U.S. company changing B.C.’s most popular winter escape

Whistler Blackcomb's U.S. owners aim to remake the ski resort one data point at a time

Credit: Mike Crane/Tourism Whistler

Colorado company set to put its stamp on the hills of  Whistler Blackcomb

In the wake of its 2016 purchase of Whistler Blackcomb, Vail Resorts is quietly remaking the ski destination

On any given bluebird day this season, the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains will see a flurry of activity. Snowboarders and skiers will tear through fresh powder. Lifties will help riders smoothly navigate the ascent back up the hill. Everyone will scatter at the end of the day, landing at Splitz Grill or Creekbread or Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar to refuel.

But as these familiar scenes play out, Whistler Blackcomb is undergoing a transformation as monumental as anything in the B.C. resort’s history. In late 2016, Vail Resorts Inc. acquired Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. for $1.39 billion, making an epic bet that it could bring even more polish to one of the ski industry’s jewels. Now, having installed a new chief operating officer at Whistler, Colorado-based Vail is remaking the place in its own image.

“None of this impacts the guest experience. This resort has been outstanding at providing a great experience to guests. We expect to maintain that and enhance it over time,” says COO Pete Sonntag, who moved to Sea to Sky country from Vail’s Heavenly Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on, but when we open our doors in November, our guests will never know that any of this was happening.”

The Vail strategy hinges on the Epic Pass, which gives skiers and snowboarders unlimited access to the company’s 14 properties. Among them are some of America’s most popular ski destinations, including Vail, Heavenly and Beaver Creek. Bringing Whistler into the fold heightens the allure of the pass for the jet-set skier, while die-hard local powder hounds could save hundreds this season and might be enticed to take a run at other Vail resorts. This past spring the early-bird price for an Epic Pass was $1,117, versus $1,439 for a Whistler Blackcomb early-bird season pass in 2016.

However, casual skiers and boarders will have to pay a little more because the one-day and three-day Edge cards have been discontinued. To get the local discount, visitors must now buy five- and 10-day cards, which cost $459 and $789, respectively, to ride without date restrictions during the 2017-18 season.

Elevating the Epic Pass is a sophisticated digital marketing strategy fuelled by mountains of customer data. Vail carves that information into buyer personas—everyone from the luxury Alpine A-lister to the local Shred Head—to better understand how its customers experience its resorts and how best to market to those segments.

“We’ve been pretty public about we’re a data-driven company, and we believe that the best decisions come from the best information,” Sonntag explains. “It’s proven to be successful for us everywhere else we’ve done business, and we’re confident it will here, too.”

This approach has boosted Epic Pass sales. Revenue keeps breaking records: as of September, sales were up 23 per cent over 2016-17, following a 34 per cent jump the previous year. In Whistler, where data is collected on just 20 per cent of non–season pass holders, Vail sees significant potential. At its other resorts, data capture is about 96 per cent.

“We have found that this information and the ability to better segment and personalize our communications to our guests has been one of the largest drivers of our season pass growth in past years, setting us up very well for continued pass sales growth for fiscal 2019 and beyond,” chairman and CEO Robert Katz said in a recent earnings call with investors.

Katz, a driving force behind Vail’s digital push, led the company to one of the biggest such innovations in the recreation industry with the release of its EpicMix app in 2010. The app turned heading up the mountain into a game, tracking how much terrain riders were shredding in a day and rewarding their efforts with digital kudos.

But sophisticated marketing schemes can only get you so far. Whistler has to evolve to attract new customers and consistently surprise long-time thrill seekers.

Fortunately for Vail there’s already a road map, the Renaissance plan. Vail is pledging to carry out an ambitious strategy that would further cement Whistler’s reputation as a year-round resort destination. The $345-million plan calls for new attractions, including a six-star luxury hotel and new indoor and outdoor adventure centres ranging from waterslides and a roller coaster to a “zone dedicated to human flight.” For those who just want to hit the slopes, there will be new chairlifts, restaurants and other improvements to the mountains.

“What I look forward to is continuing to strive to make this place the best it can possibly be and create one of the greatest mountain experiences in the world,” Sonntag says. “That’s why Vail was interested in making this acquisition, because this is a pretty special place and we want to respect what’s special about it, build on the strengths and create something unique in the industry.”

Fresh Tracks

Three new experiences at Whistler this season

Pangea Pod Hotel (above) Canada’s first such hotel is set to open in April 2018. With 88 sleeping pods in a boutique-style setting, Pangea aims to fill the niche between the hotel and hostel markets.

Spearhead Huts For the more adventurous traveller comes the West Coast’s first hut-to-hut accommodation. Located along the Spearhead Traverse in Garibaldi Provincial Park, the three sites will sleep 30 to 40 people, with the first hut due to open in 2017.

Whistler Mountain Peak Suspension Bridge
This 130-metre structure stretches from the summit across Whistler Bowl to a 360-degree viewing platform on West Ridge.