Although Belinda Trembath has skied Whistler Blackcomb (WB) several times before, you can be sure none will be quite like her first foray down the mountain this coming winter.
“I’ve been a guest here a number of times over the years. The first time was about 30 years ago, when the two resorts were still run independently, and then more recently, I brought the family over here for the holidays,” says WB’s new chief operating officer and VP. “So, obviously, I’ll be enjoying the mountain with a very different lens and a set of fresh eyes.”
Starting in the role this past May, the Aussie won’t be the only one experiencing personal firsts this winter on WB.
The ski resort’s new, eight-pack Fitzsimmons Express chairlift—which, it should be noted, won’t be ready for opening day on Nov. 23—is sure to transform how skiers and riders access the mountain, increasing capacity from 1,850 to 3,300 skiers per hour.
“Of course, it’s our first eight-pack and it’s our first lift that has a moving carpet in the load area, which I think will take a little bit of time for both our staff and guests to get used to. But it’s a fantastic way to load an express chair,” Trembath says. “It certainly will be a great way for folks to move out of that Skiers’ Plaza area and then obviously be able to explore the rest of Whistler utilizing the Garbanzo quad. And our team will certainly make sure that experience is very much focused around moving people efficiently both out of Skiers’ Plaza, but also making sure that we are focusing on the experience at the Garbanzo load as well. So, I think it will be a great alternative to the Whistler Village Gondola but, of course, that gondola moves a lot of people and it’s certainly still a fantastic way to access the ski terrain up at Whistler, taking you straight through to the Roundhouse.”
WB is also working on the replacement of its Jersey Cream lift, a significant capital project that was delayed earlier this year and is now set for installation next spring, Trembath says, after crews completed the foundation pouring for about 10 towers this past summer.
“The majority of the towers are poured and ready to go and we certainly set ourselves up to get into that construction in spring next year and, of course, that will change the spring footprint for our spring operations next year,” she adds.
On the snowmaking front, despite a pre-season malfunction on Whistler Mountain that delayed snowmaking this month (which has since been fixed), WB is banking on some colder weather coming up. But if not, its 359 snow guns across both mountains are ready to chug into action ahead of opening day.
“We’re certainly hopeful for the forecast through the back half of next week after the storm moves through on the weekend, and cautiously optimistic about what that will bring in terms of natural snow,” Trembath said on Nov. 9. “We’re certainly ready to go, so no concerns about our snowmaking capacity and certainly the team are ready to go. They’re all trained up and we’re in production.”
As part of the approval of the new Fitz Express, Whistler’s mayor and council adopted a parking bylaw amendment in March that sees WB paying $200,000 annually to the municipality to go towards transit services in lieu of the 725 additional parking spaces the ski resort would have normally been required to install, a move that was largely met with criticism from a wider community still frustrated with the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) introduction of year-round pay parking to Day Lots 4 and 5.
Trembath is confident the mountain operator will have enough parking capacity once the lift is fully operational.
“I’d say we’re not concerned about parking capacity,” she says. “From a parking perspective, the team are working really hard on improving the way that we bring cars into our lots and refining how we park up so that we can park people more efficiently. But we’re also looking at really encouraging people to rideshare and carpool and, of course, to use the range of transit options that are available within the broader village.”
How significant that transit uptake will be this winter remains to be seen, particularly as visitors are generally less likely to hop on a bus to get to the hill.
“I think that’s part of the challenge: to preserve not just our destination guest experience, but the local guest experience as well. And that’s where I think we’ve had some benefits in our resorts in the U.S. with encouraging carpooling and ridesharing,” Trembath explains. “If everyone wants to turn up to ski for the day in their own vehicle with one passenger per vehicle, then there are definitely going to be some challenges with respect to parking all those folks. We certainly want to continue to work with Tourism Whistler and with the broader community on how we encourage folks to take other transit options other than a rental car, perhaps, if they’re flying in from North America or other destinations.”
One of the RMOW’s conditions for approving the Fitz Express expansion was a requirement that WB conduct a study intended to better understand parking utilization and needs in Whistler, data that will be shared with the RMOW and used to inform future infrastructural decisions. WB has 12 months to complete the study, which Trembath says will begin by Christmas.
WB is required to pay the $200,000 a year to the RMOW until it introduces pay parking on the lots it owns, something WB’s parent company has rolled out at several of its U.S. resorts in recent years.
Trembath says the incoming parking study will help guide the company in determining whether to implement pay parking or not.
“Certainly, pay parking has been something that we’ve introduced successfully at our resorts in North America, and I think it’s a responsible way to influence guest behaviour. But we will really be guided by the outcomes of that parking study,” she says.
While WB wouldn’t share specific staffing numbers for this ski season, the company in the past has shared with Pique that its winter workforce typically hovers around the 4,000 mark. Trembath says she’s more than happy with staffing levels heading towards opening day, and she was heartened to see the proportion of returning employees.
“Staff have been working away, obviously, for months building their teams, and I’m very comfortable with the number of folks that are joining us for winter again,” she says. “I love when I go to speak to our team and I ask who has worked for us for more than 10 years and a sea of hands go up. I’m excited about welcoming back our returning stuff and very comfortable with our staffing levels moving into winter.”
About half of WB’s workforce will be in staff housing this year, which includes both its own on-mountain accommodation as well as market rental housing in the valley, typically intended for more senior employees and management.
“We’re in a fortunate position where we do have a high volume of beds available for our team and we have been back in the community more recently securing some leases, both here in the valley and also out to Pemberton as well,” explains Trembath. “That is a component of our housing and I think it always will be, because there are more mature staff that would prefer to live outside of the frontline housing that we provide, which tends to be higher-density living, albeit most of our frontline staff are living in two-bedroom apartments with a couple in each room, so it’s very comfortable.”
In securing those leases, WB says it strives to rent in areas that are under-utilized, recognizing the housing crunch Whistler continues to experience. It has also launched an internal Facebook group designed to connect employees to rental housing, and continues to work with the RMOW and local non-profits to find solutions for staff in need of accommodation.
WB’s long-awaited Glacier 8 staff complex will certainly help lighten the load, a planned six-storey, 66-unit building at Blackcomb Base II that will add an estimated 240 staff beds to the mix. Crews broke ground on the project in September, and WB is targeting an opening date in time for the 2025-26 winter season.
Vail Resorts continues to build its roster of Epic Passholders, a major cog in the Colorado-based company’s economic strategy.
“I think incentivizing people to buy our passes ahead of the season has created so much stability for our industry, and I think that it’s been worth it with the range of products that we have on offer, both here at Whistler and broadly through our enterprise,” Trembath says. (Pass prices go up Nov. 19, by the way.)
According to its 2023 Q4 earnings call, through Sept. 22, Vail Resorts saw its North American ski season pass sales increase seven per cent in units and 11 per cent in sales dollars, compared to the same period last year. It saw particularly strong sales among renewing passholders, while also growing sales among new passholders.
Of course, that doesn’t lessen the sticker shock of seeing the steep price of a window lift ticket, which, during peak periods, will run you $299. Asked if she thinks the high cost will alienate more casual skiers, Trembath says that, by this point, most WB guests are aware of early-bird pricing and the variety of more affordable pass options on offer.
“We’ve got everything from our Edge Cards to our Epic day passes to our Epic season passes,” she says. “I mean, there are just so many choices for people to purchase in advance and I think that the communication of that and the behaviour that we’ve driven as an industry—and it’s not unique to our business, either—has really permeated, much in the way that I don’t think anyone turns up to the airport anymore to buy a ticket to go and travel interstate or overseas. So, I’m not concerned.”
Evidently, the strategy has paid off, as WB reports that about three-quarters of its guests are on some type of pass product, versus the 25 per cent that buy a window lift ticket.
Improving relations with local First Nations
What was expected to be a routine re-signing this June of the 2020 framework agreement between the local Lil’wat and Squamish First Nations, the RMOW, the province, and WB turned out to be a much more surprising affair when Lil’wat Chief Dean Nelson refused to sign the document on behalf of his people.
“We’re talking about relationships and understanding, but up to this point, we haven’t had that relationship … I’ve never really known who I’m talking with, whether it’s the governments or neighbours,” Nelson told the small crowd of stakeholders gathered at the Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb Mountain on June 16.
“I’ve requested for time to build our relationship with them, but that never happened, even up to now—previous Olympics, political things. So, I’m not here to disrespect anyone, but I will not be signing the agreement until we establish the relationship with the governments—all governments. We’ve never had that, and I seek that still.”
It was a dramatic display of the political leverage the Lil’wat have increasingly been relying on in recent years, and a pointed call to the RMOW, Victoria and WB to ensure their efforts towards Truth and Reconciliation aren’t mere lip service.
So, how does WB intend to improve those relationships in a meaningful way?
“One of the highlights for me joining the team at Whistler Blackcomb is the close connection that we have with our First Nations partners and with the [Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre]. I’ve certainly really enjoyed embarking on my own listening and learning journey in respect to the history and culture of the First Nations, and I’m really looking forward to continuing that journey and establishing strong relationships with the senior leaders and elders within the Lil’wat community and the Squamish Nation community,” Trembath says. “We have some exciting projects coming down the line that we will be able to share in the coming weeks and months in respect of our partnership with the First Nations.”
About the relationship with Whistler itself?
It’s not an understatement to say WB’s relationship with the wider Whistler community has been testy at best since Vail Resorts took over in 2016, with the prevailing sense among some locals that the ski industry behemoth and its roster of 41 resorts worldwide doesn’t recognize or appreciate the distinct features that makes Whistler and its twin mountains so special.
But Trembath says she’s committed to getting out and immersing herself in the community.
“One of the things that I have been really focused on since I started back in May is getting to know the community, and I’ve done that in a variety of ways, whether it’s in formal ways where I’m taking a seat on several boards within the community, which is still ongoing in terms of my onboarding with those. But also getting to know the team at the RMOW and the Chamber [of Commerce]. I have attended a number of Chamber events. And we also hosted our own community roundtable recently … I think it was 90 representatives from non-profits that attended that session,” she says.
“It was an opportunity for our team to host tables and to just talk through some of the issues that the community is facing and ways in which we can work more proactively with the community, and that might be through influencing or direct action.”
Learn more at whistlerblackcomb.com.