Whistler Resort

Having an overall vision is extremely powerful. From that you can generate key directions that people can clearly understand. Everyone has got to have something that they can focus on and use as their point of reference. I think that you have to have that otherwise it’s really easy to derail the program, to have short-term problems supercede long-term solutions and visions. I think sustainability has to be such a high priority that it meets your vision and everything else is secondary.
Hugh O’Reilly
Resort Municipality of Whistler

  • We helped to design, facilitate, and implement a process of comprehensive community engagement in sustainability as part of a unique public-private-NGO partnership for community sustainability.
  • We advised the consortium of sustainability early adopters, which included the municipal government (Resort Municipality of Whistler), the town’s largest employers (Whistler-Blackcomb, the mountain operator, and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the pre-eminent hotel in Whistler), the tourism marketing board (Tourism Whistler, representing more than 6000 members who own property or run businesses in Whistler), members of the Chamber of Commerce, and the local environmental watchdog organization, Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE)..
  • We conducted sustainability workshops, trained sustainability innovators in each early adopter organization in the principles and practice of effective organizational change, and provided on-going coaching and consultation on sustainability implementation projects and processes.
  • We coauthored a Community Sustainability Toolkit for Whistler as a resource of best practices and strategies for community sustainable development.

Reports from the field

Whistler/Blackcomb, the largest ski area on the North American continent, is located an approximately four and a half hour drive north of Seattle, WA in southwestern British Columbia. It has more than 2,800 hectares (just over 7,000 acres) of skiing area, 33 lifts, more than 200 runs and 12 massive alpine bowls and the most ski-in/ski-out accommodation of any mountain recreation resort in North America. The ski operations at Whistler Mountain (elevation 7,160 feet/2182 meters) and Blackcomb Mountain (elevation 7,494 feet/2284 meters) competed with each other for two decades before merging in the spring of 1997. Competition between the two led to their status in the minds (and hearts) of many skiers and snowboarders as the premier North American winter resorts. Today Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Resort is one of only three resorts in the world with two million skier/boarder visits per winter season and is the only resort in North America with this distinction. The volume of summer tourism at Whistler now rivals that of winter. Whistler has three championship designer golf courses and three more are within one hour's drive.

Resort communities are part of one of the world’s most important and fastest growing industries, travel and tourism, which accounts for more than 6 percent of all international trade. Since 1950, total annual expenditure on tourism has risen from $2 billion to annual worldwide revenues of $476 billion in 2000, an increase of 4.5 percent over 1999. This amount exceeds the combined Gross National Product (GNP) of the world’s 55 poorest countries.

Today tourism provides approximately 210 million jobs worldwide. By 2011, this is estimated to grow to 260 million jobs, approximately 9 percent of total employment worldwide. Travel and tourism is expected to generate 12.8 percent of total exports ($1.064 trillion) in 2001, growing to $2.58 trillion in 2011. Capital investment in the industry is estimated at $656.7 billion or 9 percent of total investment in 2001. By 2011 this should reach $1.43 trillion or 9.3 percent of total.

The World Tourism Organization's long-term growth forecast Tourism: 2020 Vision predicts that the tourism sector will expand by an average of 4.1 percent a year over the next two decades, will surpass a total of one billion international travellers by the year 2010, and will reach 1.6 billion by the year 2020. According to this report, the majority of all tourist expenditure in 1995 came from 20 rich nations (17 European, U.S.A, Canada and Japan) and accounted for 81.8 percent of all tourist expenditure in that year with five nations (U.S.A, Japan, Germany, the U.K. and France) accounting for over one-half.

Although these numbers are impressive, international tourism is particularly vulnerable to a variety of factors including economic recession, currency crises, political instability, terrorism, disruptions in traffic, transport and communications systems, shifts in tastes, and environmental threats and pollution. It is also a very competitive industry. Travel and tourist destinations must compete on a global scale that transcends season or geographic location. The tourist experience can be satisfied by a vast array of competing offerings. Winter in the northern mountains competes with summer in the southern latitudes as each becomes more accessible and as Internet and other media technologies make the array of offerings more visible and attractive.

Many developing countries and undeveloped regions rely on tourism as a key development strategy because the industry provides significant employment potential. Mountains have long been the destination of travelers, often seeking sanctuary and spiritual renewal. Winter sports, in particular, have been a major driver for the development of mountain tourism with an estimated market of 65 to 70 million people worldwide. Ironically, the same elements that attract tourists, whether for adventure or solitude, to mountain areas—clean, cool air, varied topography, scenic beauty, and diverse natural landscapes—are also the reasons that make mountain areas vulnerable.

Mountains are fragile ecosystems on which more than one-half of the world’s population may ultimately rely. "Mountain environments are sensitive, living laboratories for monitoring climate change, of highest significance for biological diversity, and the source of over 80 percent of the world's fresh surface water resources." Increased access means that tourism has become a primary source of revenue for many of these mountain areas as well as a source of environmental stress and often significant environmental degradation.

In addition, tourism generally entails the movement of people from their homes to other destinations, travel that is mainly dependent upon the combustion of fossil fuels. Thus, global tourism is closely linked with climate change. It is estimated that tourism accounts for about 50 percent of traffic movements, and that air traffic alone contributes about 2.5 percent of the human-generated production of carbon dioxide, which results in millions of tons of carbon being added to the atmosphere each year. Tourism is therefore a significant contributor to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Climate change is an important concern for mountain communities and mountain tourism. Their landscapes may be vulnerable to significant alteration as changes in temperature influence natural ecosystems. In most parts of the world, glaciers, an important part of many mountain landscapes, have been retreating in recent decades. This not only may affect the attractiveness of the very terrain of mountain tourist destinations, it also may have important implications for the survivability of mountain communities. For example, as glaciers retreat, water supplies increase in the short term, but as the glaciers shrink and disappear, water shortages will have potentially devastating effects on fragile mountain ecosystems as well as the human systems, the human societies, living downstream.

There is certainly reason to be concerned about the sustainable development of mountain regions, and there are numerous challenges and opportunities in balancing the local conditions of individual mountain communities, valleys, and regions with the demands of tourism. The citizens, residents and business and political leaders in Whistler are deeply concerned about the continued sustainability and well-being of their community and they are proactively working together to ensure a positive future. To do this they have formed a unique and ground-breaking public/private/non-governmental organization partnership created for the purpose of moving toward sustainability.

The Whistler Sustainability Early Adopters consists of a number of key organizations, including the community’s largest employers. Members of the group include: the Resort Municipality of Whistler (the municipal government); Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Resorts (the company that owns and operates the ski/snowboarding resort on the two mountains and attendant facilities); the Fairmont Chateau Whistler (Whistler’s flagship hotel and a pre-eminent property in the Fairmont chain), Tourism Whistler (the marketing organization for Whistler that represents more than 6,000 members who own, manage or do business on resort lands); Whistler Fotosource (representing small businesses that make up the majority of businesses in Whistler); and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE, a members-based environmental advocacy, watchdog and educational organization).

Whistler's Early Adopters have formed a "learning community" that is working cooperatively to develop a common mental model of how to understand sustainability; promote a common message about moving toward sustainability in the community; develop common training programs; develop toolkits (manuals and resource materials) to facilitate and guide the implementation of more sustainable practices in households, small and large organizations, and in schools; create a website as a community sustainability resource, and document their shared learning experience. The Early Adopters are, in effect, test pilots for sustainability and, as they implement more sustainable practices within their own organizations, they share their learning experiences with other interested Whistler organizations and citizens.

In May 2000, senior representatives of the Early Adopter organizations met and developed the Early Adopters Agreement, a signed memorandum, to formally articulate their commitment. The RMOW committed staff time to support the Early Adopters group. The Early Adopters began to explore how to progress collaboratively in this new venture. They agreed to take a joint approach to sustainability education and awareness building in their organizations and to build internal capacity for doing so in each of their organizations. In late November of 2000, we conducted an intensive two-day facilitator workshop for teams from each of the Early Adopter organizations. The purpose of the workshop was to train the facilitation teams so they could develop and conduct sustainability awareness presentations within their own organizations. During the two months following the workshop, teams developed internal sustainability presentations adapted to the specific cultures and needs of their own organizations, and an implementation plan to provide sustainability awareness sessions to their respective employees.

The Early Adopters also agreed on a common strategy to build awareness about sustainability in the wider Whistler community with the ultimate goal of inviting others in the community—households, businesses, schools, and guests—to learn with them and to help move the community in a more sustainable direction. Toward that end, in early December 2000, we worked with the Early Adopters to host more than 300 delegates to the first Whistler Sustainability Symposium, held at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. The Symposium featured leading businesses that are committed to more sustainable practices from Europe and North America.

During the spring of 2001, the Early Adopter teams implemented their presentation plans to lay the foundation of sustainability awareness in their organizations. In the meantime, we continued to work with members of the Whistler community to develop community resource toolkits designed for use in large and small businesses, households and schools. In April, a diverse cross-section of the Whistler community participated in an envisioning workshop conducted and designed by Envisioning & Storytelling, a Vancouver-based communications firm. The workshop was designed to help create an inspiring common message that would engage the community in the purpose of moving toward sustainability.

Beginning in July 2001, we conducted an intensive ten-week advanced sustainability facilitator training course for 20 members from the Early Adopter organizations that was designed specifically for the Whistler community. The purpose of this course was to expose internal teams in the Early Adopter organizations to systems thinking; theory and practice in sustainability; presentation, facilitation and coaching skills; strategies, tools, and metrics for sustainability; theories and practice of organizational learning and innovation diffusion; and to provide a coaching environment in which they could apply this learning in their own organizations. In addition, the course was designed to strengthen the Early Adopter group as a sustainability learning community. Several participants in the course were trained to serve as community resources to help small and medium-sized businesses, households, and schools in their journey to sustainability.

Each of the Early Adopter organizations is integrating more sustainable practices into their operations:

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the municipal government that serves the community of Whistler, has five main divisions, employs approximately 350 people, and manages an annual budget of about Can$50 million. The RMOW has been involved with environmental initiatives for many years, serving as environmental steward of land use planning, watershed management, water and wastewater management, transportation management, and numerous other areas. For example, an environmental legacy fund created from landfill tipping fees now totals one million dollars (Can). Interest income from this fund supports community projects, such as the development of the Whistler. It’s Our Nature toolkits. Pesticide-free landscaping is achieved through the use of low-pressure hot water. Naturescaping uses plants naturally found in the Whistler area to minimize maintenance and watering, and to re-establish wildlife habitat. Significant diversion of waste is achieved through extensive materials reuse and recycling programs. Finally, the Whistler Way has become a popular program for taking more environmentally sustainable modes of transportation around Whistler — for example, Whistler’s award-winning transit system carries more than two million riders each year, the highest per capita ridership in B.C.

The RMOW has also played a vital leadership and facilitative role in helping the community explore and articulate its shared values and its vision for the future. The RMOW has been diligently working to develop the policies and plans that support bringing these values and vision into being, all the while providing the essential services that are the responsibility of any municipal government.

Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Resorts

In 1986, Intrawest Properties Ltd. (now Intrawest Corporation) purchased Blackcomb and between 1987 and 1991 invested more than $59 million on improvements. In 1997, Intrawest acquired Whistler Mountain and merged the operations of both mountains.

Intrawest is the largest owner and operator of village-centered destination resorts on the North American continent. Headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, less than a two- hour drive from Whistler, Intrawest currently owns ten mountain resorts, one warm-weather resort, eighteen golf courses, a premier vacation ownership business (Club Intrawest) and five world-class resort villages at other locations, including one in France. In addition, Intrawest has a significant investment in Compagnie des Alpes, the largest ski company in the world in terms of skier visits, and Alpine Helicopters, owner of Canadian Mountain Holidays, the largest heli-skiing operation in the world. The company is involved with all aspects of resort living including lodging, food and beverage, themed retail, animated operations and real-estate development. It has approximately one billion dollars in revenues and 16,000 employees who manage and serve the company's 6.2 million skier visits and 546,000 golf rounds.

Whistler/Blackcomb is still taking early steps in moving toward more sustainable practices. Blackcomb Mountain launched its environmental program in 1993, spearheaded by Arthur DeJong, then Mountain Operations Manager at Blackcomb, and now Mountain Planning & Environmental Resource Manager for Whistler/Blackcomb. Since that time, the environmental program has grown considerably. DeJong admits he knew nothing about environmentalism or stewardship practices in 1993. Then an oil spill occurred on Blackcomb. He points to that day as a turning point in his life because he felt totally responsible as Mountain Operations Manager. As a result of that incident, DeJong became a student of nature. He explains, "You have to take the best ecological natural life form inventory, understand what its needs are, and a) try to absolutely minimize what you take out of it; b) try to mimic it if you can; and c) if you can see connections that benefit natural life forms, help to enhance it."

Since 1993, Blackcomb, and now Whistler/Blackcomb, has been developing an extensive Environmental Management System (EMS) to identify and more effectively manage operations that impact the environment. In addition, they are working to design and implement a comprehensive environmental strategy that can be a model to other resorts. Whistler/Blackcomb supports the National Ski Area Association’s Sustainable Slopes Charter and has aligned its EMS with the Sustainable Slopes guiding principles. The EMS is the main tool used by Whistler/Blackcomb to establish programs in the areas of:
  • Fish and wildlife management,
  • Forest, soil and watershed management,
  • Low impact land use decisions,
  • Environmental education,
  • Water conservation,
  • Energy conservation,
  • Solid waste management,
  • Fuel and hazardous waste management, and
  • Community outreach
The level of commitment to triple bottom line sustainability and stewardship—economics, environment, and community—among the senior leadership team at Whistler/Blackcomb has increased dramatically over the past several years. In its initial stages, the environmental program was the sole responsibility of the Mountain Operations Manager. After the merger of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, Doug Forseth, the Vice-President of Operations, created the position of Environmental Coordinator to broaden the scope of the internal program. Allana Hamm now effectively fills that multifaceted role.

In the early stages of the program, the environmental team gained support from the senior leadership team by emphasizing the need for compliance. The program has grown beyond a focus on compliance issues to being highly proactive. The senior leadership team recognizes the ever growing importance of environmental sustainability to their business, community, guests, and generations to come, and is beginning to communicate this both internally and externally.

Whistler/Blackcomb viewed the creation of the Early Adopters group as an important way to participate in a community initiative toward more sustainable practices. DeJong comments, "The biggest thing, with the most impact, that The Natural Step has done is that you’ve brought everyone together. That is so valuable. Things have changed here." Together with other Early Adopter organizations, a team from Whistler/Blackcomb participated in the awareness presentation facilitator’s workshop that we conducted in November 2000, as well as the December Sustainability Symposium. In April 2001, Whistler/Blackcomb’s entire senior management team attended our presentation on The Natural Step framework for sustainability, which was then followed by a similar introduction to sustainability for all Whistler/Blackcomb managers.

Many of Whistler/Blackcomb’s employees are seasonal, so there is high turnover. Nonetheless, Whistler/Blackcomb teaches both new and returning staff about its commitment to the community and the environment and about the programs it has established to support this commitment. The training outlines employee responsibilities to the environment and focuses on the stewardship initiatives that are relevant to specific job descriptions. Education also includes how employees can become involved in committees, groups and initiatives in the Whistler Valley. Several tools are used to reinforce this education including:
  • Educational materials that outline procedures specific to departments,
  • Whistler. It’s Our Nature household toolkits for use by staff,
  • An energy conservation handbook for staff,
  • A Staff Guide to Recycling that is distributed during recruitment and at all staff housing locations,
  • Training sessions with environmental staff at the beginning of each season, as well as staff meetings throughout the season to outline Whistler/Blackcomb’s 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) program,
  • An Energy Quest education program that promotes energy conservation,
  • A bi-weekly environmental section in the Weekly Messenger newsletter that talks about 3Rs initiatives and recognizes staff contributions,
  • Information on the company recycling program is accessible through shared folders in the e-mail system,
  • A Recycling Hotline for staff and guests,
  • Regular visits by environmental team staff to all buildings to ensure that they are equipped with containers, signage and clear information on using our recycling system,
  • Waste and energy audits of buildings at night and reports.

Fairmont Chateau Whistler

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler (FCW) is part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, a North American hotel management company that resulted from the merger between Fairmont Hotels and Canadian Pacific Hotels. Back in the 19th century, Canadian Pacific Hotels began with a vision to build ‘dining stations’ along the newly constructed trans-Canada railway. The first hotel opened in the Rocky Mountains in 1886, and others followed from Victoria, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland. These include such famous Canadian landmarks as the Banff Springs Hotel, Jasper Park Lodge, Chateau Lake Louise, Chateau Laurier, and Le Chateau Frontenac. The chain now has significant properties throughout Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Bermuda and Barbados.

Prior to the merger in 1999, Canadian Pacific Hotels had become an industry leader and catalyst in greening hotel operations. In 1990, the corporate office surveyed all employees to find out if they would support of an environmental program. An overwhelming 91 percent of staff surveyed strongly supported more environmentally responsible practices within their hotels. In response, a corporate greening program called the Green Partnership was launched across the chain. Over the years, this program evolved from an environmental guidebook to a more comprehensive incentive and monitoring program that is administered by a corporate environmental office. From its inception, the FCW has actively participated in this program.

An elegant chateau-style building that is one of the most beautiful and substantial resort hotels in the world, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler is an all-season hotel resort that has attained a top ranking in the Top 100 Hotels of the World. It has 560 guest rooms and employs over 600 staff, depending on the season. Its guest rooms are complemented with 28,000 square feet of function space, six independent meeting rooms, three major ballrooms, a number of hospitality suites, and a rooftop garden terrace. FCW’s facilities also include two restaurants, a bar, a health club, spa, staff housing and an 18-hole golf course.

Environmental stewardship has been an important part of FCW values and operations since the hotel opened in 1989 under the leadership of the hotel’s chief executive, General Manager, David Roberts. Some early initiatives of the FCW include:
  • An active Green Team since the hotel opened,
  • Leading the Whistler community in a comprehensive recycling program, before it was financially viable,
  • Taking the initiative to find alternatives for disposing organic waste in bear country, where traditional composting was not possible, and
  • Other initiatives that contributed to being two-time winner of the corporate Environmental Hotel of the Year Award. These initiatives include an organic terrace herb garden, sheet and towel reuse policies, golf course Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System certification, and local partnerships to donate amenities, furniture and other hotel products.

Tourism Whistler

Tourism Whistler is the organization responsible for marketing Whistler as a four-season resort destination in target markets around the world. With more than 6000 members who own property or operate businesses in Whistler, Tourism Whistler is looked upon as a leader in the business community. As such, they are expected to provide vision and strategies that will enable Whistler’s remarkable success to continue. Tourism Whistler also operates a central reservation booking service, activity and information centre, the Whistler Conference Centre, and the Whistler Golf Club. In peak season, Tourism Whistler employs approximately 140 staff, with average year-round staff of about 105 and a turnover rate of about 22 percent annually. Total revenue for 2000 was approximately $8 million including membership assessments, sales and marketing, golf course revenues and conference center revenues.

Suzanne Denbak, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler, has been a consistent champion of the Whistler Early Adopters, and the vision of creating a Whistler experience associated with stewarding and restoring the natural environment as well as nurturing the human spirit. In October 2001, Tourism Whistler’s Board of Directors adopted a new mission that begins to reflect this commitment: "To be a leader and a catalyst in promoting the sustainable economic well-being of the resort community through the development and execution of well-planned, customer-driven sales and marketing strategies and the effective management of the Whistler Conference Centre, the Whistler Golf Club, and Whistler Central Reservations."

Tourism Whistler creates strategic partnerships that grow the resort's business and enhance the guest experience. The organization is committed to:
  • Positioning Whistler as a preferred resort destination in all target markets,
  • Successfully growing the business,
  • Continuously improving the value we provide to its stakeholders, and
  • Creating a climate for the growth and development of its staff
An internal team at Tourism Whistler has been trained to provide awareness training for its staff and to conduct a baseline sustainability audit. Tourism Whistler has moved forward on a number of important areas. They have begun examining their practices at the golf course: experimenting with different pesticides and working with other Whistler groups on the stream that is part of the golf course. The operations manager has become part of a supply group that is looking at alternative purchasing solutions. They have integrated sustainability into the business planning process so that the necessary time and resources are allocated for developing more sustainable practices.

Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) is a volunteer membership-based organization that exists to improve the quality of life in the Whistler community by protecting the natural heritage and moving toward environmental sustainablility. For AWARE the only option for Whistler is a sensible balanced approach to environmental sustainability from both an environmental and economic point of view.

Today AWARE continues its work on recycling by working to remove organic materials from the waste stream through planning for a community composting program. In the fall of 2001, AWARE started the first stages of implementing a demonstration unit and will also be installing worm composters in classrooms. However, AWARE’s sphere of interest ranges far beyond this arena. For example, AWARE members were very involved in the community consultation process that led to the production of Whistler 2002. Members have also participated in the review groups for the Whistler Environmental Strategy. AWARE members sit on numerous advisory groups in the community dealing with transportation issues and are actively pursuing alternate strategies for transportation both in the valley and in the highway corridor between Vancouver and Whistler.

Conservation and protection of key wilderness in the south Coast Mountains is a priority for AWARE. The organization educates the public and advocates for protection of vanishing wilderness values. With other organizations, AWARE is working toward protecting a viable wilderness network in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, which is shared with the neighboring communities in the Squamish and Lillooet Forest Districts.

AWARE serves as a community watchdog in the land use planning process in the Whistler Valley ensuring that the provincial park system is not compromised by encroaching development and inappropriate uses. As Whistler's pace of growth slows and the community approaches the maximum development allowed under the community plan, AWARE is providing input as the community develops a final Protected Area Network Plan. AWARE is also active in "on the ground" habitat restoration.

Members of AWARE participated in the November presentation facilitator’s workshop; AWARE co-sponsored and participated in the December Sustainability Forum; and they were involved in the workshop on the mapping of current reality. Three members of AWARE also participated in the ten-week advanced Natural Step sustainability facilitator training course and bring this knowledge and experience to the wider community, particularly to households, small businesses and schools. AWARE has been an important contributor to the development and production of the community sustainability toolkits and will continue to play a vital role in engaging wider community involvement.*

* The comments above are excerpted from the book, DANCING WITH THE TIGER: Learning Sustainability Step by Natural Step, by Nattrass and Altomare, New Society Publishers, 2002.

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