December 2019 - January 2020 Best Cities for Work in B.C.

With a mission to inform, empower, celebrate and advocate for British Columbia's current and aspiring business leaders, BCBusiness go behind the headlines and bring readers face to face with the key issues and people driving business in B.C.

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Page 42 of 71

DECEMBER/JANUARY 2020 BCBUSINESS 43 Epic savings. Here was the largest publicly traded ski company in North America, at the height of a recession, announcing that it was dropping the price of a season's pass to its premium destina- tion resorts (Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Vail) from US$1,849 to US$579 for the 2009-10 season. Also, the pass would be inter- changeable, meaning that a lawyer from Miami might fly directly into Eagle-Vail airport two or three times a season and choose from three distinctive mega-resorts with more than 185 trails each. If you lived in, say, the Bay Area, you even got a pass to Heavenly near Lake Tahoe as well. But there was a catch. To lock in the US$579 rate, you had to purchase the pass by mid-May—six months in advance of the ski season. In a Vail Resorts podcast series called Epic by Nature, Katz recalls how the Epic Pass announcement burdened the Breck- enridge, Colorado–headquartered company's IT system and front-line staff at its resorts. "Everyone thought it was a typo," he says. "They wanted to purchase it before someone found out the mistake." Vail paid a handsome premium for Whistler Blackcomb in a friendly takeover that saw the latter's stock jump from $25.14 to $36.63. (Long-term employees who held options when the stock had been offered at $12 five years earlier were overjoyed.) It also came bearing gifts. Reprising its strategy from eight years earlier, the company announced that Whistlerites would save money: 2017 Epic Passes—again, good at all ski areas in the Vail universe—would sell for $1,117, down from $1,439 for the early bird season's pass the previous year. Brownlie out, Sonntag in Like Disneyland, Vail Resorts makes money the old-fashioned way, by offering what Sonntag calls "an extraordinary guest experi- ence." Where it differs, and the key to its success, is in executing a decade-old business strategy that has brought tech-like disruption to the ski industry: prizing detailed marketing analytics to forge a direct, long-standing relationship with the customer. Within a year of the acquisition, Sonntag replaced long-time Whistler Blackcomb CEO David Brownlie, whose stewardship had some stormy moments, notably the 2008-09 recession, local busi- ness owners grumbling about lost revenue during the 2010 Winter Games and construction of the dazzling—though expensive—Peak 2 Peak Gondola. More significant, Brownlie helped engineer Whis- tler's initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange when hospitality business stocks were widely out of favour and struck deals with local First Nations to ensure secure access to and tenure of its lands. Sonntag's stint as COO of Whistler Blackcomb only lasted two years, but there must have been times when it seemed like two decades. (This past August, he was kicked upstairs—and down to Colorado—to assume a regional leadership role.) Like many senior Vail executives, he combines academic achievement—a degree in economics followed by an MBA—with a lifelong passion for skiing. Sonntag has the cheerful demeanour and wholesome good looks of an elite ski school director, a job he held at tony Beaver Creek Resort, Vail Ski Resort's younger, more attractive sibling just down Interstate 70 from the company's origi- nal property. When Vail acquired Heavenly in California in 2002, he headed west and eventually was promoted to COO. "Coming to Whistler was the opportunity of a lifetime," Sonntag says. "I was familiar with Canada—my kids have attended hockey school in the Okanagan—but I also knew we would be undertaking our biggest resort integration by far." Would he be up for the challenge? "There's a fear that when Vail Resorts comes to town that somehow the local brand will get lost," says Chris Diamond, a Colorado-based former ski industry executive–turned-consultant and author of the recent book Ski Inc. 2020. Indeed, while the Epic Pass rewarded skiers and riders willing to make a commitment, the slightly discounted one- and three-day Edge cards were elimi- nated. (The popular 7-Eleven tickets had been discontinued by the previous ownership.) A walk-up day pass was now $130. For Lower Mainland families crushed by mortgage debt and high gas prices, it was all a bit much. Also, the integration of Whistler Blackcomb's ticketing sys- tem with Vail's proprietary software created bothersome delays. When massive amounts of snow plastered the Coast Range in LEFT: TOURISM WHISTLER/CHAD CHOMLACK; RIGHT: TOURISM WHISTLER/MIKE CRANE

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