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September 2010

More Than a Liftie

Lifties make the most contact with your guests. That's why good ones should be valued.

Written by Tom Patton, Tram and Lift Operations Manager, Snowbird, UT | 0 comment

You can take away almost any facet of a ski area and it is still a ski area. But take away the lifts and the people who run them, and the resort becomes something less.

This is not to say other departments aren’t important. Often, we could not ski at all without snowmaking. Many of our discerning customers lust for our high angle grooming and/or terrain park features. Young parents might not show up at all without daycare. But truly, our business revolves around our lifts. And one of the most important factors in those operations for our guests is the people running those lifts, the lifties.

Our guests ride the lifts and interact with the personnel working on them all day long. For this reason, there is no other operation as critical to the success of any resort as lift operations. Combine the components lifties are charged with— safety, efficiency, and customer relations, with potentially several thousand riders on each lift—and the bottom line is that every lift operator has the capability of impacting guests far more extensively than other employees.

We expect a lot from our lift operators: preparing and maintaining the “physical plant” of the loading and unloading stations and the crowd-control maze systems on each lift; operating the machines themselves, making sure that the guests load and unload properly; and managing all of the subsequent processes involved when the guests have difficulties. Add world-class guest service, and the job gets even broader.

Let’s remember, too, that lifties regularly make judgment calls within a time frame of a second or two. If every liftie stopped the lift each time it appeared a passenger might have trouble, there would be a lot less skiing going on. On the other hand, should the decision go the other way, and the lift isn’t stopped and there is some sort of incident, the whole scenario is closely scrutinized by management, and perhaps teams of attorneys and insurance adjusters.

We also expect lifties to deal with special passenger situations, from ski school children to disabled people in various devices. Weather factors often have to be considered, bringing in other judgment calls.

Then there are all sorts of things that confront lifties outside their normal lift-related routines. Guests ask for directions and advice. Lifties deal with lost (and found) kids, and spouses and friends, and lost and found stuff—lots of it. First reports of injuries and guests on the slopes with other problems usually go to the personnel at the lifts. In most any lift ops locker room at the end of the day you’ll often hear a story start, “you won’t believe what some guy did today…”

We all have an image of the stereotypical liftie: a young skier or rider, taking time off from school, looking to score a job that allows him to live at the area, biding time on the job in anticipation of the next powder ride or the next party after work. And there’s no denying that lifties often are looking to partake in the good times we provide in this business. But there is actually a wide range of types who can (and do) fill the position, for a wide range of reasons.

William “Fitzy” Fitzcharles has worked with and managed lift operators at several ski resorts in a variety of locations. At present the mountain operations manager at Camden Snow Bowl in Maine, Fitzcharles now sees a different type of person than the younger set mainly interested in skiing that he was accustomed to out West.

“Here, I have lobstermen and other fishermen looking for winter work,” says Fitzcharles. “They are older and used to working long, hard days.” Fitzcharles says that one benefit of hiring from this group is that, given their work experiences, they don’t suffer from end-of-season burnout. Another benefit is a high return rate: every seasonal winter lift operator returned for last season.

At Seven Oaks in Boone, Iowa, general manager Joel Bryant looks for a quite different characteristic in his lifties (and other employees, too). “We look for folks who have been involved in Scouting,” he says, citing both the morals and other values taught in Boy and Girl Scouts.

As with many other resorts, Bryant says that the economy has affected his labor pool for the better, as many folks now out of work come from factory or other industry jobs, and many of them find working outdoors on the lifts—with people as the main commodity—is a blast. While Bryant likes to hire skiers and snowboarders so they can better relate to the guests, people with that experience are harder to come by in Iowa. So he appreciates the positive, friendly attitudes of the former factory workers.

Anybody who has ridden lifts for any amount of time has run into one of those lifties who, though they maintain the company look and follow all the service standards we instill in our front-line troops, still maintain their individuality.

Of course, it takes a special breed to really enjoy the tedium of loading chairs, and of working in the elements all winter long. Perhaps that’s why we often tolerate, and sometimes encourage, the eccentricities of lifties. If we’re fortunate, our eccentrics also provide some unique character to our mountains. People like:

1. The Hooky Player. One surprisingly enterprising type is what could be called the hooky player: professionals who are taking time out from their mainstream lives to rejuvenate by working as lifties. These can include PhDs and lawyers. Most hooky players enjoy telling their guests how much fun they’re having, and their attitude is contagious.

2. The International Visitor. The influx of international college students into the liftie ranks beginning in the 1990s had a positive effect on lift crews at many places, with effects that linger even though there has been a downturn in their numbers (for reasons we know all too well). Most of the internationals came prescreened, were in their final years of college, and by the nature of what they went through to secure jobs in the U.S. were energetic, outgoing people. Throw in the fact that Australians naturally end sentences in a positive up inflection, and the end result was a bunch of really cheerful lifties. This influx of highly educated and semi-exotic workers enabled areas to raise the bar as far as the sort of locals they recruited, and the internationals’ cheerfulness rubbed off on existing and returning employees as well.

3. The Happy Camper. There is another important factor in lift ops. Operating or attending to ski lifts is not necessarily hard, but it does have some challenges. One of those is keeping a positive attitude while dealing with people taking many runs, especially when the liftie does not get to partake in the action. Lifties who are happy all the time quite often have an uplifting effect on both their co-workers and on our guests.

My favorite was a young liftie named Skip. Having escaped from the confines of a Midwestern farm, Skip landed at a medium-sized Colorado resort with a giant-sized positive attitude. Skip would breakdance while loading, would escort little girls to the line like they were prom queens, and generally made everyone around him happy. Skip even broke through the icy barrier of one young lady who always rode solo and had long rebuffed all advances and offers from instructors (imagine that!) and others. Suddenly she and Skip were riding together on Skip’s days off.

Then there was Bill “GoGo” Lawrence, a long-time lift operator at Mad River Glen, Vt., who was famous for sending off each chair with a booming “Go, Go, Go!!!!” Talk about energy!

Once these characters have graced your resort, their legacy lives on. Nobody ever wants to see the bar lowered, so the long-term effect of internationals or happy campers is that recruiters and lift operations managers continue to seek folks who are happy to be a part of the overall operation.

Lifts themselves often take on a distinct personality, a combination of the lift, its terrain, and the lifties that operate it. The lifties and the lift, in short, become part of the scene. Remote backside lifts, and those machines servicing upper-mountain, black-diamond terrain, are especially susceptible to this situation. Often these lifts develop a following of riders that draws heavily from the local ranks. Examples include KT-22 at Squaw Valley (also known as The Mothership), or Chair 23 at Mammoth Mountain. Just about every region and most larger mountains have their own examples.

The lifties and guests at these lifts often have a closer relationship than elsewhere on the mountain. (It is rumored that this relationship sometimes got too cozy back in the day, with certain “party favors” bartered for lift access. Nowadays, surely, all are just happy to be part of “the stoke.”) Part of that stems from the party atmosphere lifties can impart at remote lifts with limited access to restaurants. It’s not uncommon to find the lifties with a barbeque going on sunny days, with music provided by a beat-up boombox.

Whether from unusual backgrounds or surprising and entertaining talents, or just plain offbeat quirkiness, there is real value in our lifties. They impart a human touch into the guests’ experience that helps make a resort unique. The bottom line is that the thought often processed (and sometimes expressed)—“he’s just a liftie”—does not do justice to the person or the position. Managers should realize that their lifties are a critical component in their business.

Tom Patton has worked in lift operations at five different ski areas over two decades.