Whistler – playground or product?

The perfect adult playground offering a smorgasbord of low and high adrenalin activities, all showcased among perfect mountains?

Or a quirky and rebellious success story being suffocated by a PLC corporate owner?

Which is the real Whistler?

We came to Whister a bit frazzled. Seven days in a small tent will do that to you, especially when you have to share it with three loud and smelly humans. It was an exciting moment – as a skiing fan I’ve heard so many stories about Whistler and never visited, this time there is no snow but the resort is proudly and successfully a ‘four season’ market and sure enough it was heaving.

A lovely surprise

The highlight was nothing to do with the rafting or zipwires or hiking or mountain biking; it was because our dear friends Anna, Ali, Sam and Ben were also in Whistler. Despite the fact that Lucy and Anna talk about 30 times a week, we had almost managed to spend 3 weeks in Canada each in August without our itineraries coinciding. A few days ago Lucy had an epiphany and realised we’d cross over for one night in Whistler and we had a wonderful evening trading Canada stories and catching up.

Whistler is non-stop

The playground element kicks in quickly. Everyone is in Whistler to DO SOMETHING – nobody is sitting still. Upon driving in for the first time we start dodging swarming mountain bikers and it turns out that Whister is hosting Crankworx – a 7 day celebration of all things MTB. We start doing stuff ourselves from walking and running around lakes to biking to canoeing on the River of Golden Dreams to zipwiring. Whistler is for living large and it is oh so very fun. It is not cheap – to hire a mountain bike for 3 hours is $100 (Canadian) and any ‘organised’ activity will be high margin stuff – but it is addictive and we start to imagine how much fun it is during the winter.

Healthy and unhealthy adrenalin

We saw both sides. The healthy was the SASQWATCH, a 2.2km zipline that styles itself as the longest zipline in North America and the fastest. This means a pulley carries you 2.2km on a wire down a mountain. It looked terrifying and we wanted to do it, there was only one hitch – you had to be 75 lbs and the company said there were “very strict about it”

We wondered around looking for a weighing scales and eventually squeezed into a crowded doctor’s surgery (adrenalin activities + middle age = doctors’ queues) to find that Lola is 73 lbs.

Hmm. This was no time to give up.

We went to the car and swapped Lola’s flip flops for trainers and put her hooded top on her – might this add 2 lbs?

We slide into the zip wire office and stand on the scales – 74.5 lbs! A very kind lady helped us and radioed to her superiors who gave it the okay.

We suited up and drove up the mountain in a van. You come to some point miles above the resort and there is a galley with two wires leading far away.

How was it? So much fun – almost as good as a bungy jump.

And once again I say it – this trip is not a hardship.

The unhealthy adrenaline was my afternoon spent in the mountain bike park. This is a series of downhill trails – you get a chair lift up and then you bike down. I hired a decent bike and put on my full face helmet and protective elbow and knee pads, my only problem was a lack of guts and technique. I quickly learn technique correlates with bravery.

First, the green slope. (The runs are graded like ski runs – green for beginners, then blue, red and blacks for the total lunatics. In fact, it is far harder than skiing – even a competent skier can get down a black but only a real MTB jedi can do a technical black).

The green was scary and then the blue blew my confidence to bits. I was at speed and alone. No injuries beyond the fractured ego. Memo to self: take some jumping lessons when you get back to the UK.

Productising the mountains

The notion of public and private space is relevant. Whistler sells freedom and liberation but it is one of the most corporate and closed and elite ecosystems you will find. Unlike most European resorts, Whistler is owned by a publicly traded company. I don’t know how much of the town it owns, but I’d start with all the lifts, the runs and quite a few of the shops. (In that way it is very different to the Alps were most shops are independently owned). So it is resort operator and retailer and I imagine landlord.

This has implications. On one level the resort is very organised – the signposting is amazing; when you call tourist info they will sell tickets to any activity. The effect you don’t see is on the workers and the locals. A taxi driver tells us he is an electrical engineer from Australia living four to a room and struggling to survive. Whistler is staffed by foreigners mainly, who seek the ski-bum-live-large vibes and together they unintentionally create an oversupply of labour and thus constrain their own wages. There are reports of burgeoning unionisation among ski instructors who receive $25 Canadian an hour while the resort makes $100s. We talk to our zip wire guide who says she’s surrounded by mountain bike trails but cannot try it as it is too expensive.

Whistler is not the only resort to exploit young people’s desire to work in a fun environment and the tourists don’t care. Nobody forced our engineer from Australia to move here and at some point he will leave. If the labour dries up then the wages will rise. We’ve been reading about ‘key worker’ shortages in rich cities from decades and employers will adapt – for now, it seems that Whistler remains iconic and magnetic for large numbers of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Irish. (I write this from a hotel in Yoho National Park and there is a large amount of separate staff residential accommodation – this is pretty rare from our trip.)

Buying Whistler

The ownership story is interesting. Two years ago Vail bought Whistler. Vail already owned a number of USA resorts, including of course Vail, one of Whistler’s main competitors, and in Whistler they saw the perfect name to flesh out their Epic pass.

The Epic pass has been their point of genius, and it shares much with Amazon Prime. For $895 you get unlimited skiing at any of Vail’s 13 ski resorts across a whole season. The kicker is that you pay upfront and this has created three sledgehammer strengths for Vail:

  • It gives them $500 million in subscription revenue whether there is good or bad snow
  • It hooks people in and keeps them loyal – their customers will now ski in one of their 13 resorts and not the competitors’ – and spend their beer / food / hotel money there
  • It gives them very deep data on exactly who is skiing where and when and how much they spend on what. So they can then upsell and cross sell their resorts.

What will Vail’s effect on Whistler be? We can’t tell from 3 days in August. Reading the newspaper, it seems that locals are being sidelined in favour of tourists as the latter spend more. That seems obvious. A big chairlift was being converted to a gondola at a cost of apparently $60 million while we were there and Vail seem keen to invest. The new ownership may professionalise the resort and my guess is that it will just go more and more upmarket.

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Either way, we loved Whistler. The fact it was populated by 10,000 mountain bikers made it all the more appealing. We’d love to come back.

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