'We acknowledge that we made some mistakes' 

Vail Resorts reckons with first winter at WB following negative press

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MITCH WINTON/COURTESY OF WSSF - IN THE BOOKS Vail Resorts is reflecting on its first season at the head of Whistler Blackcomb, which unofficially wrapped last week with the annual World Ski and Snowboard Festival.
  • PHOTO by Mitch Winton/Courtesy of WSSF
  • IN THE BOOKS Vail Resorts is reflecting on its first season at the head of Whistler Blackcomb, which unofficially wrapped last week with the annual World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag said he was already planning a media blitz at the conclusion of Vail Resorts' first season operating North America's most iconic ski resort. But after a Bloomberg News article published last week catalogued the backlash the ski-industry giant has faced in the wake of its $1.4-billion takeover of Whistler Blackcomb (WB), the PR tour gained a new urgency.

"It really illustrates how relentless we have to be with getting our message out," said Sonntag, who arranged a sit-down with Pique's editorial team on Monday, April 16, the same day he was interviewed by radio stations CBC and CKNW.

The main message he wanted to get out? That the company is committed to "making things right."

"We acknowledge that we made some mistakes," he added. "We fell short in some areas as a company this year, and we apologize for that, whether it's to guests, staff or the community."

Sonntag always knew shifting local opinion of WB's historical rival would take some time, and he concedes that the challenging start to the ski season, as the company rushed to get pass products to guests in time for Opening Day, didn't help matters.

"The snow was amazing, so there was an incredible amount of pent-up demand ... so, unfortunately, we had all these people excited to get up the mountain and they were stuck waiting in line," Sonntag relayed. "That hurt. That hurt our image a lot, and there were a few details in there that we've worked our way through, but it wasn't like we flipped the switch and it was better on Day 2."

With all the focus on ensuring a smooth merger heading into the season, Sonntag admits there are priorities that may have fallen by the wayside this winter.

"We came into this knowing we had something we needed to get done, and that was bringing these two companies together and integrating the systems in one summer, but we probably underestimated the impact that would have on everything else," he said. "It's clearly lingered for longer than we would like. But at the same time, I feel like we have moved through a lot of that and there is a lot of reason for optimism, so now we can really focus on strengthening our ties in the community."

Housing project on the way

Adding to the anxieties many Whistlerites are feeling over Vail Resorts, Sonntag posited, are the community's longstanding struggles around housing and affordability.

WB is looking to ease some of that strain with a new housing project, the details of which are scarce at this point.

"We've got a couple things we have to get through in order to announce it," Sonntag said. "Once it's announced, we're all in and we'll make it happen as quickly as we can."

Vail Resorts has set aside $30 million for housing projects at its roster of resorts, but given the current state of Whistler's housing shortage, Sonntag said efforts are "further along" than at its other ski properties, noting that one third of staff are housed here, more than at any other Vail Resorts property.

The resort executive said it's still too early to say whether the project would be situated on WB property or in the community at large, only noting "it will be a difference maker, for sure."

Communication key

Looking back on the season that was, Sonntag said that if Vail Resorts could have done one thing differently, it would be how it communicates with guests and its employees.

"Communication is key to so much. (It has to be) clear, relevant, and with the right sensitivity around who the audience is," he said, noting how, even minor details, such as having the correct Canadian spelling and Whistler-specific terminology on its promotional materials, can play an important role in how the public views the Broomfield, Colo.-based company.

"If we were to do one thing differently, it would be to come in with full awareness that this is an issue and it's something you need to pay attention to, and the details do matter. It's something we're committed to fixing going forward, but you learn through some difficulties to get there," said Sonntag.

That insight extends to how the company communicates with its own staff, as well. Over the past two months, WB has arranged "listening sessions" with employees from each department (some multiple times) so they could freely air out their grievances to third-party consultants. Those followed WB's latest employee engagement survey, which saw the lowest scores across all of Vail Resorts' properties, and a union drive that first came to light in February that is being led by a group of Snow School instructors.

"Our job now, over the next several weeks, is to take all that information, try to make sense out of it, try to figure out what themes are out there and how we work in partnership with our employees to create solutions to what's troubling them," Sonntag said.

Pass products

Much of the frustration regional skiers are feeling in the wake of Vail Resorts' takeover stems from the restructuring of Whistler Blackcomb's pass products. Following Sonntag's interview with CBC Radio, listeners, on Wednesday morning, called in to The Early Edition to voice their views on Vail Resorts' first season at the helm of WB. Their No. 1 complaint? The loss of the three-day Edge card, which has historically been the go-to option for Lower Mainland visitors looking for an affordable option to ski a handful of days a year in Whistler.

For some, it's another sign of Vail Resorts moving away from its regional customer base in favour of the well-heeled, destination guests travelling from the U.S. to take advantage of the company's vaunted Epic Pass, which grants unlimited skiing at 15 resorts. More than eight per cent of the estimated 750,000 Epic Pass holders visited Whistler Blackcomb this winter, according to Vail Resorts' most recent quarterly report. It's priced at US$899 for the 2018-19 season.

Sonntag challenged that perception of Vail Resorts' over-reliance on the American market by touting the diversity of the visitors who come to ski Whistler, and the company's resiliency in the face of economic downturns.

"A lot of the visitation (WB) saw this season was a direct result of the poor snow conditions (at Vail Resorts' Western U.S. properties), which supports our business model in that when we band together as resorts, we actually help weatherproof the company," he noted. "It's highly unlikely that that same phenomenon will happen across all our resorts ... so in any given year, we're going to see a bit of movement from one resort to another, and that allows us to keep everyone working in a bad year, and it allows us to continue to invest in the resort."

The April 9 Bloomberg article, "Is Vail Resorts Killing Whistler's Spirit?" also noted the complications around transacting Epic Pass sales in U.S. dollars, which puts Canadian skiers at the mercy of constantly fluctuating exchange rates. Sonntag said that, while all other pass products are priced in Canadian funds, the Epic Pass would continue to be transacted in American dollars "until we have more resorts in Canada than we do in the United States."

But that doesn't mean the company is entirely resistant to change.

Locally, Whistlerites lamented the elimination, last March, of the parent pass, which offered parents a discounted rate on a season of skiing. After the announcement sparked outrage among local families, Vail Resorts reversed course, extending the deal into this season. But that offer only applied to 2016-17 parent passholders, leaving some families in the lurch.

Sonntag was asked if the parent pass could be offered generally again next winter, as a conciliatory gesture to local families.

"We do need to re-look at everything we're doing. I can't speak specifically to the parent pass, but certainly the spirit of what the parent pass is about is important," he noted, adding that the Epic SchoolKids program will be rolled into WB ahead of next winter, granting five days of free skiing to Canadian and Washington State children in Kindergarten through to Grade 5.

"That's a big deal," Sonntag mused. "It is something that we've rolled out at a couple of our other resorts, (and it's been) really well received."

Sonntag also reiterated Vail Resorts' support for the continuation of the Spirit Pass program, a discounted season's pass and other perks offered to resort employees that complete a specialized customer service-training program through the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.

"We love what (the program) encompasses and the idea that everyone goes through the same service training for Whistler Blackcomb employees and employees in the community. That doesn't happen in many places and I think there's a huge impact from it," he said.

Under construction

As the season winds down, WB is looking to get going on its $66-million upgrades to lifts on Blackcomb and Whistler mountains.

Work is set to begin on April 23, with fencing erected around the perimeter of the construction zone on Blackcomb Mountain. Skiing and riding will continue from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the end of the season, via the Excalibur Gondola and Excelerator Express. Downloading will be mandatory through Excalibur. The Jersey Cream Express, Crystal Ridge chair, Glacier Express, Horstman T-bar and 7th Heaven will all remain open throughout construction, weather permitting.

The XL terrain park will be closed, although a terrain park in the Jersey Cream zone will remain open until the final day of the season, May 21.

Novice terrain will be limited, explained Kira Cailes, safety manager for WB.

"There aren't as many green runs as there would normally be, but I do think there's lots of great intermediate terrain," she said. "It should be a fun spring product."

Lot 8 will also close, as it will serve as the base for construction. To stay up to date with the closures, visit whistlerblackcomb.com/construction.

On April 22, Merlin's will host a farewell party for the Wizard and Solar chairs, which have been in operation since 1987.

"Those chairs have served us well over the years," said Cailes. "They're like old friends."

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