With a limited ability to build new big hotels, Whistler needs to focus on renewal

Sep 17 2022, 3:33 am

With tourism in British Columbia now experiencing a strong rebound following the long pandemic toil, it is worth exploring the tourism industry’s ability to remain globally competitive over the long-term.

Outside of Metro Vancouver, Whistler, a standalone tourism engine, is home to BC’s second largest cluster of visitor accommodations.

According to the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the jurisdiction has a core hotel accommodation capacity of almost 8,000 beds. When other types of visitor accommodations are accounted for, beyond the traditional hotel typology, Whistler has 26,000 beds zoned for visitors — equivalent to about 45% of all capacity.

The total accommodation capacity of Whistler, as defined by the municipal government, combines the number of beds for residents, visitors, and employees. Of the total approved accommodation capacity of 61,600 beds, Whistler has now reached 90% of its full buildout of approved development capacity.

And there is not much room left for more traditional hotels, as almost 40% of the remaining total accommodation capacity is dedicated to much-needed employee housing.

“Whistler has a bed cap and we are nearing build out,” John Grills, a Whistler city councillor, told Daily Hive Urbanized.

One of the last remaining largely undeveloped sites near the core of Whistler Village is the 13-acre lot at 4500 Northlands Boulevard (north of Fresh St Market), which includes a large gravel lot and the Whistler Racket Club. Traditional hotel or other visitor accommodations are not eyed for this property, as local developer Beedie, in accordance to the community plan, is instead proposing to build uses tailored for community needs, including market residential uses, employee housing, local-serving retail and services, and ample green space.

Such a property of this size is comparable to the 10-acre lot that is home to the 1989-built Fairmont Chateau Whistler, which has over 500 guest rooms, plus various services and offerings.

“Whistler’s growth is strategically balanced to support the size of our community and environmental footprint, and to prevent overbuild,” Saad Hasan, the chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler, told Daily Hive Urbanized.

“While on occasions it can be very busy, there are many times when the Resort has available capacity and great room rates — including during periods over the busy winter and summer seasons. Any future development will be carefully considered in order not to harm the community and environment which makes Whistler so attractive in the first place.”

Between 1993 and 2017, Whistler’s actual developed total accommodation capacity increased from 33,100 to 55,500 beds. Over the same period, the total floor area of commercial space (restaurant, retail, entertainment, services, and office) more than doubled from 1.2 million sq ft to 2.6 million sq ft.

whistler village

Whistler Village (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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The Crystal Lodge, Whistler. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Mandy Rousseau, a spokesperson for Tourism Whistler, added that “based on the size of Whistler’s community and environmental footprint, Whistler is not looking at any major new visitor accommodation developments, but rather infilling currently zoned locations.”

With new-build hotel opportunities highly limited, this leaves Whistler with the seemingly main option of optimizing its existing visitor accommodations supply as much as possible through renovations every now and then.

But an immediate hurdle with renewing Whistler’s hotel properties is that many are under some sort of strata ownership arrangement as part of the financial model that made them feasible to build decades ago. This includes hotels with strata-condominium hotel units and/or strata-commercial retail/restaurant units.

This requires a high degree of coordination and cooperation between strata owners, as it would otherwise be an endeavour that can be likened to herding cats.

Based on Daily Hive Urbanized’s sample analysis of 25 major hotel properties within Whistler Village and Upper Village that are highly profiled on Tourism Whistler’s website, the average hotel age is 33 years, and the median hotel age is 35 years.

The oldest of these analyzed major properties is the 1979-built Tantalus Resort Lodge, while the youngest is the 2005-built Four Seasons Whistler.

Of these 25 hotels, 19 have some form of strata ownership.

sundial hotel whistler

Sundial Hotel at Whistler Village’s Skiers Plaza. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Three hotels that are amongst the most prominently located properties in Whistler are the Sundial Hotel, Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside, and Carleton Lodge. They all have some form of split ownership through strata arrangements.

These three hotel properties — built in 1986, 1990, and 1982, respectively — provide the frontage to Skiers Plaza for the primary gateways on and off Whistler Blackcomb’s slopes: Whistler Village Gondola, Fitzsimmons Express Chairlift, and Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola. As many as tens of thousands of people — pedestrians, skiers, and mountain bikers, depending on the season — pass by these three hotel properties at Skiers Plaza on a daily basis during the peak periods of the year.

Although the Carleton Lodge is the oldest of these three hotel properties, it has seen more visible public-facing reinvestments.

For example, a $5 million renovation of the Carleton Lodge in 2014, approved by the building’s strata, performed full replacement work on the windows, sidings, roofing, and the restaurant patio, which has since become one of Whistler’s most popular patio destinations. The Longhorn Saloon, the commercial space strata owner and the patio user, remained open while the renovations were being performed.

It was noted by the Carleton Lodge Strata Council that they worked with their construction contractor to avoid the kind of rampant time and cost overruns faced in the renovations of other buildings in Whistler. Work was conducted within an extremely tight schedule — between April and November of 2014 — given that Whistler’s construction season is dictated by weather, and to minimize the disruptions to both strata owners and the general public given the hotel’s location.

Pre-renovation condition of the Carleton Lodge at Skiers Plaza:

whistler skiers plaza carleton lodge sundial hotel pan pacific 2009

2009 condition: Whistler Village’s Skiers Plaza, with Carleton Lodge and Longhorn Saloon (left), Sundial Hotel (centre), and Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel (right). (Google Maps)

Post-renovation condition of the Carleton Lodge at Skiers Plaza:

whistler skiers plaza carleton lodge sundial hotel pan pacific 2016

Present day condition: Whistler Village’s Skiers Plaza, with Carleton Lodge and Longhorn Saloon (left), Sundial Hotel (centre), and Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel (right). (Google Maps)

“I am proud of the significant capital being invested regularly both by traditional and strata-condominium hotels. As for strata properties at large, I see that both Tourism Whistler, through customer feedback on its website and research surveys, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler are making significant strides, in collaboration with strata owners, to support and facilitate capital improvements,” said Hasan.

Whistler’s visitor accommodations supply has evolved in unconventional ways, too. In 2018, the Whistlerview Hotel — within a 1981-built strata building with ground-level retail/restaurant uses — was converted into the Pangea Pod Hotel after a $10 million renovation. The chic hostel, featuring 88 private sleeping pods and shared bathroom facilities, takes on a Japanese-style solution to provide economical visitor accommodations options to Whistler.

A major advantage for properties with a business model like Pangea Pod Hotel is its reduced labour requirements — something Whistler has long struggled with due to the challenges with affordable and plentiful employee housing.

Rousseau says anecdotally, they are seeing a return of Australian workers returning to Vail’s Whistler Blackcomb workforce and the hotel ecosystem for the upcoming winter season, following their mass exodus during the pandemic. Restaurants, bars, and services have also seen reduced operating hours as a result of the labour shortage.

“This is good news, as this will help ease the labour shortage Whistler has been experiencing, along with most global destinations, over the past two years,” she said.

pan pacific whistler mountainside

Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The provision of employee housing has been a key priority for the municipal government, and it was a major legacy of the 2010 Olympics, as the result of the post-Games permanent conversion of the Whistler Athletes Village in the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood.

Grills notes an employee-restricted ownership residential building was recently completed as an addition to Cheakamus Crossing, and a second building in the same project will be ready by early 2023. The municipal government’s goal is to then proceed to the next serviced lot and build additional dedicated employee rental housing.

Through the Whistler Housing Authority, the municipal government has catalyzed 1,800 new beds of affordable employee housing over the past five years, and businesses have also done their part in securing rental housing for their employees in private properties.

To date, a total of over 6,400 beds have been secured for employees, representing about 12% of Whistler’s total accommodation capacity.

Whistler is aiming to provide enough housing for at least 75% of the employees within the resort town.

According to the Whistler Housing Authority, it is estimated the resort town had 16,100 workers in 2019, representing a 4% increase from the previous year’s all-time record. At the time, businesses reported being short by 1,350 positions.

The number of full-time employees required to support Whistler’s economy has steadily grown from the post-Olympic low of 11,830 in 2011 to 17,450 in 2019. Throughout the 2000s, Whistler generally required about 14,500 full-time employees, with little fluctuation year-over-year, and saw a far narrower gap between the demand and available supply of workers. Statistics Canada data suggests about one-third of Whistler’s labour force works in the accommodations and food services sectors.

fairmont chateau whistler

Fairmont Chateau Whistler. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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