Tag Archives: Mike Hurst

W is for Whistler

For some visitors to the museum, the most recognizable images of Whistler’s past are not photographs or objects, but logos and company branding. Just seeing Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.’s green and blue “G” can instantly remind a former lift operator of their company-issued jacket and the months they spend loading the Red Chair sometime between 1965 and 1980. Some logos and branding initiatives have lasted for decades while others were only in use for a few years and then forgotten, though traces of them can still be found around the Whistler valley long after they were first introduced.

Jim McConkey is his Ski School uniform, including a small blue and green G on the label. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) introduced their “W” logo in their newsletter in December 1978. It was designed by Robert McIlhargey, an architectural illustrator who, with his wife Lori Brown, created much of the concept rendering work for Expo 86. McIlhargey was hired by the WVLC along with David Clifford as design consultants, helping plan elements of the Whistler Village like the logo and even directional signs. According to McIlhargey, the “W” logo and uniform branding and signage throughout the resort were meant to “reinforce the image of Whistler.”

The “W” logo consisted of a circle of Ws, often with the words Whistler Village written underneath. It was designed to be easily adapted to different settings through the use of different text and background colours (the logo was first introduced in green). Shortly after its introduction, the Ws were visible on signs at the entrance to the Whistler Village site and into the 1980s the Ws could be found on wooden signs, pamphlets, advertisements, and even turtlenecks. In 1979, Don Willoughby and Geoff Power of Willpower Enterprises were given permission to use the “W’ logo to produce 1,000 t-shirts as souvenirs of the World Cup race that was meant to have run on Whistler Mountain.

New signs recently put up in the area of the new Whistler Village by the Whistler Village Land Company. Whistler Question Collection.

Not all marketing and branding initiatives in Whistler have been as seemingly well received as WVLC’s “W” logo. The reception to the memorable Big Old Softie initiative wasn’t exactly what the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) had hoped for.

According to WMSC’s then Vice-President of Marketing Mike Hurst, Whistler Mountain began to be perceived as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back” after Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, while Blackcomb built a reputation as a beginner-friendly mountain. Hurst described Blackcomb’s reputation as “this big, friendly family mountain, nice and soft, everything’s good.” Whistler Mountain did not yet have the same on-mountain amenities of family-focused programs that Blackcomb did, but after fifteen years without local competition Whistler Mountain was working to change its image.

The Big Old Softie sticker, showing a friendly image of Whistler Mountain.

Hurst and his team began trying to show that Whistler Mountain was “every bit as friendly and family oriented” as Blackcomb with lots of easy beginner terrain. Working with Ron Woodall (the person behind the A&W Root Bear and the creative director of Expo 86), the Big Old Softie initiative was created. Featuring a rounded, smiling mountain, the Big Old Softie was not a universal hit. On rainy days, some changed the name to the “Big Old Soggy” and, according to Hurst, he and the Whistler Mountain team “got raked over the coals pretty good by pretty much everybody” about the campaign. Despite this, the Big Old Softie has proven memorable, and Hurst thought that it did bring attention to Whistler Mountain’s softer side and developing programs.

While you are unlikely to come across an image of the Big Old Softie walking through Whistler today, there are still circles of Ws and even some Garibaldi Lifts Gs that can be spotted around town.

Livening Up the Street

On the mid-to-late 1980s, after working as the Vice-President of Marketing at Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, Mike Hurst began a new position as the acting general manager of the Whistler Resort Association (WRA), known today as Tourism Whistler. While Vancouver had drawn international attention during Expo 86, summers in the Whistler resort were still quite slow, with some businesses even shutting down for the season. According to Hurst, “People would come up to the Village, and they’d come in, and they’d go to a restaurant, and then they’d walk around wondering what to do, and there’d be very little to do.”

In an effort to change this, Hurst contacted Maureen Douglas and Laurel Darnell of Street Access and asked them to organize street entertainment in the Village for the summer of 1987. Though Douglas spent Expo 86 recovering from a broken leg, she was inspired by the “sleeper hit” street performers at the festival and wanted to ensure that talent wasn’t forgotten. She and Darnell formed Street Access Entertainment Society as a non-profit street entertainment booking and development society in September 1986. They were soon contracted to organize three days/week of entertainment in Whistler.

Some acts included combinations of acrobatics and knife juggling. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Each weekend the Village would host performances by jugglers, musicians, comedians, and character actors who roamed the Village Stroll. At the end of the summer, fifteen acts were brought together for the Whistler Street Festival Grand Finale over the Labour Day weekend to compete for a contract to perform at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia.

The street entertainers from the very first season in 1987. Photo courtesy of Maureen Douglas.

Street Access continued to organize summer street entertainment for the WRA, increasing to four days/week in 1988 and then seven days/week in 1989. The WRA then decided to bring festival and entertainment planning in house and asked Douglas to write a job description and apply. She began working at the WRA and ran the street entertainment program through the 1990s.

The Checkerboard Guy demonstrates how to eat fire on the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

According to Douglas, each year’s lineup was made of about 50% returning acts from the Lower Mainland and 50% new or touring acts. One regular act was Carolyn Sadowska, who appeared as Queen Elizabeth II and would instruct visitors on points of etiquette, provide tiaras and props, and pose for photos. Other acts included Fifi Lafluff (“the world’s worst hairdresser”), a cappella groups such as Party Fever, bands like the Mulberry Street Jazz Band, clowns, and comedic jugglers such as the Checkerboard Guy and Mike Battie (whose grand finale involved juggling pins and broccoli, which he proceeded to eat, accompanied by the William Tell Overture). Over the years Douglas also started to hire local musical acts, such as Stephen and Peter Vogler, singing group Colours on Key, and harpist Alison Hunter.

Colours on Key, a local singing group in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

By most accounts, the street entertainment program was a big success. Through the 1990s the September festival was renamed Whistler’s Really Big Street Fest and weekly showcases were added to the schedule. Acts were carefully placed throughout the Village, as some could attract audiences of 300 to 400 people. While this was alright in Village Square, in other areas those numbers created gridlock.

Performances could fill Village Square, sometimes even impeding foot traffic. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Whistler became part of the street entertainment circuit, joining other festivals across Canada in cities such as Halifax and Edmonton. While some of the other areas offered performers a chance to make a lot of money through busking, the WRA didn’t want the audience to have to pay and instead offered a “working holiday,” with a decent fee, accommodation, wine and cheese get-togethers on Fridays, and time to enjoy summer in Whistler. Douglas remembered that one of the producers of a busking festival once told her, “You know, our one beef with Whistler is that you guys are just too nice. They come here and then we don’t treat them quite as well and they’re miffed.”

Encouraging summer visitors was a large focus of the WRA and Mike Hurst in the mid-to-late 1980s and street entertainment was just one strategy to increase numbers. For many visitors and residents, however, the performers were one of the most memorable parts of their Village experience.

Trying Out Jobs on Whistler

Last week we took a look at the response to Blackcomb Mountain’s first traffic jam, when Lorne Borgal, Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine ended up directing traffic on Highway 99 in the dark and snow.  When moving over to Whistler Mountian in 1983, Borgal brought this idea that performing duties outside of your own job description could have valuable benefits and made it into policy.

The idea was that everyone at any level of management at Whistler Mountain had to spent at least one day a month during the winter season working a shift on the frontlines (apparently many considered grooming the best assignment).  Mike Hurst, the vice president of marketing, described the initiative this way: “So Lorne would have to be up at Pika’s cooking breakfast, or he’d have to be in the car park, or he’d have to be a liftie for a day, and, boy, did that ever change the mentality of the management people.”

During a Speaker Series in 2015, Hurst recalled his own experience working on the phones at the beginning of December when he received a call from a person from Ontario planning to come ski at Whistler.  Their question was, “We’re coming in February, we’re all booked and everything, so what’s the weather gonna be like?”  Hurst took a moment and looked around, and then replied, “Okay, I’ve got the farmer’s almanac here, and what week is that?  The 7th to, okay, yeah, that looks pretty good.  It’s gonna be a little colder than normal, but just the week prior to that there’s a whole dump of snow so there’ll be beautiful fresh snow.  It’ll be wonderful, yup, but listen, don’t forget, we’re on the coast.  So make sure you bring various changes of clothes just in case, but it looks like a sunny week and it looks great, so you’re gonna have a great time.”  The customer was satisfied with the answer, which seemed to cover any eventualities, though Hurst did not recall whether that week in February was as great as he had promised it would be.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, usually sold Whistler through ad campaigns and the like, not necessarily one-on-one over the phone.  Whistler Question Collection.

While Hurst may have used his marketing skills to sell Whistler Mountain on the phones, the experiences of others helped identify problems and gave management a clear idea of what conditions were like for frontline employees.  One such experience was the day that Whistler Mountain’s CFO David Balfour spent loading the old Whistler gondola.

The role of CFO was described by Borgal as “don’t spend money,” at least not money that hadn’t been budgeted already.  A shift loading gondolas involved loading the freight up in the morning, loading people all day, bringing the garbage down at the end of the day, and putting all the cars away.  All of this was done manually as the gondola.

Balfour worked the gondola shift from beginning to end and, as Borgal remembered, was exhausted.  Borgal said, “I couldn’t stop him talking at me about what we had to change, because this was not humane.”  Balfour wanted to make changes to make the job easier for those who did it full time, even if it did mean spending some money.

For years loading the gondola included physically moving the gondolas and pushing them out of the barn.  Whistler Question Collection.

Balfour’s experience reportedly demonstrated the value of having managers work a frontline position.  It created bonds between staff who might not have otherwise interacted much and made it easier to demonstrate the need for operational changes.  According to Borgal, “If you had to do that frontline job, you really learned fast about what was going on.”

Whistler’s Posters

Some of the most memorable images of advertising by both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains from the posters that the two companies produced in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is not unusual for the Whistler Museum to be contacted by someone trying to track down that last Saudan Couloir poster for their personal collection or hoping to find a copy of Whistler Mountain’s 20th anniversary poster of the flying Volkswagen.  In 2015, Mike Hurst, previously the vice-president of marketing, shared stories from behind the scenes of some of Whistler Mountain’s memorable posters.

One of the amazing Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme posters designed by Brent Lynch, who designed many of the posters for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Posters were a relatively inexpensive and, based on how popular they continue to be today, effective form of advertising.  Both Whistler and Blackcomb worked with Brent Lynch (the artist behind most of the Saudan Couloir posters, the flying Volkswagen, and many more) to create some of their most beloved posters.  According to Hurst, though, there was usually at least one thing about the posters that he and Lynch didn’t agree on: the promotional tagline.  Lynch wanted the art on the poster to represent itself, without any marketing language to distract from the message of the art; Hurst wanted every poster to include a promotional line that would be remembered by those who saw it.  As Hurst put it, “I won on getting the promotional line, but he won by trying to bury it as softly as he could so you couldn’t read it.”  Despite this claim, you don’t have to look too closely to find the tagline on at least one of Hurst and Lynch’s posters featuring Whistler’s Mother.

This poster can still be found in homes throughout the area.

Hurst remembered that he was trying to find a way to say, as cheaply as possible that Whistler was the superior mountain to Blackcomb.  He had an idea of Whistler’s Mother skiing down the mountain, riding the gondola and the lifts, and, after checking with Kastle (Whistler Mountain’s suppliers) Lynch created the image of artist James McNeill Whistler’s mother riding the Red Chair.  Hurst gives his wife credit for coming up with the promotional line “Whistler, Mother always loved you best,” that was included on the poster.  Blackcomb Mountain had been advertising their long runs and their status as a “Mile High Mountain” and so Hurst was glad to sneak this poster in on them.

Not all of the posters Whistler Mountain produced in the 1980s were created by Lynch.  The first poster for the Ski Scamps program featured a photograph of three children with skis on top of snow, obviously dressed for a day in Ski Scamps.  What you might not know from looking at the poster is that Whistler Mountain didn’t have much money for a photo shoot, the children are Hurst’s three children, the ski clothes were borrowed, and it was shot on Grouse Mountain.  Apparently they had planned to shoot on a sunny day in Whistler but each time Hurst called to check the weather Whistler had fog.  As the deadline for the advertising campaign approached, Hurst reached out to Gary Kiefer at Grouse and asked to “borrow his mountain.”

The Ski Scamps poster didn’t let on that it taken on Grouse, not Whistler Mountain.

We have many posters in the archives from the 1970s through the 1990s, ranging from World Cup races to Music in the Mountains advertisements, but surprisingly few from the past 20 years.  The posters are a great example of what events were happening in Whistler, what milestones the area was commemorating, and what art styles were popular at the time, and we are always looking to add to the collection.