Tag Archives: Mike Hurst

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.

Selling Whistler by Radio

If you listened to Vancouver radio in the 1980s, chances are you heard radio ads for Whistler mountain featuring Dave Murray.  Targeting Lower Mainland listeners, the ads had a very catchy tune that urged listeners to “Get away to Whistler” and Murray’s voice explaining why skiers should head to Whistler Mountain.  Once of the creators of the ads was Mike Hurst.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, presenting the grand prize for an unknown promotion, early 1980s.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Hurst first came to know Whistler in 1971 while working as a marketing executive for Labatt’s Brewing.  He left Labatt’s in the early 1980s to raise his family in BC.  About a month after he arrived, he received a call from the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) offering him a job as vice president of marketing.  He was presented with the challenge of competing with the newly opened Blackcomb Mountain while at the same time cooperating with Blackcomb to market Whistler as a destination for skiers.  To complicate matters further, when Hurst asked about the marketing budget he was told, “Well, zero.”  Nevertheless, he began working for WMSC and stayed with the resort until he returned to Labatt’s in 1989.

In 2015 Hurst participated in a Speaker Series at the Whistler Museum along with Lorne Borgal and Bob Dufour during which he described his early years of working for Whistler Mountain.  During his part of the presentation, Hurst talked about some of the programs and marketing that those who skied Whistler in the 1980s and 1990s will find familiar.  At the time, WMSC was adjusting to the idea that they were no longer the only ski hill in town.  Blackcomb Mountain was proving worthy competition with on-mountain restaurants, a ski school specifically for kids (Kids Kamp), and an overall focus on friendly customer service.

Kids are put through the hoops at Blackcomb Mountain ‘Kids Kamp’.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

One of the most enduring Whistler Mountain programs that Hurst spoke about was the master camps run by Dave Murray.

After Murray retired from racing in 1982 he and Hurst sat down to talk about him coming to work at Whistler.  According to Hurst, he asked Murray what he wanted to do and over the next hour and a half Murray laid out his vision of using race training techniques to improve recreational skiers’ abilities, partly by getting them involved in competing against themselves for fun.  Murray was made director of skiing for Whistler Mountain and his camps soon became a reality for all ages.

As the new Director of Ski Racing for Whistler Mountain, Dave Murray will be coordinating downhill race clinics, ski promotions and special events. Murray, 29, retired from the Canadian National Ski Team last year after the World Cup held at Whistler.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Murray’s new position included becoming the spokesperson for WMSC, which is how he came to be the voice on their radio ads (Hurst said that at the time they couldn’t afford television).  According to Hurst, Whistler Mountain was seen as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back,” while Blackcomb had a reputation as a friendly family mountain.  Murray was able to change that perception by engaging with people and making the mountain personal.

Murray told Hurst that he had never done radio ads before but that didn’t stop them.  Hurst wrote some ads and they went down to the studio in Vancouver to record for an hour.  Hurst said that, “It was amazing to watch Dave… first couple of times he fumbled and bumbled, but the third time, nailed it.”  They even had time to record extra ads, written on the spot.

Dave Murray coaching one of the kids master classes on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Each ad starts with the same phrase, “Hi, I’m Dave Murray of Whistler Mountain,” after which Murray would talk about the variety of skiing on offer, Whistler’s new Never-Ever Special, Whistler’s improved dining options, Ski Scamp programs, or his Masters Racing Camps.  The ads were personable and friendly, with Murray encouraging skiers to “ski with me on my mountain.”  Every ad ended with one of Whistler Mountain’s slogans of the day: “Whistler Mountain, above and beyond,” or “Whistler Mountain, come share the magic.”

The 1980s were a period of huge change for Whistler Mountain and for the area as a whole.  Dave Murray and Mike Hurst played a large role in changing the way that Whistler Mountain presented itself and operated during this period.  Keep an eye out for more stories from the 1980s over the next few weeks and months!

The Lone Bagel

The Eighties are often remembered, fairly or unfairly, for questionable fashion and pop culture aesthetics, but here in Whistler it was a transformative era that saw the resort reach brand new heights. One of the key figures in Whistler’s rise during this period is Lorne Borgal, and we were lucky enough to have him participate in our recent Speaker Series soiree, plus he recorded an oral history interview with us, which help us outline some of his many contributions to Whistler.

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Lorne arrived in Whistler in June 1980 with a fresh MBA from Stanford University, driving up from California within days of graduating. He had been hired by Hugh Smythe to help manage a nascent Blackcomb Mountain. As he recalls, “from accounting, marketing, sales, to any of the operating entities, ski patrol, lift operations or anything to be ready for opening day, on the operating side fell to me.” Needless to say, the days were long and the learning curve was steep.

All the business school in the world couldn’t have prepared him for having to wire the telephone lines himself when BC-Tel was on strike, or having to play traffic cop to help skiers get home to Vancouver after a busy day on the slopes. As is the case with so many of our resort’s leaders over the years, Lorne had an ingrained determination to get the job done by whatever means necessary.

As the following audio clip demonstrates, recorded during our December 2015 Speaker Series event, there was no shortage of challenges during Blackcomb Mountain’s early days:

After three seasons Lorne was ready to move on, but fate had other plans. While on vacation in Europe (his first vacation in three years), he received a phone call from Whistler Mountain marketing executive Mike Hurst (who, coincidentally, sat beside Lorne at the Speaker Series), informing Lorne that Franz Wilhelmsen was retiring and Lorne was being considered as his replacement as Whistler Mountain President. Lorne happily accepted the new job, but not before completing his Mediterranean tour.

Here he is at the the December 10,1983 ceremony dedicating the newly named Franz’s Run in honour of outgoing President Franz Wilhelmsen.

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For the next six years Lorne oversaw the mountain during a period of intense competition with the upstart Blackcomb. He was at the helm of major projects such as the construction of Pika’s Restaurant – Whistler’s first proper on-mountain eatery, the visionary installatios of the original Peak Chair and the Village Gondola, leading international trade missions to expand the resort’s global reach, and updating Whistler Mountain’s management and customer service to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

Since leaving Whistler Mountain Lorne has served as an executive for a global software company, President of two other resorts, and continues to consult globally for upstart ski resorts around the world. His contributions to Whistler are most notably recognized up in the Whistler alpine, where Bagel Bowl refers to a playful nickname of his, “the Lone Bagel.”