Decked out with the new Peak-to-Peak Gondola and meetings-friendly Olympics venues, the B.C. ski resort gears up to host the 2010 winter games. By Allan Lynch, March/April 2009
With apologies to Irving Berlin, Whistler’s new theme song could be: “Heaven, I’m in heaven…when I’m dancing peak-to-peak…”
While always a popular place, the opening of the $54-million Peak-to-Peak Gondola elevated Whistler beyond anything offered at any other mountain or ski resort in the world. In the superlatives category, the peak-to-peak is the world’s longest and highest unsupported span and forms part of the longest continuous lift system. One part of this 11-minute ride between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains is over a kilometre in the air. Two of the gondolas (look for — or avoid — the silver ones) provide glass-floor inserts to give the non-vertigo-challenged an exciting view of the landscape.
Looking down on a forest of evergreens tipped in fresh snow is similar to being in a glass-bottom boat peering down at a coral reef. To complete the picture, the bright red, yellow and blue parkas of skiers and snowboarders flashing by, below, seem to mimic the skittish movements of tropical fish. The Peak-to-Peak opens up the mountain experience and circulates guests through both villages, mountains and facilities.
The gondolas link the Round House on top of Whistler, which typically hosts 150 corporate events a year, from banquets and dances, product launches and receptions (it can accommodate 900 for dinner, 1,500 at a reception), with the lodge on Blackcomb, which can host 100 people in its fine-dining restaurant, Christine’s, and 600, for receptions, when the whole lodge is used. Groups can arrange a buy-out or go for a budget-stretcher of reserving just part of the facilities. According to Jenn Burling, a group account executive with Intrawest, groups have turned the lift station at the mid-way point up Whistler mountain into an appetizer or drink station. Some have had a magician performing here, while others positioned the president there to make sure everyone has a personal greeting.
On the mountaintop, groups have used Olympic themes for events, hosted fire and ice fireworks displays and had their company logo projected on the glacier. Burling says, “We love to see what planners come up with that we haven’t thought of.”
As exciting as it is to be a co-host of the 2010 Winter Games and Paralympics, it has a mixed blessing. Whistler is mostly known as a winter destination. For 12 years straight, it has been rated the number-one ski resort in North America, but as any of the town’s 9,200 residents will quickly explain, there is more to do here in summer than winter.
One of Whistler’s other claims to fame is as Canada’s number-one golf destination, according to Golf Digest. The town has three courses within the community: the Arnold Palmer-designed Whistler Golf Club, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Nicklaus North Golf Course and the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club, which is home to the only David Leadbetter golf academy in Canada. There are also stunning courses in neighbouring communities.
New to the outdoor-activity lineup is heli-golf, where players are taken to a mountaintop for the ultimate driving-range experience, hitting bio-degradable golf balls into the valley below. Or you can, as guests at the Four Seasons have done, land in a float plane on Green Lake and go directly to your tee time, while luggage is taken to the resort.
While the other three seasons are the time when vendor pencils are sharpest, the Winter Games are emphasizing the destination’s traditional strength.
Martha Fast, assistant to TELUS’ vice-president of strategic planning and execution, has arranged two back-to-back conferences in Whistler for their 400 team members from client operations. The latest was a three-day, two-night in May, 2009, for 400 at The Westin Resort and Spa, which is a quick walk to the Telus Conference Centre. She smiles that the venue choice had nothing to do with having their corporate name over the door. “The conference centre is the drawing card for us, because everything can happen in the one building. You can have your meals, meetings and activity there and never have to leave the space. That’s our big draw.”
Whistler works because it reduces the need for transportation on-site and makes it easy to keep control of your group, says Fast. She also likes the hotel configuration, which is a budget stretcher. “The Westin up there is set up like a condo, so you can put two people in a unit” and shave accommodation costs.
Fast is pleasantly surprised by “how everything flows. It flows well because they’re well connected. The Westin folks talk to the people at the conference centre and if you need to negotiate something, they know where to go, so there isn’t a lot of running around.”
While hers is a hard-working, fly-in, fly-out group, the team did arrange discounts for the first on-your-own evening at Buffalo Bills, across from the convention centre. For her one planned evening, Fast worked with her AV team to present a Wii cyber-Olympics.
“We converted a space into a games room with 30 Wii stations. We had all our teams put together and had to go through the Olympics. It was a lot of fun.”
Edie Svetliza, executive director at Xpertize Meeting Management, is an old hand at working in Whistler. This self-described Fairmont fan has hosted 10 consecutive meetings in Whistler for the Excellence in Interventional Cardiology programme. “It’s a standing meeting,” she says. “The hotel is definitely the draw. They have a great staff, very warm surroundings, the whole package is really spectacular.” Her international group of 60 (50 cardiologists and 10 companions) has a four-day, three-night meeting every December. “Everybody arrives in on Thursday evening, we have a welcome reception, Friday and Saturday are a mix of meetings and interaction between the doctors, dinner on Saturday night and Sunday they leave during the day.”
Her by-invitation-only group doesn’t suffer destination burnout. Svetliza says, “No, I have a waiting list for this meeting. Trust me, I get the calls early on in the year, ‘am I on the list’? My directors for the course, the doctors, are very adamant that it’s Whistler and the Fairmont.”
Like Fast, Svetliza is impressed by the sense of commuity in Whistler and colleagiality of the vendors. “Everybody is very, very helpful. And it is pretty well integrated. Everybody will talk to everybody. If you ask someone at the Fairmont, ‘can you recommend another property nearby?’, they’re very happy to assist you, it’s not like a big competition there. I see that they work together as a team to make it successful. I think that is what the success of what Whistler is, because what is good for one is good for all.”
The one challenge for groups, regardless of the season, is transportation. Fortunately, the Sea-to-Sky Highway will have had over $600-million spent on improvements by the time the Games begin in February, 2010, which will reduce drive times.
In addition to the road, a Rocky Mountaineer offshoot, the Whistler Mountaineer, provides daily rail service from May to October between the resort and Vancouver. This three-hour trip allows groups to recharge or host a mobile function in one of the Mountaineer’s recently refurbished event cars. Other small incentives have hosted business meetings at a companion property in Vancouver, then taken a helicopter or float plane to Whistler to continue the second part of their programme at their host brand — like Fairmont, Four Seasons, Pan Pacific, Westin. Which should remind planners that while many places claim to be a four-season destination, Whistler really is. The activities menu changes, but it doesn’t skimp on experiences. You’re still able to dance peak-to-peak.
— Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelance writer.