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Moving on Up

Written by Natalie Ooi
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Helpful tips for seasonal employees seeking to make a career out of the ski industry.

One of the most common questions I get from seasonal employees is, “How do I make the switch from being a seasonal to a year-round employee?” It’s no secret that there are precious few full-time, year-round positions available at ski areas. And while ambition, having the right attitude, and good old-fashioned hard work go a long way, the question is, how can seasonal employees differentiate themselves and get noticed by senior management as a leader of the future?

Over the past several years, I’ve spoken with many senior managers across North America to answer this very question, and common themes have emerged. Here are six things seasonal employees working in any department at resorts big and small can do to help advance in the managerial ranks of the ski industry.

1. THINK HORIZONTALLY, NOT JUST VERTICALLY

We all want a promotion and a bump in pay, but as the organizational structure narrows toward the top, sometimes there aren’t positions available at the next step up the managerial chain. This challenge faces seasonal employees at ski areas of all sizes. However, where there is a challenge, sometimes there is also an opportunity.

That opportunity may be in another department. Ski areas have become more diversified and complex. It’s not just about uphill lift transportation and mountain operations, but also food and beverage, lodging, retail, rental, ski school, entertainment, transportation, and property management businesses that complement the core activity. Clearly, the more experience and knowledge you have in each of these areas—and an understanding of how each contributes to a seamless guest experience—the more valuable you are as an employee.

Also, by seeking horizontal opportunities, you send a message to management that you’re interested and willing to learn all areas of the business—which may set you apart the next time a managerial position becomes available.

Consider the experience of Beaver Creek vice president and COO Beth Howard. She worked her way up the food and beverage ranks to become vice president of Vail Resorts mountain dining operations. Then she expressed a desire to learn and contribute more to the organization. Recognizing her exceptional leadership talents and work ethic, VR found horizontal opportunities in other departments that she had not previously been exposed to.

This ambition and a desire to learn, coupled with the support from her employer, ultimately resulted in her promotion to general manager of Northstar California Resort, and then to her current role leading Beaver Creek.

2. THINK YEAR-ROUND

For many seasonal resort employees, the opportunity to work year-round often involves cobbling together two seasonal positions. While not ideal for all, this approach can provide some opportunities that you may not have previously considered. Summer operations at most resorts will likely remain smaller than the winter, meaning the employee pool shrinks drastically. Scoring a summer position can help increase your profile at a resort, and introduce you to new supervisors and managers.

Working in a different department during the summer can also help build your knowledge of a growing and important part of the resort business. One example: Ben Stranger, director of rental/demo/repair at Mammoth Mountain’s Canyon Lodge, is also the resort’s director of summer activities. After working several winter seasons in the rental shop, the summer position of Mountain Center supervisor became available. He got it, performed well, and that opened the door to his current year-round position.

3. ADOPT A CULTURE OF LEARNING AND CONTINUOUS EDUCATION

A good manager doesn’t need to be an expert at everything. But he or she needs to recognize the value in being surrounded by talented people, and seek to learn from them every single day. Having employees who demonstrate a similar openness to learning is therefore something a good manager values. As a seasonal employee, if you show that you’re willing to invest in continuous education to help further your career in this industry, management should take note.

Depending on your department and level of expertise, there may be specific opportunities for you to further your knowledge and skills. This may be through industry bodies such as PSIA/AASI, National Ski Patrol, or NSAA. Your resort may also have its own internal educational training program. Certain community colleges also offer specific certifications (e.g. Colorado Mountain College offers a Certificate in Ski and Snowboard Technology, among others).

If you’re looking to obtain a more holistic background in ski area management, there are associate and bachelor degree programs at various community colleges and universities, including, but not limited to: Gogebic Community College, Green Mountain College, Colorado Mountain College, University of Vermont, Sierra Nevada College, and Selkirk College. At the graduate level, Colorado State University offers an online Graduate Certificate in Ski Area Management, which focuses on the managerial and business acumen required to become a senior level manager within the industry.

Patrick Fraser, a graduate from the online Graduate Certificate in Ski Area Management, found that his investment in further education paid off pretty quickly. Formerly the assistant manager of lift operations at Alpine Meadows, he was promoted less than a year after completing the graduate certificate to base area manager. The knowledge he gained through the program is something he applies to his new position every day.

4. BE AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE COMMUNITY

The success of almost every ski area—large or small—is dependent upon, and reflective of, the strength of its community relationships. I have yet to find a ski area leader that does not spend a significant amount of his or her own time developing community relations, and interacting with local government, business owners, environmental groups, and other key stakeholders.

Stakeholder engagement can be very time-consuming, and it’s challenging to manage and address differing viewpoints. Yet, it is an inevitable and necessary part of a ski area manager’s job. Therefore, the more exposure you have with the local community and engage in community decision-making processes, the more successful you are likely to be as a manager.

How can you get involved? Some resorts run volunteer programs within the local community as a way of giving back. Others have teams/boards that you can join (e.g. an environmental board or sustainability team) that engage with local government and community groups working in the relevant space. Find an area that interests you and become a champion of the cause for both your resort and the community.

5. SEEK MENTORS

I’m sure you’ve heard this time and time again. The ski industry is small, and who you know, and who knows you, matters. One way to raise your profile at your resort and beyond is to find mentors that can provide you with guidance, advice, and insight, while also championing your abilities within their networks.

Finding a mentor can be a formal or informal process. Many resorts have mentorship programs, but there is nothing stopping you from reaching out on your own to individuals who inspire you. Also, looking for alternative perspectives among different departments, age groups, genders—and even different resorts—can help broaden your understanding and perspective of the resort business.

6. BE PERSISTENT—AND ALSO WILLING TO MOVE

It is really important to communicate to management that you are interested in moving up. That way, you are on the radar when something does become available. Sometimes, though, no matter what you do and how supportive your resort is, there may not be job opportunities available that fit your timeline and career-path trajectory. If so, there may be next-step opportunities available elsewhere within the industry—they just may require you to move.

As resort leadership ages, more opportunities in middle- to senior-level management are becoming available. Many senior managers got where they are today by moving from resort to resort, capitalizing on opportunities as they arose.

As difficult as moving is, especially when you have invested a lot of time and energy into a resort and a community, there is a lot to be learned from other resorts—for better or for worse. Exposure to different ideas, organizational cultures, approaches to technology and innovation, and business practices can help you develop a more open and inclusive management style.

So good luck, be proactive, and stay hungry.

 

MENTOR PROGRAM: THE SAM SUMMIT SERIES

SAM, along with half a dozen industry leaders, personnel consultant Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group, and CSU’s Natalie Ooi, are launching a mentorship pilot program this winter. The  Summit Series aims to fuel a movement that fosters relationships between current and future leaders and sets all on a course for success. In this inaugural year, we are inviting 10 future leaders to participate in this program, led by six current industry executives and facilitated by Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group.

To turn this program into a broader movement, we will chronicle the program online and in print. Watch for more information after the program takes flight this month.

 

 

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