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 44 of 71

DECEMBER/JANUARY 2020 BCBUSINESS 45 mid-November 2017, thousands of Epic Pass and Edge cards still hadn't been sent out. The genius of the Epic Pass soon revealed itself, though. The state of Colorado, Vail's home base, was suffering one of the worst snow droughts in history. Suddenly, Whistler Blackcomb's slopes were being filled by the very best kind of customers: high-value high rollers who were cancelling their Colorado plans to find exceptional snow conditions—not to mention a favourable exchange rate— north of the border. Delighted with its vast new playground, Vail committed $66 million—its largest infrastructure investment ever—to replace three aging lifts on Blackcomb Mountain with a high-speed eight-passenger gon- dola and an express quad chair. Over on Whistler, the Emerald Express quad was upgraded to a six-seater to alleviate crowding at the conf luence of several popular trails. But last winter, with brand-new lifts to move ever-growing numbers of ski- ers around its mountains and a much- improved ticketing system (Vail listened and brought back the one- and three-day Edge cards), the weather failed to cooper- ate. There was so little snow—even with extensive snowmaking—for the resort's traditional U.S. Thanksgiving opening that Whistler management asked its employees to stop skiing until conditions brightened. Weatherproofing risk Ski resort ownership has always been a financially risky business. Just ask Hugh Smythe, former CEO of Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Whistler Blackcomb's previous owner. "Skiing is weatherproof and skiing is recession-proof," he said in the mid-1980s. "But it is not weather- and recession-proof at the same time." Vail Resorts boss Katz has referred to ski resort owners as "snow farmers." Skyrocketing energy costs, inflation- ary wage demands and record-level inter- est rates had all but the best-capitalized resorts on the ropes during the '80s. Properties from California to Quebec were bought and sold and traded—including Blackcomb Mountain, the struggling sister resort across the Fitzsimmons Creek Valley from more-established Whistler. Smythe convinced Vancouver business park developer Joe Houssian to put in a lowball offer of $3.7 million to Blackcomb's then-owners, Aspen Skiing Corp. Land above Whistler Village, known as the Benchlands, was transformed into an enclave of posh residences and prestigious (Fairmont, Four Seasons) hotels. For Intrawest, Houssian's company, the new business model would be creating four-season destination resorts: planned pedestrian villages offering luxury hotels, art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and, most important, a vibe. An endless supply of year-round activi- ties would stimulate demand for "warm beds"—condos whose owners would rent out their units when they weren't in use. Intrawest acquired 10 resorts in all, expanding into Quebec (Mont Tremblant), Vermont (Stratton Mountain), Ontario (Blue Mountain), Colorado (Copper Moun- tain) and California (Mammoth Moun- tain). In 2006, after a strategic review, the publicly traded company was sold to New York–based Fortress Investment Group for US$2.8 billion. Down in Colorado, Vail Resorts was doing some market research. What might happen, Katz and his team wondered, if we could trigger revenue early in the season by offer- ing season's passes at a huge discount at the tail end of the previous year, through to, say, Labour Day? Also, what if the Epic Pass were marketed not just to impecunious locals, but to keen, not to mention affluent, skiers living in Chicago, Miami, New York and Los Ange- les? What if we could diversify away from Col- orado and into other states, if not countries? The Epic Pass strategy was born. In 2014, Vail bought the legally trou- bled Park City Mountain Resort in Utah. It already held an operational agreement for the nearby Canyons Resort—and immedi- ately built a gondola connecting the two, giving them a combined 7,000-plus skiable acres and 300 runs. Then came the surprise Whistler Blackcomb acquisition, the "jewel in the crown," as Katz calls it. An epic resort to match Vail's epic ambition. Recently, Vail's strategy has been to buy ski areas near major urban centres in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest. In mid- September, the company sealed a deal that would add another 17 resorts to its Epic Pass program for the 2021 season, including five hills in Pennsylvania, four in Ohio and Hunter Mountain—the largest day-trip ski- ing destination close to New York City. Now an Epic Pass purchased by a Minneapolis resident could be used for weekend skiing at nearby Afton Alps and vacation destinations like Vail, Breckenridge, Park City and Whistler Blackcomb. And while it's perhaps doubtful that a Whistler hardcore would ever ski in the Midwest, their Epic Pass is now good for a limited number of days each season at dozens of major resorts worldwide, such as Sun Valley and Telluride in the U.S., France's What will you spend to hit the slopes at Whistler Blackcomb this winter? Bear with us Pay Now, Ski Later Figuring out how much a day of skiing will cost is like trying to predict mountain weather–it's ever-changing. But there are a few basic rules. The earlier you buy (some of the best deals for the upcoming season are in March and April), the better, and tickets are always cheaper online (though you'll probably be asked if you want to receive online promotions). Also, lift tickets are always discounted–sometimes even given away in early and late season–as part of an accom- modation package. American e-tailer Liftopia includes all the B.C. resorts in its offerings.

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