Exciting Times Ahead for Mount Washington

Zip Tours will be a large part of summer expansion.

“For me, this is an exciting time to come in - to see these discussions come to life from my perspective is exciting.” Prentice has spent his first few months studying the processes that are already in place, looking for efficiencies. 

“A lot of it is some learning curve, seeing how things operate here compared to other places I’ve been. Learning the ins and outs of people’s abilities, their roles.”

The major project for the upcoming winter season is the introduction of Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID technology to season passes and lift tickets. 

“RFID… is chip-enabled technology embedded into all our lift passes,” explains Michael Hleck, IT Manager at Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

“What that means to our guests is they no longer have to search around to get their ticket or pass out; our gates instantly read the chip and the lifts automatically open - getting everyone on the snow faster.”

RFID technology is relatively new to Canada, however, has been in use for decades in Europe, Prentice said. “The main goals there are hopefully to reduce lift lines. The real benefit from the guest perspective is the media... having the media (card) in their hand from a reloadable factor and ease of purchasing online.

“They can purchase seasons’ passes online and it will be on their card. People can reload as they’re driving up the hill - it reloads instantly.”

Skiers and snowboarders will have to purchase the cards, which are covered by a five-year warranty. They won’t have to take the card out of their pocket each time they ride the lift - just keep it in a pocket on their left side - so there won’t be as much wear and tear on the card, he said.

Having the RFID technology in place will also allow the Resort to track visits more effectively. “Everyone will need to go through the gates. It will provide us more accurate information,” Prentice explained.

“If someone’s gone missing we’ll be able to accurately track what time and what gate they went through.”

One change skiers will see with the conversion to RFID passes is the elimination of “one-ups” at the Sunrise Quad and Hawk Chair. There will still be ticket kiosks for a transition period, but after that “everyone has to have a ticket to get through the gantries.”

While the RFID passes are this winter’s major project, snowmaking is on the list for development in the near future.

“It’s a multi-year plan,” says Prentice. We’ve done some snowmaking in our beginner area; we have a new snow gun this winter to test. We’re looking to have one run top to bottom covered, the terrain park and the night skiing area for next year, possibly.”

A multi-million-dollar plan has been developed, and Prentice is hopeful implementation starts with infrastructure next year. “That’s exciting for us too. It’s been on the list for many years and it has to have the green light.”

Those are the big-ticket items. Smaller winter investments will also have an impact, such as the purchase of two new Snow Cats at $450,000 apiece.

Last year the Resort bought two new buses with another arriving in December. These buses transport staff and customers from pickup points in Courtenay as well as the bottom of the mountain road (Strathcona Parkway) to the Resort.

“The challenge has been an old fleet of buses. Having three new buses is good news.” 

Summer will be equally as exciting in 2019. Prentice has experience with all-season resorts with the Fairmont and Mount Washington will definitely be upping its game with its summer season, he said.

The Resort announced in October that it is spending $3.5 million to build a multi-stage ZipTour that will open for summer 2019. 

This is the largest single capital investment into summer operations in the Resort’s history.

The longest on Vancouver Island, the 2.3 kilometre, four-part attraction will add the thrill of a 415-metre vertical descent. Guests will be able to explore the mountain from top to bottom in less than two hours.

“It’s been very well received. People are excited,” Prentice said. “We walked the line the other day visualizing where each line will go. It’s going to be pretty incredible.”

“We are advancing towards our goal of becoming a true year-round destination Resort,” Prentice said. “The re-emergence of the Bike Park in 2016 was the first step in that regard,” Prentice said of the move toward an all-season Resort. “Being able to grow that product, the scenic chair rides and hiking…this will put us on the map.

“From a summer perspective we’re expecting 6,000 to 10,000 additional visitors to the Resort.”

While there are numerous places for these people to stay, feeding them can be a challenge - especially for the people wanting the Mile High chairlift experience.         

There are no food services at the top of the mountain, not even a kiosk to purchase a bottle of water. Prentice acknowledges that the Resort needs to think of an alternative for providing food and beverage service up there.

“There’s no water, sewer, power up there so there’s a lot of challenges. We’re going to look at different ways we can maybe provide services up there.”

Since the zipline will start at the top of the Eagle Chair, they will look at options for that location. “We’ve just started talking about it. 

“Ultimately our goal from an ownership perspective is to get some sort of food and beverage established at the top of the mountain.”

The zip tours will be a large part of summer expansion, but there were already other smaller changes afoot.

The courtyard in front of the Alpine Lodge was set up as a patio-slash-food and beverage courtyard in the summer, complete with a large tent, barbecue and an area where mountain bikers could watch their gear as they have a beer. Ted’s Bar and Grill was closed but the Eagle View Bistro was open. 

Every weekend featured different live entertainment, and the Resort hopes to continue with three nights a week for winter après ski.

Prentice is hoping for a fire pit this winter and chairs gathered around for late afternoon relaxation. And one day, it’s still a goal to be able to expand the deck off the west side of the building.

The hospitality business overall is similar no matter if it’s at the ocean’s edge or in the alpine beauty of Mount Washington: it has the same challenges and achievements, just on different scales, he said.

For example, Mount Washington has more than 800 employees through the winter season, many who are part-time or casual. It’s a lot of staff to try and find.         

Challenges include snow school and the kitchen - cook staff can be difficult to find. 

“These things aren’t unique to us. What is unique is the volume of people we are hiring. We do this without any staff accommodation. That’s one of the real differences between my past at Fairmont and Panorama. Here it’s a real challenge,” Prentice said.

“Lack of employee housing is one of our greater challenges when it comes to hiring people. It’s something I’m focused on. Long term, it’s one of those necessary evils—places like Go2HR.ca are telling us it’s getting harder and harder.”

With more people up here, new product, new owners and more traffic, Prentice said it’s the most exciting time to join Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

“Being able to come in and enhance and continue to develop what they’ve already started…the people that you work with really make or break your enjoyment in what you do and I couldn’t feel more welcomed and made a part of the team in such a short period of time. I’ve really enjoyed it.
    
“Collectively, I believe we have the ability to take Mount Washington to the next level in its evolution as a premier B.C. Resort Destination.”