First Tracks // August 30, 2016 // By


Whistler: A New Era

“We’re not as well known as we think we are.”

When the Epic Pass was first introduced in 2008 offering unlimited skiing at five Vail resorts, I was on a powdery press trip there with a bunch of other ski hacks and briefly met Vail Resorts Inc. CEO Rob Katz at après-ski. Rather than bring up what I thought was our industry’s overuse of the term “epic,” I asked him instead when Vail would be buying Whistler. His corporate response wasn’t memorable, but the surprised, almost impish look on his face always stuck with me. So for me it wasn’t “Will Vail buy Whistler Blackcomb?”—it was a question of when.

That said, the announcement on August 8 that Whistler would board the Vail Resorts mothership for $1.4 billion surprised us all. It’s rare for ski industry stuff to be literally front-page news, but this was “a big, big secret to keep in a gossipy industry,” said one of many colleagues I chatted with. (None of whom wanted to be named here, by the way.)

Before the day was over, everyone was asking, “What does it mean for me?” Internet trolls were busy offering their complaints on season pass prices, the value of the loonie, questioning “growth” as a priority and losing the country’s crown jewel of skiing to American investors. From Molson to Stelco, CCM to Bauer, Tim Hortons to Canada Goose…Whistler is just one more iconic Canadian company to leave our hands. An article in Maclean’s about Canadians buying more foreign companies than the other way around was little solace—this is Whistler!

“Okay, so maybe you’re just upset because you didn’t have 114,000 shares [at press time worth more than $36 each] like Whistler CEO David Brownlie,” said one ski world Bay Street friend, who has this information on publically traded companies at his fingertips. I had other Vancouver-based colleagues gleefully waiting to hear how much season pass prices will drop, which is fully expected given Vail Resorts history of rewarding those who plan early with heavily discounted season passes and, like airlines, penalizing last-minute skiers at the ticket window. Vail’s one-day lift pass topped C$200 last season, while an unlimited 2017 Epic Pass to 11 ski areas in the U.S. plus Perisher in Australia (and five days in Verbier, Switzerland) is about C$1,050 if bought before September 5. Vail sold around 40,000 passes in 2008. Last year it was closer to 550,000.

Although Whistler won’t join the Epic Pass deal until 2017-18, curiously it’s still in the Mountain Collective pass program for this season, which includes 17 resorts, many of which are Vail rivals such as Aspen/Snowmass, Alta and Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Telluride, Squaw, Mammoth and three from down under. Here in Canada 2017 will almost certainly be the last year Whistler is marketed together with Louise, Sunshine and Revelstoke.

“Whistler survived the dark days well when its ownership went south to Fortress,” recalled another ski industry friend. “Intrawest [which still owns Blue Mountain, Tremblant, CMH etc.] was a tiny part of that multi-billion-dollar investment group and since its departure in 2008, Whistler’s management team has seen both employee and guest satisfaction climb.” Vail Resorts says it has no intention of changing Whistler’s management team, where it’s based or its direction, including Whistler’s $345-million Renaissance project that you’ll read about in an upcoming issue of Ski Canada.

Of course, the new Whistler will have to hit consolidated forecasts monthly or quarterly, which may impact its ability to act independently. But like my Alberta friend says, “Fortress is great at financial engineering, but it has a very different view from the mountain. Vail, on the other hand, only runs ski areas—and hasn’t sold one in 50 years.”

Perhaps most importantly, “We’re not as well known as we think we are,” admitted one long-time Whistler friend. “And Vail knows what it’s doing when it comes to spreading the word.” This is probably the most obvious benefit to Whistler’s growth. Vail knows how to keep it in the family, a very big one, and despite the price of our sport, it plans to grow the size of the family.

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With much less pomp—and about as far away from the mindset of Vail corporate as possible—Howard Katkov, majority owner, CEO and self-described “protector” of Red Mountain in B.C.’s Kootenays, revealed in August a plan to sell. Well, sort of. Katkov, who’s based in San Diego when not in Rossland, is “choosing community over commerce” in a unique to the ski world crowd-funding idea of selling equity memberships of $1,000 to $7,500. His ultimate goal for the funky ski area, now larger than Jackson Hole, is to raise $10 million mostly for infrastructure and capital improvements. There are no dues like an Ontario ski club, but some benefits, like season passes, custom skis and overnight stays in on-hill members’ cabins to be built. “You need an emotional connection to skiing,” says Katkov. “Building a waterpark is insane—this is going to be done organically.” If you love Red and Rossland enough to buy in, let them know your expression of interest in the next month or two.

IAIN MACMILLAN, editor, in Buyer’s Guide 2017 issue