Whistler Blackcomb bets on great indoors as rain crowds ski slopes
by Allen Best
Owners of Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s largest and busiest ski resort, are ready to sink $345 million into their product, some of it in on-mountain improvements but also in base-area additions that reflect a desire to “weatherproof” the resort offerings. Welcome to the great indoors.
Plans include a new indoor adventure center called Watershed, which is to have slides, a surf zone, a kids’ splash area, and hot and cold pools. The facility would also include a family entertainment center, food and beverage operations, and an eight-lane bowling alley.
Other plans for the next seven years include a new lift, winter tubing, and, for the first time at Whistler Blackcomb, night skiing.
Summer upgrades will also be significant: an expansion of mountain bike trails by nearly 50 percent along with an adventure park. The adventure park is to have a mountain or alpine coaster and a ropes course.
Driving the plans for more indoor offerings is a reckoning of where Whistler’s weather is headed. Already, it sometimes has weeks of drenching rains on the lower portions of the mountain. With a warming climate, even more winter-time rain can be expected.
“We’ve talked a lot in the past couple years in particular, about weather-independent attractions, about diversifying our customer base and filling the shoulder season, and I think that’s something that’s really important,” said Dave Brownlie, the chief executive of the ski company, in a rare appearance before elected officials in Whistler.
“Although we’re coming off one of the best winters in our history, we know that’s not always going to be the case, and we have to look at ways to strengthen our tourism economy for the long term.”
To finance these upgrades, the resort company wants to develop several high-end real estate projects.
The Whistler community has concerns. One is the very idea of a massive indoor venue. Brownlie seemed to anticipate that concern. By diversifying what is offered, he said, Whistler can appeal to every type of guest, providing “another reason to bring some folks into the mountains that may be tentative (in their desire) to come here.”
“It may be the first step in a longer relationship that gets them outdoors and gets them on skis and gets them on mountain bikes,” he added. “We’re looking at this as a way to offer a broader experience to ultimately showcase some of the other experiences that people don’t get to. It’s actually a way of building our core business in the future.”
Studying the conversations on social media and following up with interviews, Pique Newsmagazine found hesitancy. What will the new mountain bikes do to bear habitat? Traffic congestion already plagues Whistler, and the municipality has a cap on residential growth. The ski company’s plans would require the cap be raised.
And then there’s the issue of affordable housing. The company estimates that Renaissance, as the multi-offerings are called, will produce 407,000 new visitor days annually by the third year of operations along with 122,000 room nights. Whistler Blackcomb estimates the new offering will require a maximum of 150 to 200 new employees. “Where are all the employees for these new projects going to live?” asked one Facebook user.
Taking stock of all this, Pique editor Clare Ogilvie is cautiously supportive. The ski area has had more than two million visitors annually since the late 1990s, and this year will likely set a record. Brownlie, she points out, has said the twin ski areas can accommodate up to 2.8 million.
This has occurred even as the snow sports industry in North America has largely plateaued. That includes Canada. “While Canada’s population has grown, the percentage of those regularly engaging in alpine skiing and snowboarding has declined, falling from 8.6 percent in 2002-2003 to 5.9 percent of Canadians last season,” she writes.
There’s also the basic question of whether this new business model goes in the wrong direction. The community’s basic product is the pristine nature of the surroundings. “Too much glitz could spoil a good thing,” she writes.
This is from the May 3 issue of Mountain Town News.