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Vail Resorts reimagines Whistler Blackcomb's future

Company will invest $66 million in on-mountain infrastructure
Major move Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag is interviewed by media Dec. 7 after announcing a $66-million investment in on-mountain infrastructure. Photo by joel Barde

Whistler Blackcomb's (WB) new owners have taken a hard look at the Renaissance project and decided to switch the plan's focus to on-mountain upgrades.

Adopted under the resort's previous leadership, the Renaissance project's first order of business was the construction of an indoor waterpark and adventure centre — which would serve as a hub for the resort — and an upgraded mountain coaster.

In front of a crowd of business and community leaders at the Whistler Chamber of Commerce lunch Thursday, Dec. 7, Pete Sonntag — WB's chief operating officer — announced a historic $66-million investment on a new gondola and lift infrastructure.

"We considered the input of my leadership team and all the people who work in Whistler Blackcomb, and we made a decision on how we want to move forward," said Sonntag.

The $345-million Renaissance plan — which was billed as "a reimagining of what we do best" — aimed to hedge against climate change by offering indoor activities to guests, and broaden the amenity base, allowing the resort to appeal to non-skiers.

The ambitious plan polarized the community, with some saying it would turn Whistler into Disneyland on snow.

Last week's announcement represents the largest single-year capital investment in WB's history and the largest single-year capital investment in any Vail Resorts mountain operation.

There are 14 mountain resorts in Vail Resorts' portfolio.

None of the upgrades outlined last week were specified in the Renaissance plan — which has now vanished from the WB website — though it did call for "major on-mountain improvements such as lift improvements" in its third and final phase.

The crown jewel of the investment is a new 10-person gondola, which will run from the Upper Village to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. It will replace the Wizard and Solar chairlifts, giving riders a sheltered lift to the top of Blackcomb.

The new gondola alone will be able to move up to 4,000 people an hour, representing a 47-per-cent increase in capacity, and allowing easier access for summer visitors who want to explore hiking and other opportunities on Blackcomb.

Adding it to the mountain's infrastructure, moreover, fits into a broader strategic plan: to bring more international visitors to Whistler.

"We're obviously trying to open up new markets in Whistler, especially at the high end, both in Asia and the United States and Europe," explained Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in a conference call with investors the morning of the announcement.

"This kind of gondola experience very much drives the perception of high quality, which we think allows us to attract that kind of high-end guest," he said.

On Whistler Mountain, the four-passenger Emerald Express will be replaced by a new six-passenger lift.

"It is our busiest lift, day in, day out," explained Sonntag. "And we need additional capacity there. So we're going to upgrade it."

The Emerald Express will replace Blackcomb's Catskinner chair — the ancient, coal-black three-seater that runs beside the expert terrain park.

These changes are aimed at improving the visitor experience, particularly for novice skiers.

Lines for the Emerald chair can drag up to 20 minutes on busy days.

According to Arthur De Jong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager, the move makes sense.

"Our focus is to stay in the core, the heart of our operation, and make sure we optimize the most important parts of what we already have," he said.

Doug MacFarlane, senior director of mountain operations, seconded De Jong's point.

"It's really like finishing the reno on the house before you do the addition. We need to get these building blocks done," he said.

Vail Resorts has not, however, ruled out the waterpark outright.

During his presentation, Sonntag referred to the proposal as "an interesting and intriguing" idea.

And in his conference call, Katz said Vail Resorts "will defer consideration of a water park to our longer-term planning for the resort."

But potential real-estate development opportunities remain on the table.

"We are committed to the real estate portion and the vision laid out in the Renaissance plan," said Marc Riddell, WB's senior manager of communications.

In its third phase, the Renaissance plan calls for a $140- to $150-million investment aimed at transforming the Blackcomb base area into "a vibrant, upscale village community" in the heart of the Upper Village.

A luxury real estate development — One Blackcomb Place — is also imagined.

It will serve as a boutique hotel, residence and private club.

Planned expansion of the bike park as outlined in Renaissance will continue.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden applauded WB's decision to focus on on-mountain infrastructure. "My personal opinion is that it's a great decision," she said.

"I think it's a wise decision — to focus on the facilities on the mountain and get to know the Whistler community."

Communication between the two parties has been strong, she added.

"I've had conversations with the senior management team and Pete Sonntag, and he's mentioned on several occasions — outside of the Whistler community — how important the relationship is."


During the Chamber lunch, Sonntag sought to build relations with the audience, many of whom have a personal stake in the success of Whistler Blackcomb.

"It's so important that we all remember that we're all in this together," he said.

"I know for a fact that we had a bumpy opening at Whistler Blackcomb.

"We knew this would happen through this integration. We're committed to seeing this through."

Community buy in is key to getting through these initial stages, he said.

This is the first winter that Vail Resorts — which acquired the mountain in a $1.4-billion friendly takeover in August 2016 — is fully in the driver's seat. Whistler Blackcomb is now using Vail Resorts' company-wide pass and computer systems.

"Your willingness to say, 'Yep, I know these guys are trying to make it right. I know the people who work there, and they're good people, and they're committed to getting this done' — that kind of attitude goes so far with our guests in helping them get through some bumps that they may have for their first days here," Sonntag said.

"We'll get through this... We've got a lot to look forward to."

Audience questions were submitted electronically, using an application that allowed people to submit and vote for questions from their phones.

The first question was about housing. Sonntag said it is high on WB's priority list and that the ski resort is working in coordination with the municipality to create more affordable options.

"We have a couple irons in the fire, projects that we're actively pursuing... We're also very active in the local housing market, going after whatever we can to secure housing for our staff, as I know many of you are doing as well."

Sonntag was also asked about the new computer system Whistler Blackcomb has adopted, which some say is an outdated, ineffective system compared to the company's past software.

"We've taken a step back from a technology standpoint in some areas," he said.

"(But) it is not true that we've taken a step back in all areas."

The new systems are important, as they allow WB to sync up with other Vail Resorts operations, Sonntag explained.

"It's important for us to be on the same system. So unfortunately the 'one' — even though it's better in some ways — needs to adopt and adapt to the way the rest of the company's doing it," he said.

When asked about the family pass, Karla Grenon — director of marketing for WB — said that further conversation is going to happen in the future.