Doug Forseth ’71 believes in “management by skiing around.”
He is kidding, kind of, playing on the concept of the popular business book Management by Walking Around. But the senior vice president of operations for the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort is serious about the skiing.
“It is where our guests are,” he says from his office, which looks straight at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. Those runs, and the lifts, and the mountaintop restaurants are things he needs to see regularly. Whether it’s testing the powder on the Ridge Runner, soaring down Sunset Boulevard, or cruising his favorite run, the seven-kilometer Peak to Creek, he wants to keep track of the experience.
Although it’s summer as we sit for an interview, the slope behind him is alive with children on horseback, a bungee trampoline, and families hiking up trails.
During ski season, it is even busier with a tube park and ski run. Forseth’s days start at 7 a.m. when he checks with the overnight shift for updates on the trail grooming, the ski patrol, avalanche control, and lift maintenance. He makes sure the snow has been removed from around the galleries, shops, and restaurants of Whistler Village. Then he checks in on the start-up of food and beverage, much of which goes to the restaurants up the mountains via Snowcat and gondola. With 3,500 employees and 800 volunteers, the resort has a lot of moving parts, says Forseth.
Throw in a snowstorm, a wet rain, or strong winds, and Forseth’s teams have a new set of issues. “We’re not in a controlled environment,” he says. “We’re in Mother Nature’s playground.”
Last spring, that meant lots of extra snow— so much that the crews had to dig out the chairlifts so they could be used. “I’m not complaining,” says Forseth. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Forseth has had a lifetime of good problems. When he graduated from WSU, he had to leave Pullman before commencement ceremonies to start his first hotel job. In lieu of donning a gown and picking up a diploma, he and his new bride Mary (Pete), a high school sweetheart and WSU classmate, trekked across the country to his job as a management trainee at a Hyatt Hotel in Albany, New York.
When they arrived, they found a one-room apartment and tried to settle in. “We didn’t have a bed, we didn’t have a table, and we didn’t even have dishes,” says Forseth. And since neither of them even had credit, they couldn’t get a credit card. Forseth went to his manager at the Hyatt, who let them furnish their small apartment with hotel items in storage and later was generous enough to co-sign for a Sears card.
Over the next 24 years, they followed Forseth’s Hyatt career around the country to places like Cherry Hill, New Jersey, downtown Chicago, and Washington, D.C., during the 1976 United States Bicentennial. “It was an election year. I got to meet both President Carter and President Ford.” The Hyatt Regency in Chicago brought special demands. It had 1,000 rooms when Forseth arrived and 1,100 more when he left. “It was bigger than the town I grew up in.”
In 1985, the Forseths moved to Vancouver to manage the Hyatt Regency. Being back in the Northwest felt like coming home, he says. In 1988, he was named Hyatt’s General Manager of the Year. They lived in the hotel in the heart of downtown. Then they were asked to move again, this time to San Diego to open the Grand Manchester Hyatt. It was the type of job Forseth very much enjoyed. “It’s one of the best times in a hotel’s life,” he says. “Hiring, training, creating the culture of a new facility. Everyone comes together.”
Life in California was good, but in 1994, an executive headhunter called him and asked him if he would return to Canada. He had been working for Hyatt for 24 years. “I was, I think, looking for something new,” says Forseth. When he learned he was being invited to apply to become the president of the Whistler ski resort, he and Mary couldn’t believe their luck. “When we lived in Vancouver, we owned property up here. We knew Whistler pretty well. It’s a very special place.”
The classic Canadian resort had opened in 1966 and enjoyed a worldwide reputation over the years. But in the early 1990s, it was in need of help. Its major rival, Blackcomb Mountain, which opened just next door in 1980, was fresher, newer, and more popular. Forseth’s hiring as an expert from the hospitality industry was planned to further reinvigorate the older resort.
Six years later, the company that owned Blackcomb purchased Whistler and joined the two resorts, and Forseth became the vice president of operations. Mary had found a place in Whistler Village as co-owner of a gallery. The two love their mountain life, each having their own role in the community, and living among visitors, retirees, elite athletes, and the people who make the resorts run.
Along with helping to blend Whistler and Blackcomb, Forseth’s duties included making Whistler Blackcomb a candidate for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He was the resort’s chief liaison with the Olympic Committee before and during the events. “It had that corner of my desk,” he says, pointing to his full desktop. “I did that as well as all my other duties.”
Forseth was a member of Canada’s delegation in Prague when it was announced that Canada would host the 2010 Winter Olympics. “I never hugged so many guys in business suits,” he says. He also had his “rock star moment” in Quebec when he got to run with the Olympic torch for three miles. He points to a small picture on the far wall of his office of himself in a white slicker running with the torch, a crowd around him.
Then came the Olympics. In the 17 days from the opening ceremonies to the hockey game where Canada beat the United States for the gold medal, Forseth and his management team were constantly on standby to help the organizers when problems arose. “I couldn’t believe how fast it all went by,” he says. To host the games, and then for Canada to win a number of golds on its own soil, not to mention the ice hockey triumph, “it was a bit of a coming-out party for Canadians,” says Forseth.
Whistler has changed quite a bit in the years since Forseth returned to live and work in the community. Summer visits have increased 50 percent. Many come just to ride on the lifts and the gondola between the two mountains. Forseth took a leading role in managing the $52 million project to build the 2.73-mile gondola ride. Others come for the mountain bike park, which riddles trails over the mountain after the ski runs melt off and dry up.
With his familiarity with the resort, his years in Vancouver, dual citizenship, and Mary’s involvement in the community, the Forseths are pretty much locals. And, quips Doug, “I can speak the language, eh?”