With B.C. and the wider global community nowhere near out of the woods on the COVID-19 pandemic just yet, skiing at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) was always going to look different this winter, and with the news last week that Vail Resorts would be instituting an online reservation system for passholders, how we book our ski days will be a new experience as well.
“There is no doubt this season will be different but we are committed to what matters most: working to protect our guests, employees and communities and doing everything we can to provide great skiing and riding all season long,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in an Aug. 27 letter to guests.
With a first booking period from Nov. 6 to Dec. 7, the new reservation system will give priority to passholders of all types, including exclusive early-season access, with no lift tickets sold until Dec. 8; all-season access with week-of reservations; and priority reservation days to lock in days before lift tickets go on sale.
New this season is the Whistler Blackcomb Day Pass, which can be used for as little as one or two days, and offers up to 50 per cent off the regular ticket-window price depending on how many days you purchase.
For the reservation system, a passholder is anyone who purchases the following products in advance of the pass sales cutoff: WB Unlimited/limited Pass Holder, Epic Pass Holder, 2-, 5-, or 10-Day Edge Card holders, and the new WB Day Pass.
No passes will be available for purchase after Dec. 7—except the Spirit Pass for resort employees.
Although concerns have mounted locally over mountain capacity, WB CEO Geoff Buchheister is confident the resort will have more than enough terrain to accommodate skiers and riders—especially with the likelihood the U.S. border remains closed for the foreseeable future.
“Whistler Blackcomb is North America’s largest resort and we feel confident that for the vast majority of days, we’ll have plenty of capacity,” Buchheister said in a statement. “That said, the reservation system will allow us to manage volume and help us deliver on our commitment to the safety of our guests, community and employees. There is a chance we may be able to remove the reservation system during the season—but we feel strongly that having this system in place early, will allow us to deliver a season from start to finish.”
The reservation system could be lifted, said Vail Resorts’ West Coast communications director Marc Riddell in a follow-up interview, in the event the U.S. border does open at some point during the season.
“If that’s the case, we’d be hard-pressed to keep that reservation system,” he noted, adding that, as always, the company will follow the guidance of public health officials.
Some have also pointed to the potential for passholders to “hoard” reserved days during peak periods, only to no-show on the day of. Riddell reiterated that, with 3,414 hectares of skiable terrain, capacity shouldn’t be an issue.
“We’re the largest ski area in North America, so we’re fairly confident you’re going to get whatever reservation you want,” he said.
There is precedent at Vail Resorts for this kind of system: The company staggered online booking times at one of its Australian ski resorts, Perisher, this summer after seeing fellow Aussie resort, Thredbo, get flooded with demand that eventually crashed its website.
While there are likely to be some growing pains with the new reservation process, Riddell believes the company’s IT systems are robust enough to handle the anticipated onslaught of traffic once bookings open on Nov. 6.
“It’s something that obviously we’re going to monitor, and like anything new, there will be adjustments throughout the year, but we’re pretty confident we’ll have the system ready to handle the volume,” he said.
WB’s phone system seems to tell another story, however. Pique has received numerous reports of long wait times trying to get through to a guest services agent. Local Gillian Smith said she and her husband called both the WB and Vail Resorts customer lines several times during the day of Aug. 27 to inquire about booking seven passes for her family, only to be met with a voicemail telling her to call back during business hours. Eventually, her husband was able to reach an employee through WB’s online chat forum, and was informed he’d get a call back the following day.
“We don’t want to dump on Whistler Blackcomb by any means. It’s a terrible time for everybody, whether it’s a ski mountain, restaurant, or whatever,” Smith said. “It was simply just a frustration in that they could have just had a message saying, due to overwhelming interest, lines are busy.”
A longtime WB customer, Smith said she is willing to give the resort the benefit of the doubt as it navigates uncharted waters this ski season.
“The mountain has been very good to us,” she added. “Once or twice, they’ve asked us questions and they’ve always listened, so we’re supportive of the mountain and are willing to wait and see.”
To prioritize guest safety this winter, all guests will be required to wear face coverings on-mountain and in all other areas of resort operations, including in lift lines and while riding chairlifts and gondolas. To maintain physical distancing on the lifts and gondolas, WB will be seating guests that are skiing or riding together; or two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift; two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of six-person lift; and two singles on opposite sides of a larger gondola cabin.
Ski school will still be offered, as well as on-mountain dining, but with changes in place to ensure guest safety.
On the food and beverage side of things, liquor and hot food service will be limited to pre-packaged products, both on- and off-mountain, but WB will not operate any full-service bars “as we do not believe convening in a traditional bar setting, anywhere in resort or throughout our community, is safe amid COVID-19,” Katz stated in his letter.
Riddell added that it’s still being worked out how WB’s off-mountain establishments—Dusty’s, Merlins and the GLC, the latter two of which remain closed—will be used this winter.
“It’s our intention to open those facilities,” he said. “That’s what we’re working towards, but in what manner, how and who is going to go into those facilities, we just don’t know right now.”
WB’s pass sales early-bird deadline has been extended to Sept. 17, including the deadline to use passholder credits from last season.
For more information, visit whistlerblackcomb.com/explore-the-resort/about-the-resort/winter-experience.aspx.
WB Opening a relief for LOCAL tourism
Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton unsurprisingly welcomed last week’s news that WB would be open for the season.
“I’m extremely pleased to hear that Whistler Blackcomb plans to reopen this season,” he said. “Any announcement about skiing gets me excited, to be honest.”
Tourism Whistler (TW) president and CEO Barrett Fisher called the announcement “great news” for Whistler’s tourism sector, which expects to weather a much slower shoulder season than in years past.
“The on-mountain experience is a key business driver for the resort, so having it officially announced that Whistler Blackcomb plans to open both mountains certainly adds to our consumer confidence,” she said. “It will help us in getting the message out and to bolster our sales and marketing efforts for this upcoming winter.”
TW has already targeted B.C. in its marketing this summer, and is currently in the process of shifting focus to Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and the rest of Canada for the fall.
“When we look at ski markets, certainly British Columbia is an important one, with a large volume of loyal mountain visitors, but as well, Alberta, Ontario and somewhat new for us, Quebec,” noted Fisher. “We are looking at all four of those provincial markets as being key targets when it comes to skiers, but as well, some national Canadian efforts that will cover all provinces.”
TW has also encouraged longer stays and midweek bookings, something she said British Columbians have been more apt to do during the pandemic.
The destination marketing organization has also noted rising demand from a relatively new market to Whistler: remote workers.
“We have in fact, through our reservations department, seen some interest coming from the Ontario market, for example, where visitors are actually looking to make a 30-day stay and giving them the option to live in a beautiful mountain environment and work from their hotel room or their condominium, but then simultaneously use their spare time to enjoy our mountain environment and go skiing,” Fisher said, adding that TW is already starting to promote to remote workers.
Keeping both mountain and highway capacity in mind, Fisher said TW will prioritize the ski market this winter, but that the organization has been talking about how to cater to the non-skiing customer looking to Whistler for their next getaway.
“Maybe there are opportunities to promote Nordic skiing or other outdoor winter activities like snowmobiling or snowshoeing or ziplining to give people an outdoor experience,” she noted. “Without a doubt, we are contemplating the non-ski market, but we just want to make sure we do that in balance with the capacities the resort can sustain, understanding that we are in a slightly more limited capacity as a result of COVID.”
Keeping COVID in mind, Whistler has experienced a relatively busy summer, Fisher said, with weekend occupancy rates staying steady at about 70 per cent in the months of July and August. Midweek has been a tougher prospect, although room night rates have climbed during those periods from about 25 to 30 per cent in June to roughly 40 per cent in recent weeks.
“I think the summer for Whistler has gone very well, especially when we compare to other city destinations across Canada that have not fared as well. It has typically been resort destinations like Whistler or Tofino or the Okanagan that have fared better because they’re seen as a summer destination vacation,” Fisher explained. “But when we look towards the fall, certainly we have some greater concerns, because when kids are back to school and the warm weather starts to recede, that’s when we do have concerns that it will get quieter.”
-With files from Clare Ogilvie