China has few skiers. How Whistler plans to change that

Dave Brownlie | BCBusiness
Dave Brownlie, CEO of Whistler Blackcomb.

The CEO of Whistler Blackcomb explains how he plans to “weatherproof” the ski mecca—and tap into a burgeoning Chinese market

Dave Brownlie has been instrumental in the development of Whistler Blackcomb and building its reputation as one of the top ski resorts in North America, if not the world. A trained chartered accountant, Brownlie has had a 25-year career that’s included roles under the resort’s various incarnations—Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises Ltd., Intrawest and Fortress Investment Group—before taking Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. public in 2010, the year Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. He was pivotal in pushing through the creation of the Peak 2 Peak gondola, launched in 2008 as part of his mission to turn the resort into a year-round destination. For the 52-year-old father of three, his calling is also a passion: the committed fresh powder hound can often be found on his skis after work, high in the alpine.

What do you mean when you talk about “weatherproofing” Whistler?
The idea of weatherproofing Whistler first evolved on the winter side. We wanted to make sure we’ve got a great product for people when they come, no matter what, so we’ve made strategic capital investments since the early 2000s: investments in snowmaking; investments in high alpine terrain; in the Peak 2 Peak gondola. We can have no snow on the bottom half of the mountain and we’d still have more ski terrain open than any other mountain in North America. We are also, thanks to Peak 2 Peak, one of the few ski resorts in North America that actually makes a little money during the summer; we saw visits during the summer season jump by 50 per cent the first year it was running.

Is it true that you made more snow last winter than you ever had before?
Last year was certainly an anomaly. The amount of snowfall through the first part of the season was a record low, a level we hadn’t seen since 1989. But with our investment in our snowmaking infrastructure, we managed to pump 375 million gallons of water to ensure that we had a great product for our guests leading up through the holidays and beyond. Typically, before the Olympics, we would be lucky to be pumping more than 180 million gallons.

How much did that cost?
It’s not cheap. But the reality is, we are very fortunate with the hydro costs in British Columbia—although everybody knows hydro costs here are going up, so that’s a challenge. But people come to ski and snowboard, so you need snow.

Despite pumping all that snow, the pre-Christmas season was still poor last year, with skier visits down from 461,000 in 2012 to 391,000. Why do you think that was?
It wasn’t as strong as we had hoped, for sure. But our presales were stronger than they had ever been. In fact, we had record presales. But our pass holders and cardholders are very knowledgeable and aware, and so they weren’t skiing quite as much as they had in prior years leading up through Christmas.

Who is your biggest market?
B.C. and Washington. On the destination side, it’s still the wider U.S., then Europe, particularly the U.K., then Australia. It’s amazing, though: we see people from Brazil, from China, from Argentina, Hong Kong—from all around the world.

Is China a market you are actively trying to exploit?
We are definitely pursuing it, and we are seeing more benefit in the summertime at this point, with sightseeing buses and coaches coming through. There are not a lot of people in China who ski and snowboard, but there are resorts being built out there. And when they do travel, the Chinese want to go to the best. Whistler has a great name in China and so we have decided to try and tap into that market.

How exactly are you going about doing that?
On the broad side, we are working with the Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination B.C. and Tourism Whistler—going in and being sure we are meeting the right people. But separately, as a ski resort, we made our first direct foray into China last year, visiting and spending time at six ski resorts there with our ski school. So our instructors worked with their clients, presenting Whistler Blackcomb and what we offer. We also work with a number of tour operators in Richmond.

What about other new markets?
We are quite focused on expat communities in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, which tend to be higher-end individuals and families. There’s a big opportunity in South America, but what’s lacking is the air service into Canada. We are watching developments at YVR closely. Once direct access opens up, we will be down in Brazil and Chile in a big way.

What’s the biggest challenge to further growth at Whistler Blackcomb?
The air regulation in this country—the taxes and fees the government sucks out of our airports—just kills us in a competitive environment. If I could change one thing that would not just be a boon for our business, but for all tourism-based businesses in this country, that would be it.

Five million Canadians cross the border every year to travel out of the U.S. That isn’t rocket science. They need to change that.