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'Every season has its hurdles': Whistler Blackcomb COO

Pique sat down with COO Geoff Buchheister to chat staffing, shuttles, snow conditions, Creekside lifts and more ahead of Whistler Blackcomb's Nov. 24 opening day
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The Peak 2 Peak Gondola is expected to be spinning when Whistler Blackcomb opens for the 2022/23 winter season on Nov. 24.

After two consecutive years of opening days marked by pandemic-related health and safety measures, Thursday, Nov. 24 was positioned to be Whistler Blackcomb’s first “normal” winter kickoff in recent memory.

That is, until shipping delays left an ever-important gondola haul rope stuck on a freighter for several weeks this fall.

Whether it’s a mechanical problem, weather issues, a delayed lift or a global pandemic, “I’ve been in it long enough [to know] every season has its hurdles,” said Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer (COO) Geoff Buchheister.

“If we train ourselves and prepare to be ready to handle hurdles—like, that’s actually my goal: to be ready, to be proactive, to try and make a great plan, but also to be ready to be resilient, because every season has it.”

This year, those early-season trials have manifested in one less avenue to take skiers up and out of the valley. Thanks in part to lingering supply chain shortages and shipping delays, as Buchheister confirmed earlier this month, Whistler Blackcomb’s upgraded Creekside Gondola and Big Red Express lift replacements will not be ready by opening weekend. 

CREEKSIDE GONDOLA HAS ‘A SHOT’ AT OPENING BY HOLIDAYS

When the long-awaited haul rope finally arrived in the Whistler Village Day Lots at 5 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 18, Buccheister was there to greet it. Or, “to see this thing that I’ve been tracking for months with my own eyes,” in his words.

“I took a selfie,” Buchheister said with a laugh.

Staff from lift manufacturer Doppelmayr and Whistler Blackcomb were working to splice that haul rope together on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 22, said Buchheister, at the same time the COO sat down for an interview with Pique in his Upper Village office.

Construction on the Red Chair replacement is also moving along. The chairlift is currently expected to be complete somewhere around the “first week or 10 days of December, is our hope,” said Buchheister. About 100 of the lift’s 175 carriers were loaded as of Tuesday afternoon, he added.

Before either lift can open to the public, Doppelmayr staff will conduct a commissioning process that Buchheister described as going through a “checklist” to ensure all aspects of the higher-capacity lifts are functioning correctly.

“We’d rather catch something that’s wrong in that phase, then rush to open, and then have something that’s chronically wrong forever that causes us problems,” the COO explained, “so we just have to display a little bit of patience at the end.”

In terms of the gondola, “everything that we’re doing is focused on [a] pre-holiday [opening], if we can,” said Buchheister. Still, he cautioned that a lot of work needs to “happen in sequence” between now and then.

“We need every day and good things to happen every day to get there, but we have a shot,” he said.

“Do we have a date? I don’t know, but we’re going to stay committed to keeping people updated on a frequent basis so that there’s no surprises.”

Whistler Blackcomb announced plans in September 2021 to replace the six-seater Creekside Gondola with a new high-speed,10-person gondola, and the Big Red Express quad with a new high-speed, six-person chair. The upgraded gondola is expected to  increase out-of-base uphill capacity by 35 per cent, while the new six-seater chair should bump uphill capacity by about 30 per cent. 

WHISTLER BLACKCOMB AIMING TO MAKE CREEKSIDE SHUTTLE 'EXPERIENCE AS COMFORTABLE AS POSSIBLE’

Until the two new lifts are complete, Whistler Blackcomb officials are implementing a slate of temporary measures to keep guests moving and "make the Creekside experience as comfortable as possible," said Buchheister.

Among those: free and frequent shuttle buses circulating continuously between Creekside and Whistler Village (guests will board the third-party charter buses in front of Legends, and disembark on London Lane beside the resort's parking lot); priority access to expedited queues in valley lift corrals (Buchheister said Creekside shuttlers will receive proof, likely in the form of a hand stamp, and will be directed to merge into lineups in a similar manner to ski school students); signage installed alongside Highway 99, in partnership with B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, displaying available parking information; and early opening times (lifts will start spinning at 8:15 a.m. at the latest—conditions permitting, of course—15 minutes earlier than usual). Parking in Whistler Blackcomb's Creekside and Base II lots will remain free.

The shuttles will run from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the system is designed to be “flexible” in order to accommodate increased demand during peak periods like weekends and powder days.

Those details were determined after resort officials heard the public feedback questioning the previously proposed 8 a.m. start-time.

“If after the first day, there’s some adjustments that need to be made, I mean, we’ll be doing a debrief every afternoon, trying to see what we could do better,” Buchheister told Pique.

“Hopefully we’re not in this very long and the lift will get done quickly,” but in the meantime, staff are “ready to respond” and make changes as necessary, he added.

OPENING DAY WILL SEE MANDATORY DOWNLOADS, LIMITED TERRAIN AVAILABLE

Skiers and snowboarders heading up for a few opening day turns will be greeted with 125 acres (or about 50 hectares) of skiable terrain open on Blackcomb side, serviced by the Blackcomb and Excelerator gondolas, plus Excelerator, Jersey Cream and Catskinner chairlifts. 

Whistler Mountain will have the Village Gondola, Garbanzo, Emerald, Fitzsimmons and Franz’s lifts spinning throughout opening weekend and roughly 116 acres of open terrain available. 

With early-season conditions in effect, guests heading back down to the valley are asked to download from mid-mountain for the time being. 

The cold temperatures Whistler’s experienced of late mean the resort has been able to make good use of its snowmaking systems, but temperature swings and fluctuating freezing levels have dictated where exactly resort officials have been able to direct that snow, Buchheister explained.

“It was nice to see some snow, some precip,” on Tuesday, said Buchheister, “so I think it’s an ever changing kind of situation ... With natural snow, things could expand.”

In terms of higher-elevation terrain openings? “The alpine has yet to have enough snow [for us] to have a meaningful look at when that will come along, but we’ve certainly got teams out there looking at lifts and making sure that we're ready to go when we get the snow,” the COO added.

FOLLOWING INTERNATIONAL BORDER OPENINGS, WHISTLER BLACKCOMB WELCOMES NEW STAFF COHORT

With most COVID-19-related border restrictions now dropped and working holiday visas once again flowing, Buchheister said the resort’s staffing landscape this fall “feels like it’s snapped back a little bit to what we used to see.”

Whistler Blackcomb greeted 1,200 new staff members at its annual Welcome to Winter orientation, held for the first time at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre on Sunday, Nov. 20.

That venue was chosen intentionally, Buchheister explained. 

"I realize we have so many brand new people every year, especially now that [restrictions have eased and] we're kind of back into it," he said. "It's an opportunity to start with a different lens, and think about where you are in the world in a different way—hopefully be more respectful of the past and the history and the culture, and I think, have a better shot at  sharing that with our guests."

Whistler Blackcomb strives "to lead the world" in its industry, he added. "We think that we do in a lot of ways, and we think we've got a lot of room to grow in some areas. But I think to be inclusive … it's just a moment to say, ‘hey, leading the world isn’t everything.’ It's being great in the community, it's being great partners with the people who were the first inhabitants of this land, and there’s a lot to [this place] that goes beyond just skiing and snowboarding."

He continued, “Of course, we want to be leading the world in that, and in mountain biking and hiking, but really, we want people to be the best versions of themselves that work for us and that are on the team with us and feel like they can belong in and be who they are.”

To that end, Buchheister said Whistler Blackcomb parent company Vail Resorts and its CEO Kirsten Lynch, who stepped into the role in August 2021, have been focused on investing in employee well-being ahead of the 2022/23 winter season. That includes previously-announced initiatives like upping its minimum hourly wage to $20, increasing staff discounts and investing in mental- health supports.

“We provide a service and our people deliver experiences. And so we need to flip it to think about our people first, because if they’re not feeling supported, and if they’re not feeling like they have a shot, then it’s really hard to kind of go out there and deliver for the guests,” he said.

Still, with Whistler Blackcomb’s existing staff accommodation supply now full, ground not yet broken on the newly-approved Glacier 8 employee housing building, and an ongoing housing crisis, the COO acknowledged that more than a few of those 1,200 new employees are beginning their winter in accommodation limbo as they search for secure housing.

Whistler Blackcomb is currently hammering out the details of “some housing incentive programs with our existing employees to bring on some of the new people,” Buchheister explained, and is still on the lookout for even more long- term market rentals the resort calls “valley houses” to secure for its staff this winter.

“We’re trying to support and be there for our employees as much as we can,” Buchheister said. 

'WE HAVE A LONG SEASON AHEAD'

Though both resort officials and guests are all currently focused on the opening weekend experience, Buchheister said staff are keeping an eye trained to the future as well.

“Obviously, we’re going do everything we can to make opening as incredible as it can be on the terrain that we have available and quickly bring on these new lifts and investments, but we have a long season ahead of us, ” he explained.

Whistler’s community is “kind of going into a season where a lot of the things that we’ve gotten used to in terms of restrictions are no longer there in the way that they were,” the COO added. “I’m hoping that people will find enjoyment and gratitude for being able to come back into the mountains, come back to Whistler and experience what we have to offer, what our town has to offer and really just to highlight how special this place is.

“There’s not a lot of places in the world like this. Sometimes we forget that.”

The final date to buy a full season, multi-day or single-day pass for Whistler Blackcomb this winter is Sunday, Dec. 4. 

Day tickets will be continue to sold throughout the season after passes go off sale, but the amount of day tickets available each day will be limited.

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