With more than a century of experience in the ski industry between them, three of Whistler's most trusted names in ski resort operation and management gathered Wednesday (Jan. 15) to discuss the past, present and future of the business.
A former Whistler Mountain president and a pioneer of the B.C. ski industry, Peter Alder was at the Whistler Museum to lend his decades of experience to the discussion. Joining him was EcoSign Mountain Resort Planners vice-president Don Murray, who has over 38 years of industry experience, as well as Whistler Coun. Roger McCarthy, who worked his way up from a lift operator to oversee various safety and lift departments at ski resorts across Canada and the U.S.
Adressing a packed crowd, Alder pointed to the province's formation in the mid-'80s of the Commercial Alpine Ski Policy, a paper he played a crucial role in developing, as the single biggest factor in shaping B.C.'s modern ski industry.
“In the olden days, when I first went into the ski business in 1960, we had no rights to cut any ski runs because it was on Crown land,” he said. “With the help of the Canada West Ski Area operators … we were able to introduce this policy, which gives the right to larger resorts, like what we call destination resorts such as Whistler Blackcomb, a 50-year lease on operating the ski areas. Regional resorts like Silver Star, Big White and Sun Peaks get the right to 25 years, and the smaller local ski hills get a 10-year or 15-year lease on Crown land.”
Murray, who worked under the founding father of Whistler Mountain, Franz Wilhelmsen, recalled something the Norwegian told him when he first started working on the hill.
“Wilhelmsen told me that we're in the uphill transportation business, but you know what? He was wrong, we're in the customer service business,” Murray said. “You can see that in the advances in grooming we've seen.”
Murray spoke about the grooming efforts on Whistler in the early years, which were rudimentary by today's standards, with only a shovel crew, boot packers and side slippers preparing runs. With the invention of the wide-track Packmaster, which was first advertised in 1969, Murray said it took “skiing from bumps, moguls and unpacked snow that was hard for people to negotiate to something that was easier.”
Rapidly evolving lift technology was another crucial development Murray cited, with added luxuries like heated seats and installed sound systems changing the way we upload.
Especially prescient during this season's poor weather, snowmaking was a technological development on the minds of the trio on Wednesday evening.
McCarthy remembered another particularly bad snow year, the winter of 1976-77, when Whistler Mountain had to borrow a snowmaking machine from Grouse Mountain that was powered by a large Volkswagen engine.
“We'd never seen anything like it,” he said.
Mountain staff at the time had to clear a small creek located under the Green Chair in order to attempt snowmaking, McCarthy said, and used plastic explosives to make enough space to access the water.
After that, staff felled some trees with a chainsaw, built a dam and used an old tent to stop the water flowing through. Still, the team was unable to make snow during one of the worst seasons on record.
“Lots of energy went into the project but we weren't able to make snow,” McCarthy recalled. “Still, it was the beginning of snow making on Whistler Mountain.”
Looking to the future of the industry, McCarthy questioned whether resorts will see a drop off in snowboarding's popularity, especially considering an ongoing drop in snowboard sales, a shifting demographic and advancements in ski technology that has made it easier for beginners to learn the sport.
“I think it's too early to tell, but snowboard sales are in decline and twin tips and all these other exotic skis are on the growth side,” he said. “I'm wondering if we aren't going to see snowboarding move through and people move to skis because, fundamentally, ski areas aren't that easy to get around on snowboards in a lot of places.”
The panellists also discussed the viability of making ski areas into popular year-round resorts, with Murray saying that many ski area operators “probably would be further ahead economically if they didn't operate during the summer.”
On average, he said, Western Canadian resorts make $8 million in lift revenue during the winter compared to just $700,000 in the summer. Having a wide array of accessible activities in the summer is important for success, Murray said, something the panellists agreed Whistler does exceptionally well.