Sea to Sky Gondola cable cut: a community comes together

Squamish Blog Post Photo

CPRS Vancouver hosted its first event in Squamish on Jan. 30, 2020 and it was a great success!

The room was packed with CPRS members who’d made the drive from Vancouver, as well as many Squamish and Whistler residents, including a number of communicators working for government and other local agencies.

Christy Allan, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Sea to Sky Gondola, gave a candid and heartfelt presentation that distilled her experience both as a communicator and someone personally affected by the cable cut incident of August 10, 2019. Read on for insights into how she and her team managed this swiftly moving story, and most importantly, how they’re moving forward. 

It was a sleepy August weekend…

It was one of those warm, gorgeous West Coast weekends we all love. Christy was enjoying a quiet weekend away on one of the Gulf Islands when, early Saturday morning of August 10, her phone began buzzing… and buzzing… and buzzing. When she checked her phone, she was confronted with the news: people driving on the Sea to Sky Highway could see the downed gondola cable. By the time Christy got online, one of the Sea to Sky Gondola executives had already done a radio interview, meaning the news had broken. And it kept right on breaking. 

Hampered by her intermittent cell service, Christy worked frantically to connect with her marketing and social media coordinator,  Sea to Sky Gondola executives and community leaders, many of whom had also taken “unplugged” long weekends, hiking and camping in remote areas across the province. 

“Initially we didn’t know the cause of the accident,” she says

As communicators, we know—this is not exactly the way you want to start managing a crisis!

Then things changed dramatically. Within hours, the RCMP had taken over, telling the Sea to Sky Gondola that all media enquiries should be routed to them, and that they were opening an investigation. “And that’s when the story really went viral,” said Christy. 

And she wasn’t kidding—it went VIRAL. The media reach surpassed 1 billion within a week. Media outlets from CNN to the BBC were calling and emailing, wanting news and updates. “Our first priority was guest confidence and safety,” said Christy. “One of our principles here is ‘be good to each other’ and, even during this time of crisis—in fact, especially during this time of crisis—we adhered to that mantra.”

A great tip: be good to each other, ESPECIALLY in tough times.

The community comes together

The impact on the community was immediate and profound, and their reaction was equally strong: everyone rallied to support the Sea to Sky Gondola team. 

Within days, regular town hall meetings were being held to update stakeholders. One of the hardest things was having to lay off 150 staff… then a local job fair was organized by the Squamish Chamber and Tourism Squamish in five days flat. As the team gradually got a handle on the situation, Christy realized that she’d need to use multiple channels and multiple messages to communicate with her many stakeholders:

  • Public

  • Staff, regular and seasonal

  • Season pass holders

  • Tourism BC

  • Government

  • RCMP

  • Squamish residents

  • Customers with events planned at the venue (including weddings!) 

Great tip: when communicating to multiple audience, remember to tailor your messages to the platform and audience. Your tone on Facebook is going to be different than an email update to authorities. 

When you know that approximately 40% of Squamish residents hold annual passes, you start to realize how integral this company is to the town and the community. Sea to Sky Gondola decided to “freeze” annual passes from the date of the incident, and tourism partners like Grouse Mountain, the Vancouver Aquarium and Vancouver Lookout reached out with offers of help give free admission or discounted entry to Sea to Sky Gondola pass holders. Local companies also came forward with offers to passholders as well. 

“It was really incredible to see the community rally like that,” said Christy. 

Moving into the next phase

Gradually the news cycle slowed, and Christy and her team now faced their next challenge, which was staying relevant during the closure. Their goal? To keep traditions alive, and support the community that was supporting them.

“The first questions that started to pop up in the community were about our traditional events, especially Santa,” said Christy. “This was year six for many kids and the spirit was very much alive.” And of course, how to communicate while being unable to answer questions like “what happened?” and “when are you reopening?” 

In response, Christy and her team continued to focus on honesty and transparency in their communications, staying true to their team spirit and approach since day one. 

This is always a good idea. Clear, honest communication is the right way to communicate a crisis.

Rebuilding confidence

The next step? Cleaning up. The team knew they’d have to take control of the narrative and start rebuilding confidence in the safety of the gondola.

“The question was, how to do this without sounding defensive and driving home that safety is our number one priority?” said Christy. 

The answer? Get input and comments from the experts, in particular the millwrights repairing the line. The team conducted interviews and filmed the start of the cleanup, and pulled it all together into a compelling video, one of several her team produced during this period. By taking the initiative and getting out in front of the story, Christy and her team were able to turn the cleanup into a good-news story that also helped build confidence. View a couple of the videos here:

By taking the initiative and controlling the narrative, Christy and her team were able to turn a negative into a positive.

Lessons learned

Christy and the whole team were thrilled when they found out in January that they’d be able to open February 14, 2020, ahead of the Family Day long weekend. They’re now focused on getting ready for the big day. She left us with her lessons learned.

Planning and reality are two very different things 

You can—and should—do crisis communications planning. But all the crisis exercises in the world can’t prepare you for the emotions of the moment. Her lesson? Don’t fight it! She and her team drew strength from each other and in acknowledging the loss and sadness around the cable cut. It helped them come together and then move forward.

Some statements may need to be re-visited later

In a crisis, when things are moving quickly, you make the best decision with the information available to you. Don’t be afraid to revisit or restate things that need correcting.

Be open and share what you know

Christy and her team were able to handle this crisis very successfully in part by stepping into roles they might otherwise not, and being open with their information and knowledge.  

Build strong partnerships with your stakeholders and partners

They were also successful because the larger community pulled together to support them. So, don’t neglect those relationships! Keep your stakeholders in the loop and let them know that you appreciate them when times are good.

Keep your passwords and contact lists current

MAKE SURE your contact lists and passwords lists—especially social media—are current and accessible by many! We heard this from Grant Bastedo at Takt Communications about the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, and then again from Christy. With staff scattered around the province, the team was delayed in being able to access social media accounts and reach out to stakeholders. Keep ‘em current!

CPRS Vancouver would like to thank Christy for her candour and sharing her lessons learned. We can all benefit from her experience and insights.

And get on up to Squamish and ride the gondola—it’s spectacular!

About the Author

Johanna Ward, MA, APR, is CPRS Vancouver’s Past President. Follow her on twitter @johannaward.

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