10 great ski areas tempt locals and vistors alike with all that’s new and improved
From Fall 2009 issue
Ski resort marketing people are somehow psychologically wired to look ahead. Even at the best of times they’re not really interested in reflecting on last season. For much of the west, this particular last season was pretty much the worst of times. Bad snow, brutal cold, and highly publicized avalanche deaths and backcountry mishaps coincided with worldwide financial crisis, economic panic, recession, rising unemployment and plummeting tourism traffic. Most resorts covered in this annual roundup of the Rocky Mountains region were down by 20-25 per cent in skier traffic and even more by revenue. Luxury hotels suffered the most as the biggest spenders cut back hardest.
One can sympathize that those hard-pressed ski area marketers and operators are desperate to put last year behind them, find some viable ideas to present to skiers for this season and hope that Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world climb out of recession still wearing ski boots. All of the resorts in this annual lineup—which forms a great skier’s arc within a four-hour drive to the north, west and south of Calgary, and represents the largest concentration of great skiing in all of Canada—have things on offer.
Most are focusing on providing maximum value to their core local and regional customers. One big area is summer slope grooming, glading, and widening entrances and exits from freeride zones. That improves the terrain skiers love while preserving resort capital. Taking advantage of today’s post-boom labour force conditions—i.e., less surly and self-righteous employees—resorts are promising better, faster service and broader smiles. According to several resort operators and marketing managers, 2009-10 will be “the year of the local.”
Resort managers are also salivating (though furtively) over poaching some of Whistler’s normal destination tourism visitors. Many tourists are allegedly spooked at the spectre of months of Olympic mayhem both at the resort and in the Vancouver gateway, and are casting about for more serene and cost-effective skiing venues. Several of the Rockies Region resorts have been pointedly marketing their “alternative value proposition” to tour operators and individual travellers.
Remarkably in this economic climate, there’s some actual building going on as well. A posh slopeside hotel and a cabin development are opening up. Two major high-speed quad chairlifts were under construction as this was being written. (Our ski industry sources believe there’s only one other permanent skiing lift going in anywhere in North America.) And one ski area is adding snowcat skiing in its adjoining sidecountry, creating the only resort-connected snowcat skiing in Western Canada.
In March it’ll be 10 years since the creation of Kicking Horse out of the remnants of the Whitetooth ski hill at Golden was exuberantly announced. Let’s lead off in tribute to this enormous, burly pile of a mountain that’s steadily growing into a congenial resort with something for nearly every skier. Of all the mountains in this lineup, Kicking Horse is probably the most eager to look forward. The snow was generally grim last season, there were weeks of brutal cold, skier-visits were down 15 per cent and there were two fatal calamities, neither of which was the resort’s fault but one of which generated weeks of national publicity and now litigation.
Lots of good things are happening at Kicking Horse. As chronicled last season, the resort has a new Master Plan setting out its long-term future—one of steady growth on and off the mountain. The plan is being finalized with the B.C. government. “It’s been a good process, and it’s exciting,” says Steve Paccagnan, Kicking Horse’s president. Paccagnan is a dedicated skier who has personally driven many small but cumulatively important improvements up on the mountain, such as grooming the narrow exits from Kicking Horse’s wonderful alpine bowls.
In keeping with today’s more restrained times, Paccagnan continued that drive over the summer with a lot of slope smoothing, glading and brush clearing, particularly to make more runs groomable early. Another program is Hidden Gems, aimed at jibbers, and involves building log slides, wall hits and other features sprinkled throughout Kicking Horse’s wooded terrain (i.e., not in a terrain park). Meanwhile, resort access is gradually improving through the build-out of the Trans-Canada Highway east of Golden. Kicking Horse and the neighbouring resorts will soon get a further publicity kick, notes Paccagnan: “As the eastern gateway to B.C., Golden will be the first point of entry for the Olympic Flame in late January. I think it’s going to be an exciting winter.”
- High alpine bowls and billygoat freeride lines
- Huge vertical
- Fast, base-to-peak gondola
- Growing slopeside village
Marmot has always offered varied and expansive terrain, striking scenery and a more relaxed approach to skiing with nearby Jasper remaining a somewhat unrecognized gem beyond Alberta’s borders. But the ski area’s new owners have also invested in modernization, adding lifts, great new freeride terrain and making many smaller improvements over the past half-dozen years. Last year this ski area was down only marginally in skier-traffic, thanks to its mainly regional focus. Recently added snowmaking kept lower groomed runs skiable between snowfalls. With such a long season, it would be hard not to fit Marmot into your schedule—last season lifts ran from November 14 to late April.
This season Marmot has some of the biggest news in Canadian ski country. The Canadian Rockies Express is a brandnew high-speed quad chairlift that replaces the Tranquilizer double chair and Kiefer T-bar, providing direct access from base to upper mountain. The nearly 600-vertical-metre chair slashes two lengthy rides and a flat connector trail to a single, whopping 2.3-km ride of only 7.5 minutes, and eliminates any base bottlenecks.
“This is going to be an unbelievable lift,” gushes Brian Rode, Marmot’s vicepresident of marketing and sales. In addition to opening steep new lines in the old T-bar corridor, it will encourage beginners and novices to see the high alpine terrain, which includes several gentle runs in some spectacular scenery. The Canadian Rockies Express becomes the longest high-speed chairlift in Alberta.
- Terrain variety
- Improved lifts
- Lovely Rocky Mountains scenery
- Relaxed ambience and charm of Jasper
Invermere/Columbia Valley, B.C.
Arguably the best place to ski in a thin snow year is Panorama. Its vast snowmaking system, superb grooming, cruising-oriented morphology and greatly improved lift system make it probably the best carving mountain in our 10-resort lineup and ensure good skiing even in dry times. (Panorama also offers extensive ngroomed freeride terrain, terrific in better snow years.) Panorama indeed weathered last year better than most resorts, operating from mid-November to mid-April. The biggest news last season was the massive new terrain park alongside the upper village. Over the summer Panorama took advantage of the B.C. government’s battle against the pine beetle to remove some diseased trees in places that open up new glades or help to widen existing lines, such as in the Founder’s Ridge zone.
Panorama continues to benefit from the improving air service into recently enlarged Canadain Rockies International Airport at Cranbrook, about 90 minutes’ drive to the south. Its management is also nurturing the Powder Highway, a light ’n’ fluffy tourism marketing concept that stresses the wider regional opportunity for adventuresome individuals to craft multifarious vacations that can include several resorts, snowcat skiing and heli-skiing, linked through interesting places to stay and non-skiing activities. “The Powder Highway is starting to jell and take on its own life, because it’s something that all the different types of skiers can find appealing,” notes Ken Wilder, Panorama’s vice-president of business development.
- Great cruising and grooming
- Long runs with big vertical
- amily-friendly village and amenities
- Value pricing
- On-site, day heli-skiing
Banff region, Alberta
With its high base elevation, highest liftserviced point in Canada and positioning astride the snowy Continential Divide, Sunshine Village weathers lean snow seasons better than most ski areas. Owner Ralph Scurfield years ago told me that the resort does best when the sun shines—because its casual-skiing clientele is more eager for nice weather than great snow. That changed somewhat with the opening of gnarly freeride zones like Delirium Dive and Wild West, generating a solid following of hard skiers. Although Delirium didn’t open until March last season, the resort remained above 500,000 skier-visits, reports Sunshine’s marketing man Doug Firby, demonstrating who really drives the resort’s fortunes.
This season Sunshine is among the leaders in this annual Ski Canada resort lineup. In just weeks the resort will officially open the new Sunshine Mountain Lodge, a two-year comprehensive rebuilding of the only slopeside accommodation situated inside a national park (and one of only two Alberta resorts with slopeside accommodation). The multi-million-dollar project is Sunshine’s second-largest investment ever. Alberta’s weaker economy eased construction costs in the later stages and improved contractor and labourer attitudes. The 30 new rooms (the rest were previously renovated) are highend all the way, as is the Lodge’s dining room, catering to skiers who want a pinnacle mountain experience. The design includes substantial green features to cut water and energy consumption.
This season Sunshine is also emphasizing its local and regional markets, in keeping with that annoying-sounding trend, the “staycation.” Unlike most resorts, it’s holding the line on lift ticket prices. It’s continuing a loyalty card covering Sunshine and Marmot Basin at Jasper, which includes three skiing days plus daily discounts. Most important, says Firby, Sunshine is offering innovative three-day skiing packages aimed at “people who don’t feel like travelling a long way from home, giving them a chance for a mini-vacation at substantially below rack rates, including over Christmas and New Year’s, where we have rates 20 per cent below last year’s.”
- Sunshine Mountain Lodge: the only slopeside accommodation in a national park
- Best lift system in this roundup of resorts
- Delirium Dive freeride zone
- Lots of sunshine
FERNIE ALPINE RESORT
Popular with destination visitors from the U.K. and Europe, famous as a gigantic powder stash and routinely set upon by thousands of Calgreedians who devour every last square metre of powder like packs of piranhas—these normal draws are also what made last season a tough one for Fernie. Local businessmen report signature hotel properties dropping by 25-30 per cent despite deep last-minute discounting. The upsides for visitors were great bargains and phenomenal carving on groomed runs. This last bit comes straight from cynical locals who routinely jeer resort management. They say the resort did the best job of grooming in its history, rescuing many a non-powder day.
This season, says Matt Mosteller, vicepresident of marketing for Fernie’s owner, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), the mission remains providing great service to the core local/regional skier market and “achieving a consistent high-quality snow surface.” Fernie will continue to ensure good coverage at the base area through its targeted snowmaking program, has further improved entrances and exits on tighter runs, and is opening up more of its tight forested areas. One new run cut into Currie Bowl the previous summer was said to create a phenomenal descent—and locals can’t wait for the requisite powder this season. Mosteller promises further pleasant surprises, including “one or two new runs this year.” And of course, part of the focus remains “groom lots.”
Fernie’s party scene can be nearly as intense as its powder skiing, and the mountain is hosting a series of events and festivals, including the 2nd annual Fernival in the spring. It’s also offering several value-oriented programs. Under the Husky Grade 2 program, every 7-year-old in B.C. and Alberta is entitled to a free season’s pass as a contribution to getting kids outdoors. There’s also a Grade 5 program with individual day coupons—with no high-season blackouts at RCR resorts. Fernie is also part of the Learn-to-Ski National Ski Week, which includes a highly discounted lesson, lift tickets and rental gear at all resorts.
- Funky genuine ski town
- Deep powder
- Great glades and trees
- Nearby backcountry and snowcat skiing
KIMBERLEY/CRANBROOK/ COLUMBIA VALLEY, B.C.
Kimberley’s another resort that doesn’t soar as high during booms, but soldiers on when things turn down. Providing good value on family-friendly terrain is its main winter draw, while tremendous recreation in the other three seasons levers the appeal of vacation real estate. Expansion of the nearby Cranbrook airport has also helped, and Delta has maintained its three weekly direct flights from Salt Lake City.
The resort is bucking the overall trend of financial hunkering down, with a whole suite of ongoing improvements. It’s the official site of the large, new, mostly government-funded Paralympic Training Centre. Kimberley is also one of only two of the 10 mountains here that’s adding accommodation. The $15+ million Mountain Spirit Resort and Spa is one of the few hotels/condos to be completed at a Canadian ski area this year. The Dreamcatcher high-end, 14-cabin development was finished over the summer, complete with a pool and fitness centre. Northstar Mountain Village is also nearing completion.
Up on the mountain Kimberley’s new fleet of super-powerful Kässbohrer 350D snowcats transformed the grooming makeup, enabling much more terrain to be covered each night and much steeper runs to be smoothed out. Winch-groomed pitches of 30+ degrees are great fun for accomplished carvers, and the steep Easter Chair runs groomed for the first time last season created a rewarding new experience for advanced skiers. Over the summer Kimberley’s multi-phase glading program continued, tying into the B.C. government’s desperate campaign against the mountain pine beetle (read: cutting trees is good). The resort has also expanded its snowmaking system and purchased a new fleet of rental gear.
- Plenty of sunshine
- Great cruising
- Nice glades
- Family-friendly mountain
- Value pricing
LAKE LOUISE-BANFF AREA, ALBERTA
The big news at The Lake last season was the return of long-time proprietor Charlie Locke, who’d lost control of the business five years earlier. (See “For the Love of Louise,” Buyer’s Guide 2010, last issue.) Lake Louise’s great terrain is timeless—it’s the snow that’s fickle. Last season was tough as Alberta endured many weeks of mid-winter cold and scant snowfalls plus an economic downturn that drove down Euro-visits and had the drive-to market doling out dollars with uncharacteristic care.
With his reputation for stretching operating dollars further than any mortal ski area manager, Locke is built for this kind of market. He says his immediate focus is on service improvements aimed at his core local market. One early move was to reopen Whitehorn Lodge to handle children’s programs. There are also moves afoot to improve food and beverage service and the après-ski atmosphere. The operating season was pushed back out into May—and will stay there. And just to be really, really clear—the jumps and air features have returned to Lake Louise’s terrain park.
“We have a complex lineup of local customers,” says Locke. “You have dedicated season’s pass holders. You have intermediates who ski twice a month. And you have others who ski five or six days a year. We need to make it good value so we’re competitive with other recreational activities.” In addition, Locke foresees long-range destination traffic rebounding in Alberta, boosted by skiers seeking value or wanting to avoid the Whistler Olympic crush. Locke aims to rebuild Lake Louise’s skier-visits from the approximately 450,000 it had sagged to in recent years, back to the 550,000-575,000 it enjoyed in its heyday. He also intends to revive his dream to build out the resort’s lift-serviced terrain within its existing lease.
- Variety of challenging terrain
- Stupendous views
- Long season—mid-November to mid-May
- Three great luxury hotels within a 10-minute drive
KANANASKIS COUNTRY, ALBERTA
Regular readers—fans and critics alike—probably never expected me to place these particular words in this particular order, but “these are exciting times at Nakiska.” The race- and cruising-focused hill in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country playground is one of only two mountains in our lineup to be adding a lift. Nakiska’s fixed-grip Gold Chair is being replaced with a high-speed quad. Starting at a lower pickup point, the Gold Chair Express lowers ride time from 12 minutes to 4.8 and will rise just over 400 vertical metres to access the mountain’s steeper upper terrain.
This is good for all skiers and especially for training racers. Nakiska’s hard snow surface, frequent blue skies and world-class grooming offer one of the best race-training areas in North America, and Alpine Canada’s National Training Centre run is off the Gold Chair. Training facilities are in big demand going into the Winter Olympics. Explains Matt Mosteller, vice-president of marketing for RCR, Nakiska’s operator: “The Gold Chair Express will increase training mileage within a given number of hours by 50 per cent. Training results are directly tied to ultimate race performance.”
The Gold Chair Express is Nakiska’s first new lift since it was built as an Alberta government-funded facility for the 1988 Winter Olympics. It’s the pinnacle of an improvement campaign launched by RCR several years ago that’s included vastly improved snowmaking, a new fleet of snowcats, trail buildouts and lodge renovations. For this season, two key training runs were widened, Mapmaker for super-G training plus Whoopup. “Our 31 new snowguns have the latest nozzle technology, and we hope to operate in some marginal temperatures when other operators can’t,” says Mosteller.
In keeping with “the year of the local,” RCR aims to open Nakiska much earlier during weeks when it’s normally reserved for race training. Promises Mosteller, “This will be a real skiing experience, on a number of real runs and not just one token run. People will also be able to see the athletes training—and that will boost the spirit in an Olympic year.”
- Eastern-style firm-snow cruising and carving
- Proximity to Calgary
- Value pricing
Like several smaller ski areas that didn’t soar as high as those with greater buzz and international reach, Mount Norquay didn’t have such a bad season last year. Extensive snowmaking kept the groomed slopes in reasonable condition, and its core market of locals and racing teams kept showing up. Norquay’s biggest addition last year was its designer snow park.
For this season, Norquay has redoubled its focus on offering value for its core market, explains General Manager André Quenneville. Lift ticket prices, including season’s passes, have been held even—a major plus. Norquay’s innovative ski-by-the-hour ticketing remains, starting at $32 ($11 for kids) for two hours and going up in half-hour increments.
Norquay has a new interpretive trail for kids, but its biggest addition by far is its tubing park, the first in the Banff and Bow Valley corridor. Served by a handle tow and reusing the mountain’s original day lodge, tubers will find multiple lanes of varying intensity over a 250-metre slope dropping 60 vertical metres. Tubing creates winter fun popular with all kinds of people beyond committed skiers, notes Quenneville. “It will be a sunny, beautiful tubing park,” he says. “It’ll fit in nicely with a family resort, and could help attract some new people to skiing in a gentle way.”
- Excellent cruising and grooming
- Ski-by-the-hour ticketing and value pricing
- Conveniently situated right beside Banff
PINCHER CREEK/CROWSNEST PASS REGION, ALBERTA
The season at my favourite Canadian ski area began with horrific avalanche hazard that required massive labour and funds to tame. Then it didn’t snow, leaving fields of all-but-unskiable debris all over the upper mountain. At last Castle was dumped on copiously, at one point in March reporting 75 cm of snow in 15 hours, leaving the dedicated enjoying a month of fabulous skiing. Remarkably, the most modest of these 10 resorts, amenity- and lift-wise (there are no high-speed lifts), lost barely three per cent of its skier-traffic, making it the top business performer of the entire lineup! Its core market of keen local experts, southern Alberta families and weekday school groups saw it through.
This season Castle offers the most innovative improvement of this entire mountain lineup: lift-accessed snowcat skiing. Canadians are fanatical snowcat skiers, and B.C. boasts at least two-dozen
snowcat destinations. Castle’s will be the first in Alberta and the first that begins at a lift. Snowcats normally have to grind their
way down to the end of each run. At Castle skiers will be hauled from the top of the Huckleberry Chairlift on the lower shoulder of
Mount Haig, up a further 300 vertical metres. From there they’ll ski the lovely powdery slopes of Haig Bowl, descending nearly double the snowcat vertical to a collector trail that returns to the chairlift. Meanwhile, the snowcat can haul the other group. Haig Bowl will be fully avalanche-controlled and remain open for ski-touring. The program begins this season, running three days a week for two groups and up to 24 skiers.
In addition, Castle veterans spent the summer clearing brush, stumps and deadfall to improve glade skiing and already epic freeride terrain, as well as cutting one new run on Mount Haig. Lastly, the always inexpensive Castle is maximizing value with its new Family Cruisin’ the Castle Card. Western Canadian ski country’s first family loyalty card works much like standard cards but covers four individuals (two parents, two kids or single parent with three kids).
- Canada’s best freeride terrain and longest fall lines
- Uncrowded slopes (due to fixed-grip lifts)
- Great powder (when it snows) and legendary “wind-sift”
- Family-friendly pricing (new family loyalty card)
- Off-the-beaten-path adventure