November 30, 2014 Features & Images » Feature Story

Journey to the Alpine 

Whistler Blackcomb continues its multi-million dollar improvements, as the mountains work to stay on top


It's Friday, Nov. 21 — a full week before ski runs on Whistler Mountain were originally scheduled to open.

But here we are, riding up the mountain in the resort's brand new, whisper-quiet gondola, the long-awaited first run of the season just minutes away.

Hundreds of impatient Facebook posts will cease, the speculation will be over and the weather watchers quieted for now.

On this Friday morning, still a full 24 hours from the start of the season on Whistler Mountain, the line at the bottom has already begun to form.

In fact, Cooper and Jackson Bathgate and Liam Peiffer have already been camped out for 24 hours.

"It's cold, and the staff have gotten mad at us for our stuff being everywhere," Peiffer joked.

"We just wanted to get everybody hyped on skiing."

This is the fourth year in a row the trio has camped out for the right to be first up the mountain.

And the bragging rights are worth the wait, they say.

"Super hyped," Cooper said. "Life's crazy."

They likely won't be alone for long.

By now, word is out. The snowmakers have been blasting day and night for weeks, the staff of Whistler Blackcomb hard at work grooming, prepping and contouring.

And the excitement has been building.

Riding up the side of Whistler Mountain just hours before the official season opening, I can feel it.

Tomorrow will mark my first opening day in Whistler, but looking out the windows of these gondolas, I know — in these mountains there are endless stories.


They say that every good story has a sense of familiarity to it — the feeling that you've been here before, but maybe not quite in this exact way.

By the same token, every good story should also employ a sense of unpredictability, to the degree that you can never fully predict the ending.

By these guidelines, you could say that Whistler Blackcomb's operations are much like a good story.

There's the familiar: the Opening Day excitement, barrelling ski runs, endless, breathtaking vistas and, of course, international acclaim — in September, Whistler Blackcomb was named the top ski resort in North America by SKI Magazine.

But staying on top doesn't happen through stagnancy, and at Whistler Blackcomb, there is no room for complacency.

"At Whistler Blackcomb we are constantly looking for ways to set the bar higher," said Dave Brownlie, president and chief executive officer at Whistler Blackcomb in a press release announcing new developments this year.

There are more than 20 ski resorts in B.C. and Washington State alone, each competing with one another for local and foreign dollars alike.

What it means for resort operators is that you've got to constantly be reinventing and revising, fine-tuning and fixing, all in the name of staying relevant.

At Whistler Blackcomb, that continued relevance is driven largely by user feedback from the skiers and snowboarders who live for the mountain.

According to Arthur De Jong, mountain planner and environmental resource manager with Whistler Blackcomb, that user feedback is essential.

"It's everything," he said.

"We're out there, we're talking to our guests. We have surveys, questionnaires. Our staff and our management are on the slopes every day.

"This is more than a business, it's an experience. You just have to stand at the bottom of the mountain and talk to the guests. 'What runs did you ski? What did you like about it? What can we do to improve?'

"So there's a very, very intimate exchange between guests and staff."

The impact that exchange has on the product should be visible this year to regulars.

In 2013, Whistler Blackcomb celebrated the opening of the Crystal Ridge Express — a new, high-speed quad chairlift that allows guests to ski the entirety of the Crystal Zone — and the Harmony 6 Express chairlift, an $18 million investment.

"We did a major project expansion last year with the new chairs. Lots of run work and trail development," De Jong said.

"This year, we kept enough money aside so that we could nail all of the issues and opportunities after we watched it operate for a year."

After last year, WB staff identified five "pinch points" — or areas that might not be as enjoyable as they should.

"It's very specific how we do this. We study the traffic patterns, we talk a lot to our guests, the areas that they're not liking about that specific experience, and we go and we fix it," De Jong said.

"And it is noticeable this year. Some of the improvements are subtle, some are really obvious. The net effect is that our best intermediate zone just got better."


Land contouring and improvements to the ski experience are important, but they likely won't be the first upgrade you notice this year — with another $12 million being invested for the 2014/2015 season.

The bright, shiny new line of Whistler Village gondolas rolling up and down Whistler Mountain — the first village gondola upgrade in more than 25 years — represent a $6million investment.

"The (old) ones were manufactured in 1988, so they've done marvelous for us," said Adam Francis, mountain manager with Whistler Blackcomb.

"They were a workhorse cabin, and their time to be replaced is now. They're getting up there in age, and we're offering a cabin now that you can sit down more effectively in, and it's a little more comfortable."

Also new this year are the $5.9 million RFID gates and support system visible at the bottom of almost every lift.

Rather than waiting for a pass to be scanned, mountain users will walk through a gate, which will scan for the RFID pass.

"You merely wear it in the left hand pocket on your coat or in the arm, and it completes the circuit and it allows the turnstile to open automatically so you're granted access to the lift," Francis said.

"So that's quite a bit more convenient for the guest. It just heightens the guest experience."

And in a way, everything that Whistler Blackcomb does is about heightening the guest experience.

Another new addition this year — based around simplifying the learning process for first-time skiers — aims to ensure new guests become return guests in the future.

"In the ski school there is now what we call a terrain-based learning initiative," Francis said.

"In the past, people would rent skis, come up, and find it was too hard... What we're trying to do is to get those people, those first timers, to convert to full-time skiers, take it up as a sport and a passion and enter the skiing marketplace as a customer."

Part of the terrain-based learning uses miniature halfpipes built to redirect the skier's skis.

"They just merely stand there and slide into this thing and it helps them to change direction," Francis said.

"It's a relatively new program, but we want to increase skiing and snowboard participation for first-time skiers."

After all, if people enjoy their first experience on skis, there's a higher likelihood they'll be back.

And the same logic can be applied to everything else about the resort experience.


While Whistler Blackcomb is of course the lead in this story, it's one that can't be told without mentioning the supporting cast of characters.

And ensuring guests to Whistler enjoy themselves starts from the top down.

"Tourism is our primary industry here, and for the municipality it's very important to ensure that we and our partners are all continually working to improve the product and the experience," said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

Some of the ways that the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) does that include partnering with the Whistler Chamber of Commerce to provide training for staff, making sure the resort is aesthetically pleasing and that guests have an easy time finding their way around.

Much like Whistler Blackcomb, the RMOW must constantly be thinking ahead to the next chapter of its story, lest visitors find the tale growing stale.

"Whistler is in a very competitive field," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"To attract tourists and guests to choose Whistler with what are usually limited vacation dollars at hand, we do have to be continually looking to improving the experience, improving service levels and improving facilities."

In doing that, the RMOW has to collaborate with Whistler Blackcomb, the Chamber of Commerce, and, of course, Tourism Whistler.

In recent years, the collaboration has been paying off.

"Whistler has had three, four really strong seasons (in a row)," said Louise Walker, vice president of marketing for Tourism Whistler.

"In fact, last winter was our strongest on record in terms of room nights."

In the summer of 2013 and winter of 2013/14, 2.7 million unique visitors came to Whistler, according to Tourism Whistler.

That's more than the 2.6 million that were here for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

All told, Whistler contributes $1.3 billion to the provincial GDP every year, representing more than 22 per cent of the provincial tourism export revenue — that's $1.2 million a day in tax revenue.

Like Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler sees the need for a hybrid approach of familiarity and innovation.

"I think it is really important that we remain on top of trends and what's happening in the industry, and the environment and what our customers want, but at the same time focusing on our existing strengths and not forgetting what we're known for and what people come for," Walker said.

And according to Peter Williams, a member of the Centre for Tourism Policy and Research at Simon Fraser University, innovation is built into the very fabric of tourism.

"It's absolutely critical," Williams said.

"In this really competitive environment where people can travel anywhere in the world, if you don't keep moving forward with better, more improved, more efficient kind of operations, you're not going to be in the business very long."

But what is the limit? At what point will there be no more room for innovation?

Right now that's not entirely clear, Williams said, but with the way technology has been advancing, the next innovations are likely to come in the form of process changes.

"When we talk of innovation it's not necessarily new products always," he said.

"We have a tremendous number of examples of new products, that are based on the notion of using mountains as places for gravity sports... but there's also innovations in processes, and I think that's where destinations have the biggest opportunity.

"How do you create the most seamless experience for travellers? And that's where the technologies come into play, that allow you to exchange information quicker and listen more directly to what the customers are looking for.

"I think digital technologies are creating more and more opportunities for that process change, from how you buy a ski ticket to how you get your ski boots, to how you tell the story when you're finished at the end of the day."


By the time you read this, Whistler Mountain will already have been open for the better part of a week. Another opening day is in the books, and another winter season in Whistler is stretching out before us.

And like seasons past, the stories created out of the experiences in Whistler will be the outline of the next chapter for the resort.



New and improved for 2014/2015

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) system with lift access control gates on most mountain lifts. It is part of a $5.9 million investment into information technology initiatives. Expected benefits of RFID include reduced wait times at Whistler Blackcomb's main access points and the minimization of unpaid lift access.

Sections of the Crystal Glide trail, which leads from the Glacier Creek Lodge area to the base of the new Crystal Ridge Express, have been widened. Further trail work has been done on Rock n' Roll, Backstage Pass, and Ridgerunner as well.

This winter Whistler Blackcomb will join only a few resorts in North America in the newest trend in ski and snowboard instruction with the introduction of Terrain Based Learning to its Snow School program. This concept involves building small terrain features so beginners can experience the true feelings of skiing and snowboarding in a safe environment, which makes the learning process easier and results in faster progression for participants.

Garbo's Grill has been added to eatery options. Located in the Carleton Lodge at the base of Whistler Mountain, the new dining option specializes in customizable burgers — beef, chicken and veggie. Diners then have a choice of over 20 garnishes and gluten-free options are available. It will also have a number of breakfast options available to early birds starting at 7 a.m., including coffee and a selection of breakfast sandwiches.

Grooming an average of 1,300 acres every night during the winter season, Whistler Blackcomb has invested in two new state of the art machines that will join its grooming fleet, comprised of 25 machines this winter. One of the machines, a PistenBully 400 Park Pro, a 375hp, is a specialized snow cat used to shape terrain park features. This is the first machine of its kind in use in Western Canada for this season.

Familes are also on the agenda with a new Kids Night Our program. This is a fun, non-ski based evening program that will take place from Blackcomb Kids at the base of Blackcomb Mountain in the Upper Village. They will be available during holiday weeks including Christmas/New Year's, Chinese New Year, President's Week and Easter, and will offer a convenient solution for parents looking for some grown-up time during their vacations.

Kids will be glad to hear that this winter, Whistler Blackcomb will be installing its first ever covered Magic Carpet lift at the Children's Learning Centre on Whistler Mountain.


Whistler Village Gondola

$6 million invested to replace existing cabins that have been on the line since 1988.

The new eight-passenger cabins were fabricated in France by Sigma, a subsidiary of Leitner-POMA, the original manufacturer of the Whistler Village Gondola.

They are "Diamond" level walk-in cabins (Diamond is the cabin model).

The cabins were selected to dramatically improve the experience for skiers, snowboarders, and sightseers with all eight passengers able to sit comfortably on bench seating.

The new gondola cabins have entrances that are 825 mm wide.

Lift terminals have also been improved to enhance the functionality of the interior space.

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