2017/18 is the first season that Whistler Blackcomb was included in Vail’s Epic Pass and to the chagrin of locals, the impact has been immediate.
Whistler has had almost 500″ of snow this season and boasts a 107″ base. Compare that to other destinations on the Epic pass, such as Beaver Creek and Vail in Colorado and Park City in Utah, where snowfall is at some of the lowest levels recorded in 30 years.
That fact alone helped persuade a huge portion of Vail’s estimated 750,000 Epic Pass holders to look farther north than the United States this past season, and head where the snow is: Whistler. More than 8 percent of holders visited Whistler Blackcomb, helping make it the most-visited mountain resort in North America, according to a March 13 Vail investor presentation, reports Bloomberg.
Visitor numbers at Whistler set a record for the third straight year, thanks to visitors from the U.S., Mexico, Australia, and the U.K., Vail Resorts Chief Executive Officer Robert Katz said in a March 8 investor call.
Locals aren’t as impressed. Whistler Blackcomb’s tickets are now priced with a base rate in US dollars, unfortunate for Canadians who hold the second-worst-performing major currency this year. Meanwhile, Vail canceled Whistler’s popular prepaid lift tickets, which were discounted exclusively for Canadians and Washington state residents. The move highlights a move away from local, casual skiers to focus on destination visitors, a category that spends three times more than its regional counterparts at Whistler annually.
“It irks you,” says Roger Schmidt, an engineer based in Ottawa who’s been skiing at Whistler since the 1970s. “I’m the victim of the exchange rate in my own country. Not everybody has the time or the resources to go away for a 10-day ski vacation every season. It’s like the message is, if you’re local, you can ski at the smaller hills.”
Vail is investing lots of money into Whistler Blackcomb to help increase capacity, announcing a C$66 million investment (the largest single-year amount in the resort’s history) to build a new gondola and upgrade old lifts. And in its investor presentation last month, it cited efforts to target high-net-worth customers with personalized “luxury-focused content based on income.”
More upscale visitors will come who are “probably not coming to experience the terrain challenges of the mountains,” says G.D. Maxwell, a semi-retired columnist for local Pique NewsMagazine who’s lived there since 1992. “They like easy cruising, good food, and expensive shops.” In other words, the Canadian resort will increasingly come to resemble its Colorado parent.
“Vail bought the No. 1 resort in North America and is now going to teach it how to be the No. 3,” Maxwell says.