Reinventing B.C. Tourism

In an industry built around unchanging geography, ?it’s the innovators who ?constantly give customers ?new reasons to visit old sites who survive and prosper?. “Are your knees shaking yet?” a woman asks her ?teenaged son. ?

Cliffwalk Capilano Suspension Bridge | BCBusiness
Building the new Cliffwalk attraction at the Capilano Suspension Bridge meant shaking up an established business.

In an industry built around unchanging geography, 
it’s the innovators who 
constantly give customers 
new reasons to visit old sites who survive and prosper

“Are your knees shaking yet?” a woman asks her 
teenaged son. 

“Nope,” he replies in a stoic, don’t-embarrass-me-Mom monotone. Around him, older folks are taking more liberty to react to the vertigo induced by looking down at the rainforest around the Capilano River from a 300-foot-high lookout. Audible gasps can be heard along the crowded single-file line as Tuesday afternoon visitors make their way across the narrow network of suspended walkways that make up Cliffwalk, the newest attraction at North Vancouver’s 122-year-old Capilano Suspension Bridge. 

That Capilano staffers continue to breathe new life into what is likely Vancouver’s oldest tourist attraction is one example of how successful tourism operators continue to innovate at established landmarks. For these tourism entrepreneurs, ingenuity is part of their business plan.

According to SFU tourism expert Peter Williams, survival in the tourism business depends on innovation. A close-up company that finds new ways to reflect its visitors’ changing interests will survive and prosper, while those that rely solely on spectacular surroundings will stagnate and die, says the director of the SFU Centre for Tourism Policy and Research. Williams specializes in the study of tourism based on mountains, a commodity in plentiful supply in B.C. Of the small- and mid-sized Canadian ski areas he has seen shut their doors over the years, those that have survived are the ones that looked beyond simply moving people up a hill.

Several factors contribute to the need for innovation in tourist destinations, Williams says. “One factor is the very rapidly changing culture and population mix we have in North America, which is spawning interest in a whole bunch of things that can be done on mountains that we haven’t thought of doing before,” he says. 

North Americans have a historically limited view of what mountains are used for in a recreation context, Williams maintains, and people coming from Asia and Europe are changing how North Americans use mountains. “As our population changes, we should expect [newcomers] to want to see our mountains used in the way that they’re used to using them.” Many other cultures have long histories of living in the mountains and have come to understand them as dynamic spaces used for purposes other than winter recreation, he explains. “They see them as spiritual places, they see them as summer places, they see them as pastoral places, they see them as places where they live as opposed to being in a valley,” Williams notes.

A second factor is a widespread orientation toward environmental sustainability. “Climate change is making operators have to think a bit more about what their business really is,” Williams says. Then there’s the economic reality that in a competitive market, necessity breeds invention. “There’s so much competition for leisure dollars. If you don’t come up with new ideas all the time, the markets sign off.”

Operators of three B.C. tourist destinations have made it their business to innovate constantly, with great success for both their longevity as profitable businesses and as cultural and historical landmarks that shape local identity and a sense of place. Here’s how they do it, and why it’s possible and often necessary to teach an old mountain new tricks. 

High up in Capilano Canyon, western red cedars and big leaf maples extend their branches toward the blue August sky, shading most of the activity on the fern-covered forest floor below. Tops of younger canopies are visible from above, while cliff-growing varieties jut out from fertile spots in the granite rock face. Beside them, small, powerful streams slowly erode the cliff in sharp edges that drop into the riverbed 90 metres below. 

“Water is the most essential substance on the planet,” reads a glass placard along a pathway a short distance to the east. “Water supply is heavily used and often overly stressed.” 

The water conservation exhibit adjacent to the new Cliffwalk is a sobering reminder of the vulnerable natural resource that formed the granite cliff from which visitors view the canyon below. The attraction was built with two visitor-driven interests in mind: people want closer access to the natural environment, but they’re also interested in taking steps to preserve it. 

Cliffwalk aims to accomplish both. The 215-metre-long, half-metre-wide series of walkways and cantilevered bridges is suspended above the Capilano River and attached to the cliff with cables and 16 anchor plates drilled into the rock. It hangs 21 metres higher than the suspension bridge and offers rare views of the canyon previously accessible only to experienced rock climbers. Uniquely constructed to achieve such a view, it is considered a feat of new engineering technology, and the water exhibit was planned with contemporary concerns in mind.


Eye of the Wind Observatory
Image: Adam Blasberg
Reinforcing Grouse Mountain’s reputation for
sustainability, the Eye of the Wind observatory, a
viewing capsule mounted at the top of a landmark
wind turbine, offers priceless views.

Cliffwalk at Capilano opens

Cliffwalk opened this June after four years of construction. It’s the newest attraction in a long line of innovation at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which includes a story centre, an interactive exhibit featuring live birds of prey, First Nations art and Treetops Adventure, a 100-foot-high series of walkways among the trees. All were added in the 28 years since owner and manager Nancy Stibbard bought the bridge from her father, the late North Vancouver real estate developer Rae Mitchell, in 1983. Stibbard is now CEO of Capilano Group of Companies, which operates the Moraine Lake Lodge in Banff National Park and the Cathedral Mountain Lodge near Lake Louise, in addition to the bridge.

Mitchell had originally bought the bridge in 1952 from Louis Henri Isadore Aubeneau, an eccentric neighbour who had let the bridge fall into disrepair since buying it in 1945. The tourist attraction opened in 1889, and today’s bridge is the fourth built in that location, swinging 70 metres above the Capilano River in North Vancouver.

When Mitchell started planning for retirement in the early ’80s, he approached his two daughters, Nancy and Gail, about taking on the family business. At the time, Stibbard was in her 30s and was raising two young children. “I had no business background,” she says. “I have a master’s in psychology. So there was no relationship between what I had learned at university and running a business like this.” But her father said he would sell the business if family didn’t take it on. Stibbard had worked summers at the bridge since she was eight years old, and couldn’t stand to see it sold.

She could have easily followed the tradition of previous owners and let the bridge stand alone as a draw for tourists. Instead, she grew the business by keeping her ear to the ground to closely monitor visitors’ wishes, a practice that seemed intuitive in the beginning and has since proven invaluable to Capilano’s profitability and growth. 

The first thing Stibbard did as the new owner was survey her guests about their interests in the site, a tradition that continues today in the fastidious collection of visitor statistics from ongoing surveys and focus groups, and the strategy has resulted in dramatic growth. Compared to the 12 staff and 125,000 annual visitors she started with in 1983, Stibbard now employs 150 year-round staff and 230 in the summer. There are about 650,000 visitors a year. In the peak years in 1999 and 2000, the site boasted 750,000 visitors. 

The new Cliffwalk was added to Capilano with two goals in mind. It’s a bid to return to what Stibbard calls the “glory years” of the late ’90s and early 2000s, when annual visits peaked before disruptions like the SARS scare and the economic downturn of the late 2000s resulted in a dip in international visitors. It’s also an effort to reflect visitor interests that have shifted from a focus on history to the task of preserving the natural environment for future generations. 

So far, the plan seems to be working. With visitors suspended on walkways among and above the trees, they reduce the risk of soil erosion and damaging the undergrowth, just as they do with Treetops Adventure, the suspended network of forest walkway that was added in 2004. And visitor numbers are already on the rise. “With Cliffwalk, our visitation has grown since we opened it by 25 per cent,” Stibbard says. At the time of our interview in August, the attraction had only been open two months. 

Tourism at Grouse Mountain

A short drive north up Capilano Road from the suspension bridge, Stuart McLaughlin runs a family tourism business that he became involved with six years after Stibbard took ownership of her father’s former business. The president of Grouse Mountain Resorts Ltd. has owned Grouse Mountain with his family since 1989, when the McLaughlins came into private ownership of what was previously a public company. 

McLaughlin’s father Bruce was a prominent real estate developer in Mississauga, Ontario. Advised by his bankers to diversify his business, Bruce came to Vancouver to explore new investment options. The family operated a peat business in Burns Bog in the their first years out west, before becoming involved with Grouse Mountain starting in 1974, when the McLaughlins helped finish construction of the Red Skyride at what was then a ski-focused destination. 

“His strength was always that he could see off into the future,” McLaughlin says of his father, who owned and developed 4,500 acres in Mississauga. “He saw that Vancouver was going to be one of the major cities in Canada. And he saw that Grouse Mountain was a truly unique asset, mostly because you got to look back at what was going to become an amazing city.”

McLaughlin now operates Grouse Mountain with his wife Della, who works as vice-president of marketing and product advancement. His two sisters are shareholders and sit on the board of directors. 

McLaughlin came into the family business in his late 20s and is now in his early 50s. Between then and now, business at Grouse Mountain has boomed to the point where, at more than 1.2 million visitors a year, McLaughlin says the mountain is approaching its limit on the manageable number of individual visits. When he started in 1989, 300,000 visitors meant a good year. Staff numbers, in turn, have more than tripled. Grouse now employs 380 year-round, full-time employees, and another 620 seasonal and part-time staff. In 1989, about 110 people worked full-time on the mountain.

Educated as an accountant, McLaughlin was immediately committed to injecting more capital into a business that seemed too vulnerable to unpredictable changes in the weather. His first innovations with Grouse involved expanding business on the mountain beyond the ski season. 

“When I came to Grouse and spent time here in the summer, I realized that for this business to be successful, it had to diversify out of just being a winter-focused business,” he says.


Image: Kevin Arnold
Whistler’s mountain-bike park brings in summer


A new indoor attraction called Theatre in the Sky was Canada’s first high-definition video theatre when it was built in 1990. The theatre, now a longstanding fixture on the mountain, was McLaughlin’s first attempt at attracting visitors regardless of the weather. 

The tough 1990s economy also pushed invention at Grouse. “Because we didn’t have a lot of capital, we started to look at what type of summer attractions we could do,” he says. “We came across a guy by the name of Bryan Couture from Squamish who had a loggers’ sport show.” So began a lasting relationship with Couture, whose loggers’ show became a regular outdoor summer fixture at Grouse and set the stage for its ongoing summer Lumberjack Show.

Later innovations included new ski-focused deals for the busy winters. “We were the first developers of a discount card,” McLaughlin says of the Club Grouse ski membership of the early ’90s. He also counts the Y2Play ticket campaign of the early 2000s as a bold yet successful move for business. “If you were under 12 or over 65, it was $20 to ski the rest of that year and all of the next year, and everyone else paid $200,” he recalls. “Literally, people thought that we had made a mistake. And so there was a gold rush of people trying to buy this pass before we figured it out.” 

The Y2Play initiative increased Grouse Mountain’s number of winter pass-holders from 4,000 to more than 13,000. That program now boasts more than 23,000 pass-holders. 

McLaughlin has received requests over the years from investors looking to acquire Grouse Mountain. “It’s a trophy property,” he boasts, but he’s not interested in selling. 

Even though the mountain is reaching its limits on the number of visitors it can comfortably hold in a year, there’s lots left to do. “We’ve hardly scratched the surface. Whether I get to do it and whether my kids or my nephew or niece gets to do it, or someone else gets to do it, Grouse is going to continue to change,” McLaughlin says. 

Part of that includes continuing the work started in the 1990s to reduce energy consumption and waste on the mountain under its Blue Grouse sustainability program. One of the most spectacular fruits of that program, the Eye of the Wind, was unveiled in February 2010. The wind turbine is designed to offset 25 per cent of Grouse Mountain’s annual electricity consumption. Visitors take in a panoramic view of the mountain and city from a 36-person lookout pod at the top of the machine. 

“We’re only stewards of the mountain,” McLaughlin says. “We need to look after it and make it better today than it was yesterday.”

Doug Forseth, senior vice-president of operations at Whistler-Blackcomb, wastes no time in praising his competitor for his success in turning a profit beyond the winter ski season. “Grouse is probably the only one of them that does,” he says. “Most ski areas don’t make any money in the summertime.”

The task of attracting summer visitors and diversifying activities to fit tourists of all stripes has been both a challenge and a point of pride at Whistler-Blackcomb, the sprawling Sea to Sky country resort that now welcomes 2.5 to 2.7 million visitors a year. That number has swelled each decade since the resort opened in 1966, when approximately 150,000 people visited each year. By the late 1970s, those numbers had grown to 400,000. In the late 1980s, the resort hit one million, and doubled in the 1990s. 

This summer, the resort welcomed its one-millionth individual visitor to one attraction alone, the 12-year-old mountain bike park. “We do more visits here in the summer on our mountain bike park than any resort, anywhere in the world,” says Forseth, who joined Whistler-Blackcomb in 1994. 

Summer activities and seasonal festivals like the Crankworx mountain bike festival have been instrumental to Whistler’s growth, Forseth adds. So, too, have winter festivals that take advantage of the long ski season. “The World Ski and Snowboard Festival is another example of a festival that we’ve done to extend business in the springtime in April when we still have lots of snow and most other ski areas in North America are starting to think about closing down.”

Recent investments, such as the Peak 2 Peak Gondola that opened in December 2008, were built with year-round use in mind. “In the last couple of years since we have opened the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, we are now profitable in the summer,” Forseth says of the record-breaking 4.4-kilometre gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. 

The waste-not, want-not sensibility of focusing on maximum-use, year-round attractions plays into the resort’s comprehensive sustainability efforts. Habitat improvement efforts, sustainable logging initiatives, and a municipal adaptation of the Natural Step framework for sustainable governance are among Whistler’s wide-ranging approaches to addressing environmental issues. “I’m fortunate enough here that I’ve got two people that are working on environmental issues all year round,” Forseth says. “We are constantly looking for 


Sustainable Profits Still Elusive

Environmental sustainability is both an ongoing challenge in the tourism industry, and an opportunity for further innovation. For SFU tourism expert Peter Williams, addressing the challenge will take strong leadership on best practices for addressing climate change. “Above and beyond other environmental issues, climate change has the potential to be exceptionally challenging for businesses down the road. But who is really thinking about what should be done?” he says. “I don’t see that kind of leadership coming from government at the present time, and there may be reasons for that. I don’t see it coming from the tourism associations at the present time.” 

When it comes to tourism, the right principles are in place, but there are gaps in putting theory into practice, he says. 

“If there’s only going to be a limited amount of money to do things that are sustainable, what’s the best approach? Should we be spending it on tree walks and zip treks, or should we be spending it more on trying to get more efficient public transit buses going to ski areas? We have to decide where the biggest bang can come from,” he says. “There’s not one easy answer to that, but maybe we should be setting some priorities.” 

Just as innovation has been pivotal in the growth and profitability of decades-old tourism destinations, operators looking to merge business ingenuity with environmental preservation will need to get inventive.

“It’s a fundamental challenge for tourism,” Williams says, “to play a more proactive role in preserving these places in forms that people can use them while also respecting their integrity.”