In the wake of its 2016 pur­chase of Whistler Black­comb, Vail Re­sorts is qui­etly re­mak­ing the ski desti­na­tion

BC Business Magazine - - Contents - By Scott Neufeld

Whistler Black­comb’s U.S. own­ers aim to re­make the ski re­sort one data point at a time

On any given blue­bird day this sea­son, the slopes of Whistler and Black­comb moun­tains will see a flurry of ac­tiv­ity. Snow­board­ers and skiers will tear through fresh pow­der. Lifties will help rid­ers smoothly nav­i­gate the as­cent back up the hill. Ev­ery­one will scat­ter at the end of the day, land­ing at Splitz Grill or Creek­bread or Araxi Restau­rant + Oys­ter Bar to re­fuel.

But as these fa­mil­iar scenes play out, Whistler Black­comb is un­der­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion as mon­u­men­tal as any­thing in the B.C. re­sort’s his­tory. In late 2016, Vail Re­sorts Inc. ac­quired Whistler Black­comb Hold­ings Inc. for $1.39 bil­lion, mak­ing an epic bet that it could bring even more pol­ish to one of the ski in­dus­try’s jewels. Now, hav­ing in­stalled a new chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at Whistler, Colorado- based Vail is re­mak­ing the place in its own im­age.

“None of this im­pacts the guest ex­pe­ri­ence. This re­sort has been out­stand­ing at pro­vid­ing a great ex­pe­ri­ence to guests. We ex­pect to main­tain that and en­hance it over time,” says COO Pete Son­ntag, who moved to Sea to Sky coun­try from Vail’s Heav­enly Moun­tain Re­sort on Lake Ta­hoe. “There’s a lot of be­hind-the-scenes work go­ing on, but when we open our doors in Novem­ber, our guests will never know that any of this was hap­pen­ing.”

The Vail strat­egy hinges on the Epic Pass, which gives skiers

and snow­board­ers un­lim­ited ac­cess to the com­pany’s 14 prop­er­ties. Among them are some of Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar ski des­ti­na­tions, in­clud­ing Vail, Heav­enly and Beaver Creek. Bring­ing Whistler into the fold height­ens the al­lure of the pass for the jet-set skier, while die-hard lo­cal pow­der hounds could save hun­dreds this sea­son and might be en­ticed to take a run at other Vail re­sorts. This past spring the early-bird price for an Epic Pass was $1,117, ver­sus $1,439 for a Whistler Black­comb early-bird sea­son pass in 2016.

How­ever, ca­sual skiers and board­ers will have to pay a lit­tle more be­cause the one-day and three-day Edge cards have been dis­con­tin­ued. To get the lo­cal dis­count, vis­i­tors must now buy five- and 10-day cards, which cost $459 and $789, re­spec­tively, to ride with­out date re­stric­tions dur­ing the 2017-18 sea­son.

El­e­vat­ing the Epic Pass is a so­phis­ti­cated dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing strat­egy fu­elled by moun­tains of cus­tomer data. Vail carves that in­for­ma­tion into buyer per­sonas—ev­ery­one from the lux­ury Alpine A-lis­ter to the lo­cal Shred Head—to bet­ter un­der­stand how its cus­tomers ex­pe­ri­ence its re­sorts and how best to mar­ket to those seg­ments.

“We’ve been pretty pub- lic about we’re a data-driven com­pany, and we be­lieve that the best de­ci­sions come from the best in­for­ma­tion,” Son­ntag ex­plains. “It’s proven to be suc­cess­ful for us ev­ery­where else we’ve done busi­ness, and we’re con­fi­dent it will here, too.”

This ap­proach has boosted Epic Pass sales. Rev­enue keeps break­ing records: as of Septem­ber, sales were up 23 per cent over 2016-17, fol­low­ing a 34 per cent jump the pre­vi­ous year. In Whistler, where data is col­lected on just 20 per cent of non–sea­son pass holders, Vail sees sig­nif­i­cant po­ten­tial. At its other re­sorts, data cap­ture is about 96 per cent.

“We have found that this in­for­ma­tion and the abil­ity to bet­ter seg­ment and per­son­al­ize our com­mu­ni­ca­tions to our guests has been one of the largest driv­ers of our sea­son pass growth in past years, set­ting us up very well for con­tin­ued pass sales growth for fis­cal 2019 and be­yond,” chair­man and CEO Robert Katz said in a re­cent earn­ings call with in­vestors.

Katz, a driv­ing force be­hind Vail’s dig­i­tal push, led the com­pany to one of the big­gest such in­no­va­tions in the recre­ation in­dus­try with the re­lease of its Epicmix app in 2010. The app turned head­ing up the moun­tain into a game, track­ing how much ter­rain rid­ers were shred­ding in a day and re­ward­ing their ef­forts with dig­i­tal ku­dos.

But so­phis­ti­cated mar­ket­ing schemes can only get you so far. Whistler has to evolve to at­tract new cus­tomers and con­sis­tently sur­prise long-time thrill seek­ers.

For­tu­nately for Vail there’s al­ready a road map, the Re­nais­sance plan. Vail is pledg­ing to carry out an am­bi­tious strat­egy that would fur­ther ce­ment Whistler’s rep­u­ta­tion as a year-round re­sort desti­na­tion. The $345-mil­lion plan calls for new at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing a six-star lux­ury ho­tel and new in­door and out­door ad­ven­ture cen­tres rang­ing from wa­ter­slides and a roller coaster to a “zone ded­i­cated to hu­man flight.” For those who just want to hit the slopes, there will be new chair­lifts, restau­rants and other im­prove­ments to the moun­tains.

“What I look for­ward to is con­tin­u­ing to strive to make this place the best it can pos­si­bly be and cre­ate one of the great­est moun­tain ex­pe­ri­ences in the world,” Son­ntag says. “That’s why Vail was in­ter­ested in mak­ing this ac­qui­si­tion, be­cause this is a pretty spe­cial place and we want to re­spect what’s spe­cial about it, build on the strengths and cre­ate some­thing unique in the in­dus­try.”

LIFT UP THE VAIL The Colorado com­pany is set to put its stamp on the hills of Whistler Black­comb

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