Belinda Trembath, Whistler Blackcomb COO

Belinda Trembath reflects on her first year as Chief Operating Officer of Whistler Blackcomb, starting her career as a ski instructor at Hotham and the challenges of being a female in a leadership position in a male dominated industry.

Transcript of a conversation between Mandy Lamont and Belinda Trembath. Images Mitch Winton and Matt Sylvestre
Recorded 9th May 2024

ML Congratulations on your new role, Chief Operating Officer of the largest ski resort in North America, Whistler Blackcomb.  Have you settled in?

BT Yes we have, it’s one year next week. In fact we fly home to Whistler on Monday, and that’ll be the day we arrived last year, to start in my new role, and yes, it feels like home.  So does Australia obviously, but yeah it’s just been an incredible 12 months, and I feel very fortunate to live in the community of Whistler and the sky corridor region.  It’s just the natural beauty of the area and the community that we’ve become a part of. It’s been incredible and looking forward to the second 12 months.

ML A lot of expats over there, are there a lot of Aussies?

BT Yeah, there are times when I think, wow, I’ve definitely been sent over from Australia to look after the Aussies.  There’s a lot of them, a lot of us should I say. But there’s, people from all over the world living and working in Whistler and a lot of Canadians that have grown up out east. There seems to be an incredible number of folks on our team with Ontario on their name badge as their home province.

And folks from around Europe, particularly Great Britain, and then obviously the Aussies and the Kiwis. So it’s good fun, it’s a nice melting pot.

And Lots of Americans, there’s, a pretty sizable contingent of people that travel north every weekend to ski out of Washington State, Seattle.  So that just provides for a really nice environment to live and work in.

The Early Days

ML I noticed when I was over there, lots of Americans, and Spanish

BT Yeah Mexicans are enjoying visiting and skiing.  It’s great to see. So, it certainly makes it a truly international resort.

ML You’ve been in the industry for many decades, where did it all start for you?

BT I started in the industry as an instructor back in 1990, the year out of high school, and worked for four seasons at Hotham instructing.

I did that whilst I was studying at university in Melbourne. Which was a lot harder than it is nowadays for kids because of course we didn’t have remote classes.  We had to actually be at university in person, which I found challenging at times for sure. Because of the lure of the mountains.

I started working in ski school and then made my way into sales and marketing around 1996. I had a couple of years out of the industry working in events and incentive marketing back in Melbourne. And I was offered to take on the role of Marketing Manager in December, 1996.

To be honest, I thought I’d stay for three years and get some good marketing experience working. At the time it was probably 12 months after Hotham had acquired Fall’s Creek and we were certainly looking to take both resorts to market in a big way.

I remember taking full-page ads in The Age promoting both resorts. It was a really fun time and I guess, one thing led to another and before I knew it, I’d taken on a role as Group Marketing Manager across Falls Creek and Hotham. I then moved into General Management in 2006.

In between time, I managed to raise a young family. But certainly it all started on the front line, which for so many people in the industry that’s how our careers have started. Whether it’s in the ski school or lift operations, snowmaking or grooming. It’s a great place to start. It’s where you learn.

First time skiing

ML Did you grow up skiing, or you just thought you’d just get an instructing job?

BT Yeah, definitely.  I was chatting to my folks a while ago and they said you do realise you first put skis on when we were visiting some family friends in Ontario in Canada. It wasn’t down hill it was cross-country and I think we were fortunate enough to go down and see some other family friends. So the first time I downhill skied was in Loveland, which is just outside of Denver a long, long time ago.

From there, obviously spent time skiing at Buller and Falls Creek for a couple of seasons and moved across to Hotham. I was lucky enough to go to a school that competed in inter schools in the early days.  We trained at Hotham and had a lot of fun for a few years. That’s when I decided I’d really like to ski instruct while I was at uni.

I remember Inter Schools then was quite a small event. And now it’s such a huge event with kids from prep right through to year 12 competing.

Back in those days, we certainly weren’t wearing race suits or anything like that. It was ski pants and a rugby top or something.  But it was great fun and met lots of great people competing in those events all those years ago.

A soft spot for Hotham and getting used to Whistler

ML So you have a soft spot for Hotham obviously.

BT Yeah absolutely, I love Hotham. It’s so unique. It’s  an upside down resort, I love sharing some of my experiences there with my team at Whistler, obviously it’s completely different.  Whistler where our base area is at 675 metres and the peaks at 2200, obviously a lot of vertical.

And it’s taken me a while to adjust to what the weather is in the village at Whistler is generally nothing like the upper reaches of the mountain and into the alpine.

It’s generally 10 degrees cooler and it can be wet snow, sometimes a little bit wet in the village and then dumping snow up in the alpine.  I was chatting to the General Manager at The Fairmont a couple of months ago and he said, ‘you know Belinda, Whistler is a place where you’ve just got to pick up your skis and go. Because once you get into the mid to upper reaches of the mountain it’s always a great experience. And that’s the same in summer.

You can be down in the valley and there can be that low cloud hanging through the valley. And when you pop up mid-mountain and it’s brilliant sunshine and great hiking weather.  Hotham is the opposite, what you see out your window is what you get, you’re at the top of the mountain. One thing I miss is the brilliant sunrises and sunsets. We certainly were and are very spoilt with those at Hotham particularly. Just being able to walk out of the office in the evening and see the sun setting was always incredible.  I’ve got so many photos of sunsets and sunrises at Hotham.

Yeah, it’s a really unique view. Now, I’ve got the Black Tusk to look out from the top of the Peak chair which is pretty inspiring as well.

Skiing at Whistler

ML Well, I did get one clear day when I was there, every other day, was snowing actually, so I wasn’t complaining about that either.

BT No, you can’t complain about a few pow turns, but it is nice. I remember being at Whistler probably five or so years ago with our kids and it snowed 10 days straight.  We had so much snow. It was a great 10 days, but I kept wanting it to clear so the kids could see the scenery because it really is spectacular.

I’ve skied in Europe and in other parts of North America. Whistler’s views are hard to beat, that’s for sure.

ML Do you get to go out skiing yourself now, I’m sure you’re very busy.

BT I’ve always maintained that you need to get out and ski. You need to know what’s going on.  Whether that’s helping out in the morning on the lifts loading gondola’s or actually getting out and having a ski.

There’ll be some days where I’ll get up there and I might even ski through to the valley, but at least I’ve been out and get a sense of how the resort’s skiing. And at Whistler, that’s super important because we really do ski at three elevations with the Alpine, mid-mountain and then the lower mountain. So it’s just great to be able to get out.  I feel even if I go out and do a couple of runs, I’ve had a great morning. A couple of months ago with our IT manager.  He came and got me from the office and said, come on, let’s go.

We went right up to some of the Salmon Shoots area off the Glacier Express chair and then went up and dropped in, climbed up Spanky’s ladder and dropped into, the diamond bowl over there, into the Blackcomb glacier and it was just beautiful. I was done and dusted in two hours and carried that energy through the rest of my working week. I’ll often say if I do that I can live on that for a month.  The energy you get out of being out in the mountains and in the natural environment. Did you get into the Blackcomb glacier when you were here?

ML I didn’t get into the glacier, there was only that one clear day and because I was just skiing by myself, I wasn’t too adventurous I was just warming up my ski legs for the heli trip really, get a few turns in. And because I had an Epic pass, I thought, I’d come and check out Whistler.

BT's First Whistler winter

ML How was the winter in general?

BT It was good. It was certainly a challenging start. There’s no doubt. We had some challenging snow-making conditions leading into the holiday season, but the team did an incredible job.

I’m always in awe of what our snow-makers and grooming teams can do when they work together to build out the mountain. We started to get some decent snowfalls as we came out of the holiday season. Temperatures plummeted into the minus 20s, early January. Which was certainly an eye opener for me coming from Australia. Although I’ve experienced those temperatures before in Alberta skiing where it can be pretty fresh and the likes of Lake Louise and Sunshine.

And we’ve definitely experienced everything that the Pacific Northwest has to offer in terms of weather conditions and March and April have been incredible.

 

Learning how Whistler operates in Winter

That’s what nature threw at us. But for me, it was really learning how Whistler operates in winter. I had the good fortune to start in my role just as we rolled out of winter last year and into summer operations. And I guess that provided me the opportunity to really get to know the team and the community when the pace is just that bit slower. But it certainly felt like I was going through orientation again coming into winter. Learning how the resort operates. Getting both mountains open. Getting our access trails through to the village open, it’s incredibly important. And just the size and scale of the operation it’s magnificent.

I haven’t had a huge amount of exposure to ski patrol operations because at Hotham and Falls Creek they’re operated by the Resort Management boards. I certainly started my learning journey when I was at Perisher because we operated patrol there. So it’s been great to spend time with the ski patrol and learning about not just snow safety but avalanche control, just a completely different dimension. It was a lot of fun. And then just working alongside the team.

I love being on the front line and draw lot of energy out of our big days. And we had some great powder days where everybody wanted to get out and ski.  Just getting everyone up the mountain safely and watching as the resort opens up progressively as we can ensure that the terrain is safe to access. It’s a lot of fun and really inspiring.

ML Just having that avalanche terrain is so different to anything in Australia.

BT Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, in the Australian side and back country, the risk is there at times, but certainly it’s been a learning journey for me and with the temperature fluctuations that we sometimes see.  Avalanches don’t just occur when it’s really cold.  They also occur when the temperatures warm up suddenly. And in our region we do get temperature fluctuations that are certainly challenging to navigate for the team. But I’m just incredibly humbled by working alongside patrollers that have been in the resort for 30-40, years.  Their knowledge is amazing.

Perisher a stepping stone

ML Yeah, and so do you think your experience at Perisher was like a step towards working at Whistler, on a larger scale than Hotham?

BT Yeah, absolutely. Before I was at Perisher, I was overseeing both our operations at Hotham and Falls Creek and, that was a challenging few years through Covid and I’m certainly very familiar with both of our Victorian resorts.  So a great stepping stone via Perisher to Whistler. It probably happened a little bit faster than I thought it would, but I just had a ball working at Perisher, you know, living on the mountain there year round was a really great experience.

Very very different to where I’m living now, obviously, because there’s not a lot that happens in Perisher in the summertime. But it’s just beautiful.  The size and scale of Perisher as a resort with the four resorts brought together as one and obviously the ski tube.

It’s the only rack rail in our organization and I really enjoyed working alongside the team there and learning about rail. It wasn’t something that I’d been exposed to previously. Obviously had experience with the airport at Hotham during its construction and operating days.

Perisher is a great resort and I loved getting to know the terrain and the team and I miss the wonderful folks that I was able to work with for a short time there.

Whistler Job Opportunity

ML And so did the job come up at Whistler and you jumped at it straight away? Was it a difficult decision to make?

BT It was a great opportunity from a life stage perspective and I think like a lot of women I was given a little bit of a nudge and encouragement by some of my team to have a look at the role. And for us it was good timing. Our kids had finished school and both studying and one of them is ski instructing while she’s at university.  I wouldn’t say she’s necessarily following in my footsteps, but certainly keen on a career in the industry it seems.

For me it was, why not.  Put your hat in the ring and see how you go. And it’s just it’s been an incredibly humbling opportunity and a great experience and I’m just so delighted and humbled at the same time with the support that I’ve got, not from just my team in Whistler Blackcomb but Vail Resorts generally.  We’re a leadership company and invest heavily in leadership development and so really felt that, since we (Falls and Hotham) were acquired in 2019, I’ve benefited from that in a number of ways and continue to do so.

It’s just an incredible support network, you don’t feel as lonely. And I guess I’ve been really fortunate that that’s been the case with Hotham and Falls Creek being under common ownership since I joined in my marketing role.

You can always pick up the phone and talk to somebody and they’re generally either living or have lived a similar experience.

And that’s what’s so great about being a part of a network of resorts. We’re 42 resorts now with Crans-Montanta (acquisition) closing last week.

And you’ve got this group of colleagues that have this incredibly rich and diverse experience.  There’s probably no one that hasn’t dealt with a similar challenge or opportunity that we might be facing, and I think that goes for the industry generally. I’ll always remember with great fondness the collegiate nature of the Australian industry. Being able to pick up the phone and ask a technical question of your colleagues at other resorts, not just the ones that are owned by Vail resorts. It was awesome. It’s a great tight knit community.  Even at Whistler, I love it when people come up and talk about when they did the season at one of our Australian resorts and the memories that they have of that. It’s a cool industry to be a part of that’s for sure.

What's it like being a female at the top level in such a male-dominated industry?

ML And what’s it like being a female at the top level in such a male-dominated industry?

BT I mean it’s been a journey. There’s no doubt that I’ve really benefited from an incredible support structure behind me and mentors that, I still call mentors and friends today.

People like Colin Hackworth who led Hotham and Falls Creek back in the mid to late 90s and Helen Moran, who followed in his footsteps and Helen’s still on the board.  She’s deputy chair of Alpine Resorts Victoria, so still involved in the industry. And Colin’s still the CEO of the Australian Skiers Association.  The support and the opportunities that people like Colin and Helen gave me and then later on our CEO during. The private equity days when we were listed for a while, a fellow by the name of John Shriver.

For me it was about having a team around me that were, set up to help support me. And there’s no doubt at times that I felt intimidated and reluctant to go into some of the work spaces. Transitioning from a marketing role into general management and learning the operating side of business and getting comfortable walking into our workshop spaces, which were, generally very male dominated and still are very male dominated. Although it’s great to see an increasing number of women taking on apprenticeships and, driving snow-growing machines and making snow.

Back in the day, our lift operations teams were predominantly male and now they’re generally 50-50. And it really does change the dynamics of those teams and the service that we provide at the resort. So I’ve always gotten along really well with my male colleagues, not just at a business level, but at an industry level, and always felt very supported.

There’s no doubt we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And my hope is that women working within our business, young people generally, when they can see the likes of myself, in a leadership role at Whistler Blackcomb. And our CEO is female, running the largest ski resort company in the world. I just hope that others can draw inspiration and see themselves growing in what is just such a fantastic industry.

Mountain Biking and female participation

ML  Even with mountain biking as well, I see so many more females participating in this sport.

BT Yeah. It’s great. I’m a pretty keen cyclist. I’ve probably done more road cycling in the last couple of decades. But I grew up mountain biking back in the days when it was really fire trails and you might have had some front suspension on your bike but that was about it.

I remember doing some races in Victoria and there were not many women. There was one that I did at Mt Buller years ago and there might have been three women in our age category. At Whistler this year I’m participating in a ladies downhill night on a Monday nights.

I’m just going to be in a beginner group with wheels on the ground, but it’s a super popular night. It sells out every year. It’s run two nights a week and there’s hundreds of women that participate. They’re out there with their full face helmets and all the protective gear and giving it. I mean some of them are sending it.

Female participation at Crankworx

Probably not like Caroline Buchanan, but not far off.  I’ve got to say, it was great to meet her last year such a success story.

Over at Crankworx, as Queen and Crankworx last July, and yeah, it was awesome to see her in action.

And I’m really looking forward to that event this year, because it’s the first time that women have been able to participate in the Signature Joyride event. Which is right in the heart of Whistler Village as you look up from the skiers’ plaza. Last year I was like, wow, aren’t women competing and sure enough? I won’t take any credit for this, but it’s great to see that the team at Crankworx and the female riders have decided that it’s their time and they’re competing now in those Joyride events, which is awesome.

ML Yeah, and I suppose mountain biking is a whole new industry for you?

BT Yeah, I have to learn about brake bumps and brown pow. And brown pow is when we get a bit of rain and the dust forms and the dirt becomes grippy, it’s really interesting.

Mountain biking is obviously a booming sport in the sea to sky corridor. Just listening to the team talking about riding down to Squamish through Whistler and then up in Pemberton to our north. There’s just trails everywhere and of course the bike park is. We say it’s the best in the world and it’s celebrating 20 years this year and it is great fun.

We went out last year for the first time and had a beginner lesson with one of our coaches. The progression through the park for beginners right through to the experts is definitely worth doing for anyone who can ride a bike. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a real adrenaline rush. We make sure that people are recommended to wear the right padding and the progression, it’s just awesome.

It’s been a real learning curve. It’s different clientele. A bit more relaxed generally, the bikers. The mornings start a bit later but we ride through until eight o’clock at night, seven nights a week.

And I’m excited about opening the Fitzsimmons chair for biking next week, it’s an eight-seater chair in winter and there’ll be five on it in summer with five bikes. So a real increase in our capacity for riding in what’s a really popular zone.

Is mountain biking bigger than winter at Whistler

ML So many people say that mountain biking is bigger than skiing or snow at Whistler, is that true?

BT No, it’s not true. You know, winter’s definitely still our busiest season. I think what people are referring to is Whistler’s a really popular destination in summer.

There are people biking and hiking, we’ve got beautiful lakes. The beaches are really popular. It took me a while to get my head around a beach being by the lake. I’m so used to being at the Surf coast in Victoria. But there’s three golf courses and they’re world class.

So there’s a lot of folks in Whistler in summer, but they’re doing lots of different activities. And certainly the bike park is a real draw card, but it’s not as busy as winter, that’s for sure.

ML I wouldn’t have thought so. Especially with that number of chairlifts running in winter.

BT It’s such a huge mountain. And there’s lots of site seeers. The peak-to-peak gondola is a real draw card for locals and for international guests that are visiting Canada. It’s incredible the number of people that come through Vancouver that are heading up on cruise ships to Alaska.

So that certainly brings a diverse audience through our region as well, which we’re very fortunate to have.

What do you love about the mountains?

ML What is it about the mountains that you love?

BT To me it’s their natural beauty and the ever changing environment. It’s also what they offer in terms of how we recreate. I’ve always loved skiing and now to be able to get out in the mountains more and hike and bike, it’s fantastic. I certainly enjoyed hiking in the Snowy Mountains back in Australia, it’s spectacular and around Hotham as well. But also for me it’s the people that the mountains draw and the communities that live both in and around the mountains.

It’s just such an eclectic community, people from all walks of life that have decided to make the mountain communities. It’s been a really special part of moving to Whistler for us to be a part of a community of 15,000 dependent residents in Whistler. And a great community spirit. Lots of non-for-profit organisations supporting community efforts from arts and culture to community services and sporting groups, so that’s been really fun as well.

I drive to work or ride my bike to work in summer and looking up, as I come down the sea to sky corridor, looking up Whistler, it’s just wow. It’s so spectacular the scenery and to think that we’re biking and skiing from the peak of Whistler is incredible.

ML What is your favourite season?

BT It’s winter but I’ve got to say the Whistler summer is pretty hard to resist.. It’s interesting a lot of people that live in Whistler say they came for winter and stayed for summer.

There’s just so much to do in summer. We regularly have three sport dates on our weekends in summer with biking and hiking and maybe a game of tennis to finish off. Long days and beautiful weather.

DJ Eddy wants to know if the nightlife is as good as Hotham

ML DJ Eddy asked me to find out from you if the nightlife is as good at Whistler as it is at Hotham.

BT Yeah, absolutely. Whistler’s known for it’s apres, whether it’s the bars in the area at the base of Whistler.

You know, we’ve got the GLC, there’s the famous Longhorn bar and the Dublin gate. Tell  DJ Eddie, there’s a great band that have played at Whistler now for two decades, maybe a little bit longer, called the Hair Farmers. They have two night a week at Merlin’s at the base of Blackcomb and then one night a week at Dusty’s down in Creekside. They certainly light up the apres in the afternoons. I know Eddie would like to hit the clubs, I haven’t necessarily but for me it’s the restaurants and some of the little bars that are tucked away that just make whistler a great place to be in the evening as well as during the daytime yeah

Thanks so much for your time and enjoy the rest of your time in Melbourne

Check out the Whistler Blackcomb website here

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