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Whistler says good-bye to a community leader

After more than two decades in Whistler, Fairmont Chateau general manager David Roberts is heading west After more than 13 years as the general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, David Roberts is moving on.

After more than two decades in Whistler, Fairmont Chateau general manager David Roberts is heading west

After more than 13 years as the general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, David Roberts is moving on. He recently accepted the top job at the Ritz-Carleton on the Island of Maui, a five-diamond hotel every bit as prestigious as the Chateau. Always humble, he calls it a "change of scenery."

On June 21, friends and co-workers are holding a going away party for "D.R.," who during his stay in Whistler has emerged as a conscientious community leader as well as a top-notch business leader. By all accounts he’s a first-class human being as well.

His going-away festivities will get underway in the Macdonald Ballroom starting at 6 p.m. Those invited are welcome to bring a gift, but you might want keep the receipt.

"I think he should return all the gifts right now because I’m convinced he’ll be back, he’s pulled this before," said Drew Meredith, a long-time friend who has been to two previous going away parties for Roberts before he landed at the Chateau. In fact, it was Meredith who suggested Roberts to the original owners of the Chateau in the first place.

"While they were building the Chateau they had this big internal search through the company for who was going to be the GM, and all the while there was this young guy standing here who knew the community and understood how it worked.

"I was the mayor at the time, and sometimes you need to bang people over the head to get them to see the obvious. They obviously made the right choice. It was a brand new hotel when he took over, and now it’s one of the flagship hotels for the whole chain."

Meredith sums up Roberts’ influence on the success of the hotel and the resort. "He’s an incredible people-person. He knows how to motivate staff, and to create great work atmosphere. It’s productive, but everyone has fun.

"I honestly don’t know how he is going to survive in Maui without mud," added Meredith. "The guy’s a mountain bike addict."

During his tenure Roberts has sat on several boards, and helped to guide the progress of the town from another ski destination into a world class resort. At the same time he never shied away from the spirit of the town that meant everything to him, believing that a strong community of locals and characters was key to the success of Whistler.

Said Paul Fournier, a local mountain biker who has known Roberts for years through his involvement in cycling, "Anything this community needed, they could always go to David and, bam, he would make something happen. He’s always there for the community, and has had just a huge impact on this town."

Getting back to the going away party, it’s going to have a Hawaiian theme. Janet Hart, who has worked as the Director of Sales and Marketing under Roberts for 14 years, even before he arrived at the Chateau, said she is looking forward to seeing Roberts in a grass skirt and coconuts.

"He’s famous for dressing up," she said. "He’s always been pretty lively, and has lots of energy.

"Talking about the impact he has had on this community, for me it was his personality, his enthusiasm and his vision – he helped establish Whistler as a top resort."

In a transient town where people and guests come and go, Roberts brought stability to the resort by being there, and by seeing things through. A number of staff members have stayed as long as they have because of Roberts, Hart said.

"The fact we call him ‘D.R.’ really goes a long way to what he’s all about. He’s young, he’s approachable, he’s personable, and he’s sincere. He was a very good motivator for people.

"We’re sorry to see him go. Our favourite saying around the office these days is ‘Life’s a mountain, not a beach.’ We’d love to have him back some day, and I know that Fairmont sees things the same way."

Sonya Hwang, the director of communications for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler said, "We’re all sad to see him leaving, but it’s a good opportunity and we’re very happy for him. He’s a wonderful man and we’re going to miss him dearly."

Roberts arrived in Whistler in 1980. He was born and raised in Kenya, but attended private school in the U.K. before he got into the hospitality industry.

His first job in Whistler was as at the old Whistler Resort and Club in Creekside under Jack Bright, a former manager of Whistler Mountain.

The resort was later bought by Peter Thomas, who spent $2 million to upgrade the 94-room hotel.

After the renovation, Roberts became the manager of J.B.’s, a fine French restaurant, where he worked with Rimrock chef Rolf Gunther.

From there, Roberts went to the new Delta hotel in 1982, where he started as the restaurant manager. Within six weeks he was promoted to food and beverage director.

His first going away party was in 1984, when he was transferred to the Delta Lakeside in Penticton to serve as the general manager. He went to the Caribbean in 1986 to work as GM for Lawrence Rockefeller.

He was in negotiation to take the top job at yet another hotel when he got the call from CP Hotels and its new Chateau Whistler. Roberts jumped at the chance to return to town.

One of Roberts’ fondest memories as general manager was the opening of the Chateau Whistler Golf Course in 1992 with course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. The Hill Street Blues Cast Reunion, the Pepsi Co. annual general meeting, and the second phase of expansion – which added 221 rooms and a huge ballroom to the hotel – also rank up near the top.

Over the years, Roberts has hung out with the members of Motley Crue, former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. His guest book also contains the signatures of Sidney Poitier, singer Sarah McLaughlin, the Temptations, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, Neil Simon, Mary Wilson, ABC’s Peter Jennings, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and several Vancouver Canucks teams, to name just a few of the guests that have passed through the hotel over the years.

One thing he will be remembered for was hosting an annual black tie Loonie race with WORCA, followed by a lavish post-race party at the Chateau.

"That’s part of our community support," said Roberts. "The Loonie movement has a tremendous amount of community support and we had to be part of it. You look at all these small businesses who close up early on Thursday night to make a dinner for 300 people. It’s one of those things that cuts through the crap and shows you what the community is.

"One of the appealing things about Whistler is that it is this important resort, but there’s still a real smallness to it."

Roberts has been a member of Tourism Whistler, One Whistler, and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce since the beginning. He has sponsored The Whistler Cup Races, and through the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Foundation he has supported WAG, Big Brothers and Sisters, the Whistler Food Bank, Whistler Community Services, Myrtle Philip Community School and AWARE.

Most recently he has been involved in the Whistler. It’s Our Nature program as an early adopter of The Natural Step framework for sustainability.

"That’s not me. I’m the GM but its been the team here that creates the energy to make that happen. The good news is that it’s working, learning how we can become more sustainable," Roberts said.

The original motivation came from head office, when Fairmont decided that it was good business to adopt a greener image. According to Roberts, his staff has run with it, winning several awards from the company for their initiatives.

There are four pillars to Roberts’ vision for the hotel – maintain profitability, provide superior guest experience, promote internal personal development and support the community. The sustainability initiative, he believes, is in line with each of those pillars.

As for the future, Roberts credits local businesses for sticking together, at least most of the time, to keep the resort on track.

"We’re still very co-ordinated in our approach to the marketplace. We’re still in sync with each other, and we still believe in the destination enough we can sell it.

"My winters I spend skate skiing, and in the summer I ride my bike. That’s what recharges my batteries.

"We’re lucky to live in a town where the local government and the businesses are so supportive of recreation, and diverse recreation as well. Take Frisbee golf. It’s out there, and yet a course has been built by the municipality.

"I was lucky to live in a place like this. We all are, and I am going to miss it."

Roberts’ farewell party is by invitation only. He’s keeping a place in Whistler so he will be back – perhaps long enough to throw him going away party number four.