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Shooting the shinola with David Perry

He just can’t help it. No matter that David Perry has been gone for six years. No matter that he’s now Senior Vice President of Everything at Aspen Skiing Company.

He just can’t help it. No matter that David Perry has been gone for six years. No matter that he’s now Senior Vice President of Everything at Aspen Skiing Company. No matter, even, that his family has taken to Colorado life like ducks to water. Mention Whistler and Perry’s pulse shoots up immediately. "It’s kind of like being a parent and watching your offspring grow from child to adolescent," he explains. "I still get pangs of anxiety whenever the subject of Whistler comes up. I was part of a really great dream here. And I still have a strong connection to this community. When I visit Whistler today, I feel everything from pride to regret, from disappointment to optimism. But mostly, I wish only the best for this place…"

Still, Perry admits he’s concerned for Whistler. How events transpire from here, he says, will play a huge role in defining how it evolves in the future. "In times of transition like this," he adds, "the decisions that are made by the people in power have huge consequences. Now, more than ever, Whistlerites have to reflect on the true nature of this place. They have to focus on what makes this resort community special. And then they have to make sure that their vision is respected!"

That’s why Whistler’s "$99 hotel room special" campaign makes no sense to him. "There’s an old saying among marketers," he explains, "‘when times get tough only the fool reverts to price cutting.’" He laughs, but there’s not much humour there. "It breaks my heart," he says. "You can spend decades building up your reputation, and it can be all torn down in a matter of months. To me the "$99 special" campaign is a metaphor for the Quick Fix. With this campaign, Whistler has squandered all the perceived value that people have been building around the brand for decades…"

It’s a simple principle, he says. "Don’t tinker with your core positioning! Whistler was positioned as a global brand. And with that came great success and great responsibility. From quality to reputation, from service to value, Whistler had to deliver on customers’ expectations over and over again. And we did – to great acclaim."

With the dismantlement of that positioning, Perry worries that Whistler is going to struggle to define itself now. "Whistler was built on attitude – an attitude of entrepreneurship and irreverence. So what’s the message now?" he asks. "Is Whistler going to turn into a two-day stay, rubber-tire traffic resort?

Perry spent 18 years at Whistler. A ski instructor who’d cut his professional teeth in Banff, the smooth talking (and even smoother skiing) wonder boy worked his way though the mountain ranks here until he was one of the top executives in the sport. As the marketing director for Whistler Mountain in the early 1990s – and then as vice president of marketing and sales for the newly amalgamated Whistler-Blackcomb until 2000 – Perry was inextricably linked to the branding process that firmly consolidated the resort’s position on the world stage.

But it wasn’t all wine and roses…

"We realized we had an image problem way back in the late 1980s," he says. For those whose memories don’t go quite that far back, that’s when Whistler first appeared on the U.S. skier radar. Rated the second-best mountain resort in North America by Snow Country Magazine in 1989 – just behind Colorado icon Vail – Whistler soon started attracting a whole new class of visitors from south of the border. "I was spending a lot of time on the mountain during those years," says Perry. "And it soon became evident to me that people were arriving here with false expectations. It was obvious – people simply expected a bigger and more modern Vail. And we all know how not-Vail Whistler really is…"

It was also obvious to Perry that those differences had to be effectively communicated to their prospective customers. "Sunny-sky shots and light-powder skiing sequences simply weren’t going to make it," he says. "So we decided to embark on a deliberate brand re-positioning. We wanted to make this the number-one adventure skiing resort on the continent. And we targeted our audience very precisely. In fact, a whole culture was created around that image." Luckily, he adds, he wasn’t alone in trying to get that message out. "There were a lot of oars pulling in same direction," he says. Then he laughs again. "After all, we didn’t know any better. We were young. We had a goal. We were enthusiastic. But more importantly – we believed!"

By the mid 1990s, when Whistler was finally hitting its stride, that culture had really caught on. "We turned our weakest link into our strongest asset – weather as an adventure! It was all about honesty – portraying the real nature of our weather, but putting a sexy and compelling spin to it. This was also the time when all the adventure-skiing hype was coming out of Alaska. And that helped us too. Soon Whistler was known as the adventure mountain place where you could be pampered. It was a very daring position at the time…"

Perry and his team also started focusing more on people stories. "There are certain characters that define a place," he says. "And they can be your biggest assets. In the end, it’s the people – not the things – that really count in our business." Coincidence or not, Perry left for Colorado the very year things started to go sideways at Whistler…

Which brings us back to today. According to Perry, "the job of marketing is to convey the true nature of a place to a market that will appreciate it. And that’s where Whistler has to go if it’s going to remain successful. Whistler’s biggest selling point has always been its true disciples. Tell the great people stories. Tell the old stories. Tell the new stories. But above all – don’t be afraid to celebrate what makes this place so distinct!"

And don’t be afraid to push your limits. "The big buzzword these days is youth marketing," he says. "But in my mind, what’s more important – particularly for us involved in the mountain tourism business – is marketing with a youthful attitude. And that means embracing change and being open minded and championing risk-taking. Whistler has some big challenges ahead, but they certainly aren’t insurmountable. Why? Because the people of Whistler are stronger and more inventive and more willing to take risks than they are giving each other credit for."

Would Perry ever consider returning to Whistler? "Funny you should ask," he says. "I have thought about it." And then he smiles. "It would be an intriguing professional challenge. I feel confident that I could help get Whistler on a good track – it would probably take about three years."

He stops talking for a moment. Considers the question again. "My family and I am very happy in Aspen, so it would have to be under extraordinary circumstances – and I’d need a completely free rein." Another pause. Another chuckle. "Frankly, the chances of that happening at Whistler are mighty slim…"