Nothing has excited Squamishers more in the recent past than the Sea to Sky Gondola, a $22-million project that many hope will be a game changer for the town. In an interview with the Reporter, Jayson Faulkner, the General Manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola, talks about how the gondola will change the perception of Squamish, be a catalyst for infrastructure, and make Squamish as a tourist destination.
Q. What kind of background do you have?
I have background in retail, ski area operations and I was also the vice-president at Arc’teryx, founding partner in The Escape Route (Whistler and Squamish) and I have worked in operations, events, media and marketing roles at Grouse Mountain, Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, and the Whistler Resort Association.
When Dave and Trevor first announced the project, I contacted them and said, ‘look, you have a great idea, this is a great idea for Squamish,’
What are the roots of the project?
To some extent it came out of the idea that we in North America, particularly in Canada, we only see access to the mountains in terms of either ski areas, or you walk up a hill, or drive up a logging road. In Europe, gondolas are very common, and it’s a given form of recreation.
We all know that for a great number of people who may not have the stamina or the equipment to bushwack into the mountain and get up into bigger views, it’s a lot to ask. So, they really don’t get a chance to experience what it’s like to be up there.
So there was an opportunity here, given the terrain and the fact that you have so many people coming down for recreation.
Who owns the gondola?
We are private company, and we have general partners and we have limited partners. So, the general partners are Trevor Dunn, Dave Smith, Dave Greenfield, Michael Hutchinson, me (Jayson Faulkner), and then you have the limited partners who have put up the remainder of the money for investment.
Are you confident that the gondola will be successful?
We try not to drink our own Koolaid, but we did an awful lot of research, you know traffic studies, demographic research, talking to the tour operators, Tourism Whistler, Tourism Squamish, nationwide travel trends. That gave us the confidence that there was the commercial viability that would make it reasonable to invest $22 million in the project.
How will the gondola help our town?
Well, one of the first things it does is it raises the profile of the community as a recreational destination. It provides an amenity that is built around the outdoor recreational theme.
It changes the image of Squamish in the Lower Mainland. I grew up in this corridor, and I have seen the community change, Squamish is a very different town than what it was in 1975. But the perception in Vancouver is that it hasn’t changed as much as we know it has.
I think the gondola will open people eyes up to what the potential of Squamish is. Now, when we take people up there and all of a sudden they look at the valley and at Squamish and they go ‘wow, what a beautiful place, I had no idea’.
What they see is different than their normal experience of driving along the highway.
I joke that may be we will have an impact on real estate prices, because people can see this place as being different now.
The third thing is that with a gondola, we start creating a bit of a critical mass for tourism. If, as we hope and believe, gondola is a success, we also hope it will be a catalyst for additional tourism infrastructure.
What kind of economic opportunities exist for local businesses ?
Those are difficult to predict, but I hope if we have that many people stopping here, then they will be spending money locally as a result of that. How that plays out is a difficult one, but we will work with Tourism Squamish, and the chamber to build better awareness for what is happening. Our idea from the beginning was to encourage the chamber and Tourism Squamish to adopt a host training program. That makes sure everyone on the front line who is dealing with the tourist understands their role.
We are just starting a process of understanding how tourism operators package. Normally when people come to Whistler from Vancouver or Lower Mainland, they take a day off, and they blast through Squamish.
What the gondola does is all of a sudden creates a destination, it’s here and you can do it in half a day. You could come here at three, ride the gondola, go for dinner, or a beer, or take the dog for a walk. At least this way you have a chance of making this a destination, as opposed to driving through all the way.
Early feedback from tourism operators suggest they will be able to sell Squamish as a destination.
If you are a backcountry enthusiast, you could hike up there and stay for a whole day. But if you are Joe and Martha from delta, then you might just be there for two hours.
How many jobs can this generate ?
About 60 to 70 full-time employees is what we expect to have in full operation. We haven’t decided on the price for the gondola ticket yet, we will announce that in a few weeks.
Can you tell us a bit about how it’s all structured?
At the base, you will see a very well-laid out base area, with some amenities and bathroom facilities. The cable goes counter-clock wise, the gondolas are paced about 48 seconds apart. So there are 20 that are hanging around the line, they make a loop.
Then you ride up top, you are going to see the main lodge, right adjacent to where you alight from the gondola.
It’s where we have a restaurant, south-west, a two-tiered deck about 8,000 square feet, you have a suspension bridge that goes off the deck to the first nations Spirit Trail viewing platform.
Then there is the other north-east trail, the Panorama trail, so you are about a 1,000 feet above the chief, so that trail is about 1.6 km.
We intend to have rangers who will be there to talk to people about what people are looking at, we are working with SLCC to find out what sort of guides we can have.
Any possible expansions?
Yes, this is the first phases. There is a lot of other terrain for trail walking, hiking, climbing, there are crags with spectacular routes with huge hiking potential. Then you have the Skyline Ridge, Goat Ridge, and you can get access to Sky pilot, which is the most accessible alpine area to Vancouver.
Our tag line is adventure by nature, and we believe that if you can provide access to people, people are quite happy to go for a walk and explore the area.
How many visitors do you expect?
We are being quite conservative on our first year’s number. Currently there is 5,00,000 thousand people that stop at the Chief and Shannon Falls. Hells Gate does 125,000 visits a year, the Grouse is about 1.2 million. We hope to be at 100,000 in the first year.