional capital will be the hallmark of future successful businesses.

The book suggests that engaged workers give their all to their jobs because they feel inspired to, not because they are compelled to; they join a company because of its mission, culture and values, and once employed feel like owners in that they have a real stake and say in their own career and financial destinies within the company.

One local business that takes employee engagement seriously is Extremely Canadian. Since 1994, they have offered advanced all-mountain ski instruction on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. More recently, the business has grown to include a retail shop, a fully catered lodge and guided "world tour" ski trips.

Co-Owners Jill Dunnigan and Peter Smart, b elieve the keys to their success and longevity in a business notorious for its razor thin margins, is two fold. "We consistently provide excellent service and we are committed to the relationships we have with our partners in the industry."

Dunnigan also added: "We are always adding value to our partners, our staff and our clients."

The reason a job with Extremely Canadian is one of the most coveted work details in the valley has little to do with money, as Dunnigan explains. "We are limited in the amount of money we can offer, but we add value to the staff by providing pro deals and sponsorships for equipment, great staff parties and most importantly, the staff feel that they are part of something truly unique."

The striking thing about creating a work place that offers amazing experiences is that it doesn’t cost a thing. For businesses wanting to get the service edge, Dunnigan offers some perceptive advice: "You are not an adventure company or a retail shop or an accommodation provider; you are the experience your staff provides."

Creating this service "experience" culture is not a top-down approach, but a collaborative approach between staff and management. Cathy Goddard explains it as 360-degree approach. "Management looks after the employees and employees look after each other and the guest is looked after by everyone."

Goddard also adds that, "we are all in the service industry; I don’t care if it’s front line service or making widgets."

Research conducted by a myriad of human resource consultancies confirms the wisdom of these attitudes. When comparing income with lifestyle, salary increases have no effect on life satisfaction, and little influence on work habits.

Other tactics to engage staff include moving people around to let them try new tasks. It offers a fresh perspective and increased understanding of the business. (Low variety jobs produce twice as much employee turnover and three times less job satisfaction than high variety jobs). As the saying goes: change is as good as a holiday.

These concepts are equally important for employees who are only in their job for the short term. You can instil loyalty in someone who is only going to be around for a few months simply by treating them just like long-term employees, with the same training opportunities and the same rewards systems. Most importantly, give them respect and trust.

Rick Clare gets the final word with this advice for employers looking to improve service. "Energize your staff by telling them how important they are, because without your staff, you’re nowhere."

To avoid the fate of our friend the frog, we must understand that no longer will Whistler be able to see itself as the centre of the tourism universe. Our proper role and primary focus is delighting our guests. Central to this value proposition is service, service delivered consistently through resort-wide teamwork.

Whistler’s business community has to confront a business climate fraught with challenges. To overcome these challenges will require leadership at all levels, the wisdom to invest in training for a better future, vision to understand the changing needs of consumers and the courage to inspire staff to meet those needs.