As I ride the glass-floored Peak 2 Peak Gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, I text Emma a simple question: “What’s new?”
I have to wait a long time for an answer, though, what with “the world’s first digital mountain assistant,” as Vail Resorts calls it, not making its Canadian debut until eight months after my snowy spring-skiing visit.
Emma ends up with plenty of material for her eventual reply. Three days before the Dec. 18 launch of the digital mountain assistant, Whistler Blackcomb unveiled a new 10-person gondola that, along with two new high-speed chairlifts, comprises the largest single-year investment in the vast operation’s 52-year history. The $66-million in upgrades also represents the largest single-year investment ever made by Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which paid $1.39-billion for control of North America’s largest ski area in 2016.
This is good news for skiers and snowboarders who want to make the most of their time on the slopes. The new Blackcomb Gondola, which replaces the Wizard and Solar chairlifts and runs from the Upper Village to Rendezvous Lodge, boosts lift capacity by 47 per cent and provides a non-stop sheltered ride to the mountain’s upper reaches. It also combines with Peak 2 Peak and the Whistler Village Gondola to offer the only three-gondola connection on Earth. Over on Whistler Mountain, the Emerald Express quadruple chair – one of the resort’s busiest, especially among families – has been replaced by a six-passenger version, while Blackcomb’s Catskinner three-seater has been ousted by a high-speed quad.
Before this season, relatively little had changed on the slopes, and in the two resort villages, since the frenzy of development that accompanied the 2010 Winter Olympics. The most recent substantial ski-terrain expansion took place in 2004, while no new lifts had been introduced since 2013. The Pangea Pod Hotel, which opened in August, is Whistler’s first new hotel since the year Jon Montgomery won Olympic skeleton gold. Peak 2 Peak’s record-setting 2008 launch, which created the world’s longest continuous lift system, was starting to feel like ancient history.
“This new gondola is a game-changer for the resort,” Whistler’s chief operating officer Pete Sonntag says. “People are going to see a noticeable improvement in how they access the mountains and get to their favourite terrain.”
The new lifts also represent a reversal of long-term plans announced by the resort’s managing partner, Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc., shortly before it was acquired by Vail.
Under pressure to diversify and upgrade guest amenities and local services, Whistler Blackcomb Holdings unveiled a $345-million long-term plan, tellingly dubbed “Renaissance,” three months before the Vail takeover. It prioritized the construction of year-round diversions such as an indoor waterpark, ropes course and mountain roller coaster.
With many locals and visitors already worried that Whistler was becoming some kind of alpine Disneyland, Vail’s acquisition fuelled further discontent. Suddenly, lift-ticket prices were based on the loonie-crushing greenback. The new on-mountain app initially used Fahrenheit and inches rather than Celsius and centimetres. Much of the controversy centred on Whistler being added to Vail’s multiresort Epic Pass, which was widely perceived to favour globetrotting jet-setters over locals and more budget-conscious guests. A family-oriented season pass that could be used by either parent, for example, is being phased out.
Whistler was the most-visited Epic resort last ski season, Vail data reveals, with more than 8 per cent of the 750,000 pass-holders spending at least a day there. Over all, Whistler now receives about 3.5 million visitors each year, with that number more than doubling over the past 15 years.
Business is booming, but “so too is the level of local angst surrounding this growth,” wrote Tourism Whistler chief executive Barrett Fisher in a 2017 open letter that acknowledged the transportation, housing and staffing challenges fuelled by a record influx of visitors.
In response to the concerns, Vail “played to its strengths,” as Sonntag puts it. Instead of leaving major lift improvements to the third and final phase of Renaissance, as was originally planned, the company made them a priority. “Our focus is the on-mountain experience, and we felt we could make an immediate impact by adding the new lifts,” Sonntag adds.
Vail also reduced early-bird pricing for its Epic Pass products, introduced a money-saving two-day Edge pass (starting at $199), and rolled out the Epic SchoolKids Whistler Blackcomb Pack, which provides five days of free skiing and riding, as well as lessons and equipment rentals, for Canadian schoolchildren from kindergarten through Grade 5. The free alpine app was modified to deliver metric or imperial measurements based on users’ service providers. Future plans, meanwhile, include a 200-bed staff housing facility and mobile technology that will allow guests at all 17 Vail-owned resorts to obtain prepurchased lift tickets from roving agents at base-area lifts.
And Renaissance? All traces of the plan have vanished from Whistler’s website, with the original web page now redirecting to an announcement about the new lifts.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler’s new mayor, Jack Crompton, says Vail’s strategic shift demonstrates the importance of constructive collaboration between local government and resort ownership. “We’re still getting to know each other, but one thing’s for sure: They love to ski and so do we. They were built by skiers, our town was built by skiers. At our cores, we share a critical love for the mountains. Our natural assets are a big part of why people come here, but they also come here to connect with mountain people. If the people who live here don’t enjoy living here, tourists will stop coming.”
Will Vail’s efforts satisfy these local mountain people, out-of-town Canadian visitors and international guests alike? Time will tell. In the interim, I’m curious to find out what Emma thinks.
The writer was a guest of Vail Resorts. It did not review or approve this article.