20/20 vision

🕔Dec 15, 2005

The trend in BC is clear: resort development is where it’s at.

One ski hill after another has been bought and thrust into this category: Red Mountain is now Red Resort; Ski Fernie has become Fernie Alpine Resort; Whitetooth Ski Hill was transformed into Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. The trails are just being cut and the gondola being sited on the brand new Mount MacKenzie Resort in Revelstoke.

Our provincial government created the Ministry of State for Resort Development to help make tracks for the paperwork.

Well, it seems as though the turn has finally come to B.C.’s Northwest. 20/20 Resorts has just purchased Ski Smithers and it seems likely that it will be the first hill in northern BC to move into this resort class. “The long-term potential for this resort is very exciting, and we have every reason to believe this mountain will become one of British Columbia’s hottest winter recreation destinations,” says a 20/20 press release.

Gladys Atrill is a big fan of the recreational aspects of living in the Bulkley Valley, and welcomes the idea of winter tourist activities becoming more intrinsic to the region.

“Tourism has been an anchor here for decades, and it is definitely part of our economic future,” said Atrill, tourism co-ordinator for the Town of Smithers and part owner of Northern Sun Tours. “Trouble is, the industry in the North doesn’t have a strong storefront yet. If 20/20 is willing to become part of the flavour of this community, the potential for developing winter recreation opportunities in the region is unlimited.”

Jennifer Lewis of Terrace Tourism is equally optimistic.

“Having a destination ski resort in the North, one that could compete with the hills in the southern half of the province, would give all the operations up here a real boost,” she explained. “The Northern BC Tourism Association could use Ski Smithers to help market winter activities for the whole North. That would be the biggest bonus.”

So Northword sat down with John Dalton, vice president of acquisitions at 20/20, and also a new member of the Ski Smithers management team, to talk about the company’s purchase of the hill. Read the interview to learn about plans for the hill, his opinion of Whistler, and his hopes for the future and the soul of the region.

20/20 vision puts northern recreation on course

Interview with John Dalton

Northword—How long have you been in the ski hill business?

John Dalton—I’m new to the ski hill business, actually, but we [20/20] are not at all new to the real estate business. And that is what this deal is—an investment in Smithers, in the northwest region. The ski hill is an important part of that, yes, but we see this as having four-season resort potential. So just as important is the access, the service industry, accommodations. People have been coming here to fish and to hunt regularly for years. We want to enhance their experience and add skiing to the list of reasons people from all over will travel to the North.

NW—So, why did 20/20 pick Smithers?

JD—Why Smithers…yes, well, to be honest, we didn’t come looking for you; you found us. But a group of us came here, checked it out, and fell in love with the place. I’ve moved here in fact—my family and I have bought a place and moved in two weeks ago. So now I am part of this community too.

There are a lot of great things already in place here, and things we want to improve—like accommodation options, for example, and food. The service culture, really—it needs an update. And it can become known as one of the best in North America. Having an airport so close is a tremendous advantage. We could get people from San Francisco up skiing here faster than Whistler if the extension to the [Smithers] runway is completed.

People have to understand that when a company invests millions of dollars it has to recover that money somehow. My worst fear was that we’d buy the hill and then no one would buy passes. But people have really stepped up and bought their seasons passes and we are grateful for that.

NW—People here love their hill.

JD—Yes they do, and we respect that. That is why development, change, needs to happen slowly, appropriately, and with intention. Some resort areas feel contrived, like the company has come in and built everything all at the same time to try to create a village. Smithers has charm and a soul and that is what people will come for. So change will happen but it will happen carefully.

NW—That’s a good segue. I know a lot of your plans are under wraps right now, but what can you tell us?

JD—We have a crew of people busy upgrading the day lodge right now, the main lodge next to guest services, which should be done by mid-November. We were going to paint the upper lodge but I think the snow has beaten us to it. We are also doing some work to the base lodge (at the base of the chair lift) to clean it up. We’ll put in a soup and sandwich bar and see how it goes.

I will tell you one thing that has been kept confidential up until now—we hope to cut a new run this year. We’re just waiting for final approvals. We are working with some of the finest ski resort designers in the world and this new run would be a chance to show people the kind of thing we can do up there.

So that’s about it for this season. We can’t just go gangbusters and throw money at things in short order. We have to be prudent and demonstrate an increase in demand for whatever we are planning.

NW—I’m pretty new to town, but I understand that previous owners of the hill had a hard time making money season after season. That said, it feels like things are afoot—housing starts are up, there’s the mine application, the port in Prince Rupert. Given all this change, what are your hopes for where this change will take Smithers?

JD—I think things happen when they happen for a reason. Change is inevitable, and this kind of change can be really good for Smithers if it is done properly. There is no resort in the North to draw people here in the winter, and yet the snow is amazing, the terrain is endless, the airport is right here…but you have to have the services here for people. They expect certain things, they are used to certain things. I think Smithers is a little behind in that area.

Smithers can become one of the three premier resorts in the Northwest. Whistler is one, and I think Revelstoke will do well. All the rest are probably going to struggle because of the issue of access to their markets. If we can moderate and control the change so it doesn’t affect the flavour or the soul of the region, then change is good.

NW—What do you say to people who are concerned about becoming “Whistler North”?

JD—I actually don’t think anyone wants that. Whistler is successful in that it has 80,000 beds and 2 million visitors a year, but I think there is a segment of the market that doesn’t enjoy going there anymore because of the clinical environment. There’s no charm to Whistler anymore.

What we’d like to see here is a nice understated resort that enhances the charm that is already here. We need to build a service culture and that will benefit the whole region.

NW—If you had to choose any resort in the world that most closely resembles your vision for Ski Smithers, what would it be?

JD—I like Telluride. I like Sundance, in Utah. That is Robert Redford’s resort. And Deer Valley in Utah. I picked that one for a reason—it was named the number one resort in North America this year. They all have the same sort of understated elegance, plus excellent food and service, and easy access (except for Telluride) that mean people have a hassle-free experience. We believe that Ski Smithers has the potential to match these resorts. We will look at incorporating some of the elements that we believe make them unique and are appropriate for this environment.