Introducing Whistler Blackcomb's new COO, Geoff Buchheister 

Pique staff met with executive for wide-ranging discussion ahead of ski season

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Geoff Buchheister, the former GM of Keystone Resort, Colo., is Whistler Blackcomb's new COO.
  • photo submitted
  • Geoff Buchheister, the former GM of Keystone Resort, Colo., is Whistler Blackcomb's new COO.

as a former executive at Park City Mountain in Utah, new Whistler Blackcomb (WB) COO Geoff Buchheister has experienced the resistance to change that can come when an iconic ski resort is acquired by its long-time competitor.

In 2014, Vail Resorts added Park City to its portfolio in a US$182.5-million deal, and, similar to Whistler, there were fears in the community over what the acquisition would mean to the culture and ski experience.

"I think a lot of it, and probably why I'm sitting here today, is that how you frame change and manage that is really important. Those early moments of an acquisition and how people respond, react and show up are also really important," said Buccheister, who was announced in August as WB's incoming COO after Pete Sonntag relocated to Broomfield, Colo. to take a new position. "I've come into this with a saying that I have used recently in a lot of communication with our team and our staff: the past will never change but the future always will, and you can be a part of it. You can be an advocate for what you believe is right and be passionate about that. That's what I did."

Most recently serving as the GM of Keystone Resort, Buchheister began his career in Park City, following in the footsteps of his father, a long-time executive for the Utah resort who also helped found the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

A ski racer for the University of Colorado, Buchheister was immersed in the industry from a young age, often accompanying his father in meetings.

"I probably didn't have the tact I should have as a young guy, but I just thought I belonged there and that's how I felt," he said. "I was exposed to a really cool [para-skiing] program at a young age and saw people who had been through life-long adversity, some had disabilities from birth and some had come back from something catastrophic. I became friends with these people and seeing them ski and experience the mountains changed their life. It changed my life in that I realized what the mountains can provide for people."

Pique sat down with Buchheister and WB communications director* Marc Riddell last week to discuss the upcoming season at WB, staffing, climate change and a host of other subjects over an hour-plus interview.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

On overcoming the pushback among some in the community to Vail Resorts' takeover:

Geoff Buchheister: I think there's a lot of ways ... The willingness and opportunity for people like me ... or anyone who works in our company to be involved in the community is I think a great way for us to show we're here. I'm pretty sure that regardless of who owns a mountain, there has to be partnership and reliability amongst the community and the people who live and work here. I think that's all important.

I think the negativity is really the community showing that they're passionate and proud and they want to make sure whoever the ownership is knows that and understands that. I think it's appropriate. I also think it's something that takes time to let everything sit and settle where it is. You're not going to have a company come in and overnight everyone feels great.

On preserving the distinct culture of Whistler:

GB: Someone's going to own the mountain, and my job is to be a great partner and I think to look after the mountain in a way that keeps our company's interest in mind, and I think to celebrate that Whistler is unique and no one is here trying to make it anything other than it is, but to make it better. There's not a prescription out there that it needs to be something different than it is. I think there's pride in the community ... and I think that pride comes of as passion and ownership and I think those are all good things. The trick is, in my mind, if I resist that feedback, then I'm not going to learn from the community. If I listen to it and incorporate the things that I can into the way that we operate, then I think the community will feel that they do have a say.

On providing opportunities for career growth at WB:

GB: Oftentimes we talk about [former Whistler Blackcomb CEO Dave] Brownlie, we talk about the leader, not necessarily talking about the managers and the great people that are out there getting things done but never had an opportunity because people didn't leave. And now, in a network of nearly 40 resorts, they don't have to wait it out if they are a career-minded person that is contributing and wants to continue their career and take a path like mine that meanders across our company. Those opportunities are there for folks that want them, and great people have more breadth to rise to the level they're trying to achieve for. I think that's awesome.

On responding to the concern that Vail Resorts' is emphasizing the Epic Pass and destination guests in favour of the local and regional market:

GB: I think the way our company has been built is we're focused on this pre-commitment [to pass sales], which honestly adds some stability and reliability to both the guest and the operator. The guest benefits because if it's a rough winter in one of the regions, they've got options. The company benefits because we have places to send people, we can share our guests, but also we can reliably get into the flow of continually investing in our resorts. That rough winter isn't going to impact us as much, and ultimately that allows us to keep doing some really cool projects that can help us address the changing [business] climate out there. And I think you'll see investments in snowmaking across a lot of our resorts ... and really stabilizing it for our customers. I would say the local is not excluded from that, and the regional guest is not excluded from that.

On staffing levels for the upcoming winter:

GB: On some levels, it's a little early to tell the full picture. Numbers have been coming in a little bit better than what we've been expecting so far, but it's still early. For us, we have a distinct advantage. Right around 1,500 beds, and we're going to add to that. I think our proactiveness around housing will help. The other thing on the labour shortage, I'm asking the team, and we have to find ways to do things smarter and better. It's not just crossing your fingers and hoping that you have enough people, but it's about getting better. That could be getting better at efficiencies in food and beverage, so that you can get the food done quicker and better and orders back to the house.

On improving the safety culture at WB:

GB: I think of every [employee] meeting that I've led so far since I've been here, probably the highest percentage of discussions has been around safety. That's not by mistake. I don't think anyone that gets injured intends to start their day, whether an employee or a guest, ending up in the emergency room or a helicopter or even just first aid in general. I think it's important to make it a top priority for us, and a lot of that is in your approach and your willingness to evaluate where you're at and to work to make it safer.

On WB's long-term strategy to adapt to climate change:

GB: Our "Commitment to Zero" was really born here at Whistler Blackcomb in many ways. We've got a commitment out there, we're going to get to zero waste to landfill, net zero emissions and all of those things. I think that's really awesome. The way I look at it is, I don't want to produce the same amount of material and say I'm at zero because it's been diverted and we're recycling or whatever, I think there's a way for us to limit the amount that we use in general.

On whether WB's climate efforts fly in the face of the Vail Resorts' Political Action Committee's financial contributions to noted climate-change deniers in the U.S.:

Marc Riddell: What I can say is that [Vail Resorts CEO] Rob Katz personally donates quite substantially to causes that are for climate change, but as a company it's also our responsibility to operate in areas where we may have a difference in opinion with folks that we need to deal with on a regular basis. It is part of doing business.

On WB's investments into summer business:

GB: WB's commitment to summer investment, the bike park, the Blackcomb Gondola made a huge impact last year to our summer offerings. [Editor's Note: Riddell confirmed the summer of 2019 was the busiest on record for sightseeing, the bike park and visitation overall to WB.] I think the offerings for all of our sightseeing visits was amazing, with the bridge and the impact of the gondola and the Peak 2 Peak and the whole package altogether was amazing. The investment in the bike park into Creekside eased some of the congestion on the Whistler Village side. I think it's really cool. The innovation that we've done over the years on the summer I think is hitting the mark. I think that's an area where we are leading, and the goal is to continue to be there.

On the issues last winter with the new Blackcomb Gondola:

GB: Often in our industry, you don't see lifts that size, that long, built in that short of a timeframe. Certainly as we came down to the finish line last year, we were under the gun to get the project done in partnership with Doppelmayr, and it just didn't leave a lot of time for the testing that we would typically do. The gondola ran all summer long, it ran great. We just had Doppelmayr here not too long ago ... doing an annual walk-through and making sure that we're feeling in a good spot. I think with the changes we made in the terrain outside of the gondola, along with basically getting the mileage on it to make those small tweaks that need to be made on the lift, I feel we're in a much, much better spot.

*The print version of this article incorrectly listed Marc Riddell as Whistler Blackcomb's communications manager, not communication director.

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