Whistler Blackcomb’s chief operating officer is urging patience and personal responsibility from the community as Whistler gets set for a ski season unlike any other.
“It’s a difficult time for all of us as we’re trying to manage through. So we’re asking for patience as we do it,” said COO Geoff Buchheister. “We’re also learning about this as we go and we’re going to get better as the season goes on … We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we’re spreading people out, but the guest also has to give some consideration as well.”
Pique caught up with Buchheister ahead of Opening Day, Nov. 26, to discuss B.C.’s latest travel recommendations, COVID protocols, and navigating the resort’s new reservation system, as well as what skiers and riders can expect from the early season.
As COVID cases continue to rise both locally and across B.C., provincial health officials last week reiterated their recommendation against non-essential travel, specifically recommending skiers to stick to their local mountain. Pique followed up with the provincial health office to get clarity on whether Lower Mainland skiers, for instance, can travel to the resort, and got back a canned statement that did not definitively say one way or the other.
“I think because the way it was announced as a travel recommendation or guidance, I bet we will see some folks from the Lower Mainland,” Buchheister said. “My request of all of those people is when they step up to the mountain at Whistler Blackcomb that they recognize we’re at a critical time with the pandemic. As we open, we’re embracing a whole new set of policies and procedures and we’re asking our guests to employ the layers of protection we’ve been talking about all across the world, but specifically for us, it’s face coverings and distancing.”
Because lift staff won’t necessarily know where guests are travelling from, Buchheister said it is important they use common sense when visiting the mountain.
“We’re going to open up and we’re going to lean on people to make good decisions and decide how they best can take care of themselves and their own safety, and know that what [provincial health officer Dr.] Bonnie Henry says is super important for all of us to buy in to,” he said. “For me, it’s about personal responsibility. What are you going to do to ensure that you’re not contributing negatively to this?”
With “many COVID positives in town,” Dr. Fern von der Porten, the medical director for the Whistler Health Care Centre, had a different interpretation of the recent recommendations, warning that “non-compliance will compromise our health and our ski season.
“We do not want to be the host of a super-spread of this disease,” she wrote in an email. “Everybody needs to do their part. Being a pass holder does not make you a resident of our community. Also, please [do] not come here to quarantine. Stay at home.”
Whistler Blackcomb has instituted a wide range of health and safety protocols intended to better manage the dispersal of guests both during upload and on-mountain. One of the most significant changes this year is Whistler Blackcomb’s new reservation system, which has garnered frustration from guests as they try to navigate the complicated online system and deal with long wait times to reach Guest Services.
“It’s not as simple as it used to be, so people have a lot of questions. I’d say the wait times on the phones have been longer than we would like, for sure. But I feel confident that we’ve captured the necessary information,” Buchheister said, adding that staff will follow up with customers in due time if they are unable to reach anyone by phone.
“The reservation system is going to be there for you and it’s all online. I trust you’ll be able to use that to get in there day in and day out and make sure you’re managing your reservation, and ideally, we don’t have to do all that stuff over the phone every time.”
This year, pass holders will have up to seven priority ski days they can use to book anytime between Dec. 8 and April. Then, every Wednesday, Whistler Blackcomb will release inventory for the upcoming week, which will allow guests to add additional ski days for that week that do not count as one of their priority days.
“For us, the reservation system is actually going to be a tool to help us manage our volumes,” Buchheister explained. “At the end of the day, with spacing, with the [health] guidelines, we can’t just open the gates and roll people in the way that we used to.”
Buchheister acknowledged how quickly the first week of the season has booked up, but stressed that it’s not a trend he expects to continue through the winter.
“The early season is the most challenging part of the year. Here we are, new health restrictions, limited terrain,” he noted. “We’ve put an inventory limit in there so that we can manage the situation relative to the terrain we have available and I don’t anticipate this scenario is something we’ll be dealing with every day of the season.”
Whistler Blackcomb expects to have roughly 700 acres (238 hectares) of terrain available on both mountains for Opening Day. On Whistler, the Emerald, Red and Garbanzo chairs will be open, while Blackcomb will see Jersey Cream, Excelerator and Catskinner in use.
“Compared to a year ago … we’re looking way better in terms of available terrain for opening,” Buchheister said.
Upload times are expected to be longer this year, as guests are only permitted to ride with their own household or cohort. Vail Resorts’ West Coast communications director Marc Riddell encouraged the public to check Whistler Blackcomb’s channels before arriving to help determine where they should upload and park.
“People are going to have to be a little bit more deliberate with how they come and engage with us, so they will have to seek out the information in advance. We will certainly provide it from a frontline perspective, too,” he said, adding that there will be ample signage notifying guests when lots are full.
There will be limits on parking capacity in certain lots, depending on volumes, with “the most prominent” being at Creekside, Riddell said, where “the upload capacity will probably be a lot slower than at our other access points.”
Without the benefit of seasonal foreign workers, Whistler Blackcomb has had to double down on its domestic recruitment efforts, even with a workforce that will count far less staff than in previous years. Buccheister said often employees are being trained on more than one job so they can slot into other positions as necessary.
“We’re embracing some new thinking around how we’re managing the workforce, making sure we’re getting people the hours they need,” he said.
Ultimately, Buchheister said Whistler Blackcomb’s main priority this year is to keep both guests and employees safe to ensure a full, uninterrupted ski season—but there are bound to be some bumps along the way.
“Our goal is to get open here, step into the season and work through this opening and learn every day,” he said. “We get open and then we want to stay open, which we feel is what’s best for our community and best for all the businesses in town—and it’s going to take some collective effort from all of us.”
Dec. 6 is the last day of the season to purchase from the suite of Whistler Blackcomb's pass offerings. Head to the resort's website for more information.