June 29, 2017 Features & Images » Feature Story

Sonntag named new Whistler Blackcomb COO 

'This is the greatest job I could ask for,' says Vail's VP of Lake Tahoe region

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Glad to be here Pete Sonntag is taking over as Whistler Blackcomb COO.
  • Photo submitted
  • Glad to be here Pete Sonntag is taking over as Whistler Blackcomb COO.

Pete Sonntag is taking over for Dave Brownlie.

Vail Resorts announced on June 16 that Sonntag would step into the role of Whistler Blackcomb (WB) COO later this summer, filling the shoes of Brownlie, who worked at the resort for nearly 30 years.

Sonntag has served as the senior vice-president of Vail's Lake Tahoe region since 2015 and will start in Whistler once his Canadian work visa is approved. His current portfolio includes working as the COO of Heavenly Mountain Resort while overseeing Northstar California and Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

Sonntag previously managed ski and snowboard schools in Vail and Beaver Creek and was the director of skier services at Keystone Mountain Resort before that. He started his mountain career as a ski instructor at Beaver Creek while working as a greenskeeper at the local golf course in the summer, later working his way up to supervisor and private lesson manager before directing the adult ski and snowboard school. He then directed the Copper Mountain Resort Ski & Ride School.

Sonntag earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Albany in New York and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Vermont.

Sonntag and his family, including wife Carol and their three children, will arrive in Whistler soon.

Sonntag joined Pique for a Q&A from California on June 22 about Whistler and what he'll bring to the role.

PIQUE: What appealed to you about the Whistler Blackcomb opportunity?

PETE SONNTAG: "Where do I start? I've been to Whistler — I was there this past weekend — but prior to that, I'd been there three times in the early 2000s, each time for skiing. Those are my only three visits, but each of those left an amazing and lasting impression on me about what an amazing, beautiful place it is, how amazing the ski terrain was, and the vibrancy of the village was something that I'll never forget, either. I was just amazed. Two of those visits were in April, which would be wind-down season in the rest of the ski world, but it was full, vibrant and active. I loved the vibe and that impression has stuck with me ever since. When this opportunity came along, I paused for about half a second, long enough to realize I'd better check with my wife first, but beyond that, there was zero hesitation for me in accepting what to me is the opportunity of a lifetime. For somebody who does what I do for a living, this is the greatest job I could ever ask for."

PIQUE: After visiting recently, what was your impression of the bike park and the mountain-bike culture up here?

PS: "(When I came up), I had my family with me. We were really preoccupied with meeting the leadership team at Whistler Blackcomb and getting a sense of a feel for the neighbourhoods and looking for potential places for us to live. We didn't get up on the mountain, but we did have a chance to look around the village and again, what I told people as soon as I got back, is the weather was not great, it was cool, damp, and you would not believe how many people are riding their bikes and accessing the bike park. The scale of that business and the impact that it has, you see it everywhere in the community. There are people on bikes everywhere, not just those in the bike park but road bikers and folks riding around on their cruisers. It's really cool and my whole family noticed it as well. We all thought it was pretty awesome."

PIQUE: What's your vision for where you want to take the resort?

PS: "My vision is (that) I'm going to work with the team there and with the community and with all the stakeholders who have a say or feel the effects of what happens with that resort. We're going to build the vision together. There are a lot of things in process that I'm still learning about. I will continue to learn. That's part of what I'm really excited about with the opportunity is just the chance to learn a new resort, learn a new culture, meet new people, develop new relationships, all the things that go along with that that I've had the chance to do at several other resorts. I can't wait to do that here, too. We're going to build that together, what the next phase, the next era of Whistler Blackcomb's development looks like and I'm incredibly excited about that."

PIQUE: Renaissance is a big part of that. With such a major infrastructure project coming in right now, what's it like jumping in midstream?

PS: "I'll be honest, I'm still learning about that project as well. I understand the scope of it is pretty massive. That would be one of my initial top priorities — beyond just meeting people and getting initiated into the community — to understand that project, what my role will be in moving that project forward and continuing to educate myself."

PIQUE: You've had experience in many facets of running a ski resort, working your way up. How does that affect your management style?

PS: "I have over 30 years of experience in the ski industry and in a lot of ways, it feels like not that long ago when I got started. I still remember my first days pretty clearly back in the Vail-Beaver Creek area. I started working as a greenskeeper in the summers and in the winters I was a rental tech at a small ski shop in Vail. I loved it then and I knew somehow I was going to make this my life's work. I was trying to focus on being the best that I could be at what I was doing. It's been an amazing journey that I never could have scripted out. To answer your question, there's management and there's leadership, and they're two different things. The management (side) is really understanding the task at hand, knowing what resources you have available to you, helping direct those resources to the right place at the right time to get the job done in an efficient and good manner to get a great result. The leadership piece is a little harder to put into words sometimes, but it's about being the right kind of person, being the kind of person that makes others around him or her better, and that's something I've focused on a lot, especially in recent years — trying to build a great team with the right people in the right roles, to find out what makes those people tick, to do everything I can to bring out the best in them and find ways to celebrate our success together as a team. To me, there's nothing more fulfilling in my professional life."

PIQUE: Do you think it's important to have that background to understand what a lot of these workers are experiencing and going through?

PS: "I think it's incredibly important. I have to remind myself, which I do, never lose sight of where you started and what it was like. Even though the world is different than it was 33 years ago when I started, the world for somebody who just got out of high school, or is taking a break from college, to try this out for a season or a couple seasons is largely the same. You work hard, you play hard, you scrape by. It's really a gut-check of if this is the right life for you and are you going to be able to make it? It's not for everybody and I think a lot of people self-select. Those who stick with it are the ones I really gain respect for over time because I know what hurdles they've overcome and what they've had to sacrifice in other parts of their lives to make this their life's work. It is really important and I think one of the things I can bring to the table is I can connect to people at every level of the organization because I've been there."

PIQUE: Having been in the Vail Resorts company for a while now, do you think that will make the transition easier, just knowing how it operates and what the company structure is like?

PS: "I've almost entirely in my career worked for Vail Resorts, (aside from) a couple years for Intrawest in the early 2000s. I've been with this company for most of my adult life through an amazing transformation. It was just Vail and Beaver Creek when I started and to see what it is now is amazing. I'm proud to have been a part of it and excited to be a part of it. That experience has given me not only insights into the system of how the company works, but (also) I know a lot of people. I know people in a lot of resorts. I know people in our corporate office, and to be able to pick up the phone and make a call when I have a question about something and be able to get a straight answer, there's a lot of value in that. That's something I can bring right away to this role as we're still in the process of integrating Whistler Blackcomb into the company. I can facilitate a lot of that integration, and that's what I intend to do. I think I can really help support the teams as they find their way through this integration process."

PIQUE: When the news of your hiring was announced, we got a bit of feedback from people that were disappointed that a Canadian wasn't hired to take over the role. What sets you apart from some of the people who might have been in consideration?

PS: "I understand I'm the new guy at the resort. I've been that person before and it's a bit uncomfortable at first, but what I have is a lot of confidence in my ability to connect with people, to show them what I'm all about, that I'm there for them, that I'm committed to their success, that their success is my success, and vice versa. I have to earn the trust of the people on the Whistler Blackcomb staff, the leadership team right down to the frontline staff, and the same thing in the community with all the stakeholders who have a say in what happens in that community and with our business. I can work incredibly hard and I intend to for this. I'm going to bring 100 per cent of myself to this role and my goal is to get a few years down the line and have people say, 'Yep, Pete was the right choice.'"

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