Vail Resorts looks towards Whistler's future 

Pique sits down with Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag for wide-ranging interview

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER - Growth management New Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag says the company  is "really sensitive to the issue of overcrowding" in the resort.
  • PHOTO by mike crane / tourism whistler
  • Growth management New Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag says the company is "really sensitive to the issue of overcrowding" in the resort.

To many in the community, it feels like Whistler is undergoing a major transformational shift. Whether it's the lack of affordable housing, a dwindling workforce, the escalating cost of living, or Vail Resorts' $1.4-billion takeover of Whistler Blackcomb (WB), there are numerous signs that the resort could be nearing a tipping point.

Of course, not all are happy about the changes, and, according to Whistler Blackcomb's COO Pete Sonntag, those concerns have been heard loud and clear in Broomfield.

"It's not that I'm ignorant of it or nobody's talking to Pete about this. They are," he said. "I get it, too, and I appreciate that people are willing to be honest with me."

Pique sat down with the long-time ski executive this week for a far-reaching conversation that touched on a number of subjects facing the resort.

Sonntag, who took over for retiring COO Dave Brownlie this summer, acknowledged WB's role in dealing with what he called "maybe the single biggest issue in the community:" housing.

"There are no easy or short-term solutions for it. However, we understand we play a role; there are others who play a role as well. We will do our part," he said, adding that WB is in need of additional housing for its own staff this winter, and is exploring all available options, whether it's building additional accommodation, using existing WB property, or renting homes in the community. He also said there are "a couple (housing) projects" being discussed that the company is not ready to publicize yet.

No discussion of housing in Whistler can be separated from the resort's recent tourism boom — visitation in 2016 nearly topped the 3-million mark. In a letter to the editor this month, Tourism Whistler president Barrett Fisher urged a measured approach when managing growth.

It's a challenge Vail Resorts is looking to tackle head-on in Whistler.

"We're really sensitive to this issue of overcrowding," said Sonntag. "It's not smart for us to just grow volume at this point. That's probably not the way for us to grow our business, at least in the short term until we figure out solutions to some of these problems."

Vail Resorts is no stranger to the issue of "overtourism" at its other resorts; indeed, it's par for the course for any premier ski destination, asserted Sonntag. He's hopeful that Vail's inexpensive, multi-resort Epic Pass will help "smooth out visitation a bit" by encouraging longer stays in the resort and driving midweek visitation.

He also pointed to some of the recent efforts to reduce congestion along Colorado's I-70 corridor as Metro Denver's population has surged as a possible example for the Sea to Sky Highway — although U.S. state officials have warned the hours-long traffic jams to get to the slopes are likely to get worse with several proposals still awaiting voter approval.

"It took years and years, but eventually all the partners were able to come together, including the government, and added an extra lane for a significant chunk of that (highway), did a high-occupancy lane, and a zipper lane that can be swapped out depending on traffic," Sonntag explained. "It didn't fix everything but it did have an impact. It's not inconceivable we could consider (lobbying for) something like that between here and Vancouver."


When it was announced in 2016 that Whistler Blackcomb would change hands, there was some question as to whether Vail Resorts would continue with Renaissance, WB's ambitious $345-million investment plan that would radically transform the resort's on- and off-mountain offerings.

Although there's no timeline for some of the larger capital projects proposed — plans include a new lift, indoor adventure centre and waterpark — Sonntag said Vail is committed to seeing Renaissance through.

"The message is: We're doing this," he said, noting that several Renaissance proposals, such as the bike park expansion, are already underway.

"We have to bring in the stakeholders, especially the muni and the First Nations, to work together to figure out what this looks like. We're taking that time right now to evaluate. When we're ready to move forward, we will."

Partnering with the local Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations, who, along with the provincial and local government, have to sign off on Renaissance, has been a meaningful experience for Sonntag.

"Every time I sit in the room with (First Nations officials), I'm honoured," he said. "I don't want to squander this opportunity. This is big and I want to get it right and I want to do right by these partners, and I think they sense that. It's all about building the relationship and building trust, and I think we're off to a great start."

Transition period

Whistler residents and visitors aren't the only ones acclimating to Whistler Blackcomb's new owners. Employees have spent the summer familiarizing themselves with Vail's administrative and software systems.

"There's no limit to what we will bring to bear to make sure the integration is successful, but we don't always know exactly what it's going to take to work through a specific issue. And we've changed literally every system over the summer — we didn't do one single thing the same with the back(room) administrative, behind-the-scenes type stuff," Sonntag explained.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, he conceded, which is why Sonntag has been holding townhall-style meetings with the various WB departments.

"I wish I could say, 'Yeah, it's fun, we're enjoying the challenge,' but it's not fun sometimes, and I totally acknowledge that," he added. "My job is first to make sure people know they're appreciated, that I know what they're going through and we support them."

Like most employers in town, Sonntag said WB is dealing with employee shortages as it readies for the season. The ski resort anticipates a workforce of around 4,300 employees this winter.

"We face the same challenges everybody else does. Our recruiting model has shifted a little bit, so more of it is driven centrally, and we're working through that change. But we have the wherewithal of having a pretty significant engine back in Colorado helping us," said Sonntag.

Switching over systems means there's little chance WB will open before its anticipated opening date coinciding with American Thanksgiving — as it has, weather permitting, in past years.

"For this year, we're not going to open until we're ready to open, but we'll hit our regular schedule for opening day," said Sonntag.


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