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Whistler businesses overcame flurry of challenges during holiday season

Transit operator recruitment campaign underway as Whistler Transit slashes service
Busy whistler village in winter
The holidays were lucrative for some Whistler businesses who reported record-breaking sales in the month of December.

Some customers eagerly looking forward to a hearty Canadian delicacy after a long day of powder turns were left disappointed over the holidays. 

“Getting potatoes from P.E.I. and cheese curds from Quebec when there’s issues with the railroad is something we [had to work through],” said Diana Chan, owner of Zog’s and Moguls Coffee House in Whistler Village, referencing lingering damage from the record-breaking flooding B.C. experienced in November. 

“On the days that our cheese curds did not arrive on time, Zog’s poutine was really just fries and gravy—but we’ve managed,” said Chan. (Mercifully for poutine enthusiasts, Zog’s is now back to its full menu, she added.)

Supply-chain issues like those experienced by the local hot dog stand were just one of many challenges Whistler businesses faced over a busy holiday period this winter. With crowded hotels and snowy forecasts, a trio of capacity constraints proved to be the main factors preventing Whistler businesses from recognizing their full earning potential, said Chan, who also serves as chair of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

“Be it the [COVID-19] restrictions that came in right before the holiday break around capacity in restaurants, be it limitations due to staffing, be it limitations due to supply chain,” she said. “If you run out of your key product, it isn’t there to sell.”

For many businesses, an ongoing labour shortage was compounded after the Omicron variant tore through Whistler over the holidays. During the last two weeks of December, most of the resort’s business community saw “a rolling average of 30 per cent” of its staff unable to work on any given day. 

“We saw that pick up right before the school break,” said Chan. “And it really became all hands on deck.” 

At Moguls and Zog’s, “the team has never seen so much of me—I was on the line a number of days in a row,” she added. “But it actually brought back a bit of that Christmas spirit. So how did we get through? With an incredibly loyal, dedicated team … stepping up when they could, looking out for each other and ensuring those that needed to isolate [and] stay home could do so.”

But even so, the last month of 2021 was lucrative for some local operators. 

“For many businesses [December] was record-breaking even in comparison to pre-pandemic” months, said Chan. “That speaks to a lot of the information we’re hearing—there is a pent-up demand and we had idyllic conditions. Let’s not forget weather was on our side over the holidays, although a lot of snow had to be cleared on a daily basis.” 

Whistler’s business community “did the best we could with what we had, and my personal experience was that guests in the village were very patient and kind,” she added.

The community’s willingness to embrace pandemic health and safety protocols has helped keep Whistler’s economy and visitor experience going strong, said Tourism Whistler CEO Barrett Fisher. 

“Kudos go out to the businesses who have really invested in ensuring those protocols are in place—that certainly is positive,” she said. “I think we all know that this variant has been fast-moving, it’s been easily transmissible and so we nevertheless are living amongst it. 

“It did impact some of our local employees, and we did see some businesses struggling to ensure that we were able to keep our levels of service where we want them to be at, so we did see a lot of people that were working morning, noon and night to deliver upon a positive guest experience.”

One piece of good news, Fisher added, is that the resort did see an uptick in its labour force this winter, compared to summer 2021. 

“These have been challenging and tumultuous times, but I think our community has really risen up to put our best foot forward,” she said. 

December visitation approaching normal levels, says Tourism Whistler 

In case record-breaking earnings weren’t proof enough, Tourism Whistler statistics show December 2021 was one of Whistler’s busier months since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.

Occupancy for the month sat at 64 per cent, Fisher said—significantly higher than the 27-per-cent occupancy rate Whistler saw during the same month in 2020. 

“Considering that we are still coming through the pandemic, we certainly saw a pretty solid December,” said Fisher. A typical December pre-pandemic would see monthly occupancy rates nearing 70 per cent, she explained. Room night occupancy over the week spanning Christmas to New Year’s in 2021 was, however, down about 25 per cent compared to a usual year. 

“Because of the really amazing snow conditions that we saw through November and December, we did see some real strength prior to the holiday period,” Fisher said.

Regional skiers made up the lion’s share of Whistler’s visitors over the holidays, with smaller numbers travelling from other provinces, the western U.S. and the U.K. 

Though last month’s Omicron surge prompted some cancellations in January and February, Fisher said March is looking strong in terms of bookings. 

S(no)w good for business

While the storm cycle that covered Whistler in a bottomless blanket of light, fluffy powder over the holiday period may have boosted visitors’ spirits—and the local economy—the snow didn’t prove as profitable for everyone.  

Joan Novak, owner of JoNo Hair in Function Junction, said she’s seen less cash flowing into her business in the last six weeks than she did before the pandemic. 

“We have been steady but nowhere near how busy we used to be prior to the pandemic. There are no longer the big company parties anymore and that definitely makes a difference on people’s hair maintenance schedules,” she said in an email. 

Though she thanked snow-clearing staff for the tireless work in the heavy conditions, Novak also attributed her slashed revenues to a high volume of last-minute cancellations caused by major highway backups and Whistler’s Omicron outbreak. “That caused a major disruption to our day bookings,” she said. “Clients were no-showing. Most salons have started to now implement no-show fees as it’s revenue we can never recuperate and expenses that we still have to pay for as a business.”

To help mitigate the issues caused by heavy traffic on the Sea to Sky, Novak proposed a similar strategy to one used during the 2010 Olympics, where visitors would park in the Callaghan Valley and take a shuttle, or a “people-mover gondola” into Whistler, plus the creation of a counter-flow lane. 

Trains and a Function-to-Whistler-Village highway expansion could also be considered as long-term solutions, she added. 

“The suggestion of everyone just getting on the bus doesn’t help, because we still have the problem of high volume coupled with ill-equipped city traffic—and without a counter-flow/fast track bus lane. The buses are still stuck in the traffic anyways so that solution is not appropriate,” Novak said. 

“I’d like to know the cost of loss of business for the local economy for every minute the highway is closed [due to an accident or backed up due to weather or traffic].” 

Whistler Transit launches recruitment campaign to address driver shortage 

Those employees that were healthy and able to work were, in some cases, hindered in their ability to get to work on time due to transit issues—and not just because of snow-covered roads. 

Bus riders were issued a string of service disruption advisories in recent weeks due to the labour shortage BC Transit is currently facing in many areas of the province, including Whistler. 

The lack of drivers resulted in potential wait times of up to 50 minutes or more on most routes over the holidays, as well as the suspension of extra weekend service on routes 4, 5 and 20X until further notice, BC Transit announced last week. 

“When service is further impacted due to driver illness, BC Transit and Whistler Transit work hard to ensure customers experience the least impact possible and alerts are posted immediately on BC Transit’s website once trip cancellations are confirmed,” BC Transit said in an emailed statement. The organization thanked customers for their patience, and encouraged transit users to check for alerts regularly, sign up for route-specific email notifications and use NextRide to track their buses’ progress in real-time. 

In response to the shortage, BC Transit and its operating company, Whistler Transit, have also launched a driver-recruitment campaign “looking for people with strong customer service skills, who enjoy interacting with the public and supporting their community,” the statement continued. 

BC Transit said about 10 additional drivers are currently required to fulfil the existing schedule’s demands. 

“This is a short-term challenge, and BC Transit is confident that the shift to the spring schedule in April and hiring of additional drivers will alleviate this issue,” the company said.

Whistler Transit offers a paid, three-week training program during which new drivers will learn how to operate all buses in the company’s fleet. No previous transit experience is needed, but new drivers must have a BC Class 2 license with air brake endorsement.