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Shifting the paradigm

"The single biggest challenge for Whistlerites," says veteran resort professional Lorne Borgal, "is accepting that the time has come to make fundamental changes.

"The single biggest challenge for Whistlerites," says veteran resort professional Lorne Borgal, "is accepting that the time has come to make fundamental changes." Whistler is at a place in its development, he explains, where it can be proactive and change now – or sit back and let change happen later. "But changing later will bring much higher costs," he adds. And Whistlerites will have much less control over how their community manages those changes if they wait too long.

"I’m not talking about a lipstick change here," he continues. "I’m talking about a total re-examination of the way people do business at Whistler."

Times of change are always the most difficult to deal with. No question. But sitting back and believing your own press is a sure formula for failure.

"Now is the time to take risks," says Borgal. "Don’t be afraid. Don’t be complacent. The question has to be: ‘How do we do this better?’ Forget the media cheerleading. Get down to the task of re-inventing the business!"

What’s most important, according to Borgal, is to realize that tourism is no different than any other industry. It too suffers economic cycles of highs and lows. "The reality here is that the majority of people who live at Whistler today don’t know what it means to live through really tough times. They’ve lived the big highs. They’ve only known the good times. They’ve forgotten about the first hotel entrepreneurs who all went bankrupt here in the early 1980s. They don’t know what it means to fail…"

So kill the sacred cows, he says. Shift the paradigm. "So many people in Whistler are influenced by the talk of being ‘the number one resort in the world’. Whistler is a great place on a good day. But there is some pretty stiff competition out there…"

A Vancouver boy – "I did my undergraduate degree at UBC before going south to Stanford’s School of Business" – Lorne Borgal was hired by Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises in 1980 to wrestle down some of the fledging resort’s business issues. "It was an incredibly exciting time," he says of those early years. "But it was also challenging beyond belief. We were definitely on the edge of the world. Remember – in those years, Whistler hadn’t yet appeared on B.C. roadmaps. As for signage from Vancouver, it was nonexistent…"

He laughs. "The infrastructure at Whistler was pretty basic too. I mean, we worked out of construction trailers until December of 1980!"

Borgal worked at Blackcomb for three years before moving next door to Whistler Mountain to assume the mantle of president and CEO (where he remained from 1983 to 1989). "I succeeded Franz Wilhelmsen," he says. "And that was quite a transition. After all, he was the only boss that mountain had known since its launch back in 1966."

According to him, Whistler was a can-do place during those years. He laughs again. "Even in the early 1980s when the interest rate was 18 per cent and the rain kept falling…"

The key then, he explains, was that everyone was working with the same goal in mind. "It’s not like we had a lot of money to promote ourselves," he says. "As I recall, the WRA budget was around $360,000 a year. But we worked as a group – deliberately and hard – to get American media interest." And it wasn’t easy. "It took nearly seven years for us to see any result."

But the story was fresh and new. Skiing was still perceived as an exciting sport. And the market was very young. "It’s hard to believe now, but everyone involved in this great adventure was under 40 back then. Today, when I look around the resort, the people in power are all over 50!"

And that, he says, has to be taken into account when planning for the future. "The big numbers – the baby boomers – are now entering their 60s. Many of them can’t ski the big stuff anymore while others simply want to spend more time in sunny climates. And the group coming behind are not as pre-disposed to skiing Whistler as their predecessors were."

So how does that affect the future? "Whistler can’t grow out of its problems," he says. "It has to be far more creative than it has been of late. Hotels have been operating at 50-53 per cent of capacity over the last two years. And that’s not a sustainable model!"

So what to do? It’s simple – learn from the past and re-invent yourself. "In 1984, we were aggressively courting the Japanese market," recounts Borgal. "On a marketing trip there, I met with a senior executive who told me: ‘you will be successful in attracting Japanese skiers. But be careful. They will come in a wave. And then they will leave…"

The American market, he says, is exactly the same. "Get used to it. We’re not going to see them return to Canada for a while. Today it costs 43 per cent more for Americans to visit Whistler. They are still severely impacted by September 11 th , war and budget deficits. Furthermore, you have tremendous competition from U.S. resorts. They looked at what Whistler did in the 1990s and said ‘Hey – we want our market back!’ And not only did they get their market back, recent research shows that they are attracting more Canadians there too…"

Whistler, says Borgal, has to deal creatively with this trend. And deal with it quickly. "Recently I spent three years living in England. And my perception of the European market has really broadened." Europeans, he explains, are largely pre-disposed to visit Canada. "This is a very appealing place for them. Unfortunately, we’re not doing enough to tell our story over there."

If you want to understand a market, there is only one way to do it, maintains Borgal. You have to get very close to it. "We did that with Japan – we went there and met with people and tried to figure out what they wanted on a holiday. We did that with the U.S. I remember going to LA and meeting with every travel agent I could find and asking them what it would take to attract Californians to Whistler." After all, he says, the tourism business is all about relationships. "You have to go over there. Get involved with events. You have to get known!"

Borgal maintains that Whistler won’t be able to make the fundamental changes needed to attract Europeans until the decision-makers actually go to Europe and experience the kind of product that the Alps feature. "The real experience there is soaking up the culture – that’s what makes a mountain holiday in Austria or France or Italy so special. Clearly, we can’t compete on that level. But we can offer something that the Europeans crave – and that’s a genuine wilderness experience!"

One of the biggest reasons to come to B.C., he believes, is to experience the mountains in their natural settings. "Europeans don’t want to travel halfway around the world only to find themselves sharing the slopes with thousands of other people. That’s what they left behind! What they are looking for is to feel how wild, how remote – how natural – the B.C. mountains really are."

And if that means having to re-evaluate how Whistler develops in the 21 st century, then so be it. "What worked in 1986 isn’t necessarily going to work in 2016. Whistler has to become a Canadian Experience, not an Americanized product. If we’re going to be successful on the global stage, we have to focus on what makes us distinct and appealing. And then we have to be ready to make the necessary changes to deliver on that promise. Anything less just isn’t good enough anymore."