Despite having to lay off staff and reduce workers’ hours last winter, ski areas have no plans to cut back on seasonal hires for the upcoming 2012-13 ski season. Can there be a more sure sign of the industry’s predilection for optimism?
“We like to stay positive,” says Penny Krotz, HR supervisor at Holiday Valley, N.Y., which hires about 700 winter seasonal employees. “It was just a weird winter. We’re expecting to have a great winter this year, and will hire the same as in past years.”
“We’re expecting a good, normal year. We’re going with that,” echoes Colleen Gaunt, personnel operations manager at Mammoth, Calif., which ramps up from 700 summer employees to 2,500 in the winter.
“That number will probably not change,” says Tim Vadheim, recruiting manager at Mammoth. “We have the same venues, the same seats, the same bases to cover in terms of guest services. Sometimes there are fewer guests to serve and we send employees home early. But we still have to operate the chairlifts, turn the lights on and off, park cars. We need a certain number of people to run the resort.”
“We never know going into the season what the weather will be. We won’t understaff just because we had bad weather last year. It takes away from that guest service element,” notes Kelli Eckroth, HR director at Sugarbush, Vt., which hires about 700 additional employees every winter.
Still, last winter’s short season and even shorter, or nonexistent workdays for many seasonal workers, combined with an improving job market, has a few hiring managers worried. “I think it may be more difficult to find people to work seasonally,” Eckroth says. “I think there’s the perception that there’s not that many hours.”
She says Sugarbush is recruiting more aggressively, in new venues and a little farther afield than in past years. “We’re getting out there a little more forcefully,” she says. “We’re seeing that crop of new employees go down.”
Eckroth says competitive perks, such as Sugarbush’s liberal dependent-pass policy, is more important than ever in a shrinking applicant pool. “We have to be creative in our geographical area,” she says. “When you’re trying to source employees, attract and retain them, and the choice is between us and Stowe and Killington, it’s how we get workers to come here.”
Snowshoe, W.V., which is located in one of the state’s least populated counties, could not fill all of its 1,400 winter positions last year. “We can’t hire enough from our local pool, especially difficult positions in food and beverage, housekeeping and operations,” says Coby Brown, HR director. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise last winter. But we plan very aggressively every year to be fully staffed. We know what we need to run the resort.”
Brown says Snowshoe recruits “everywhere”—such as colleges, beaches, and summer resorts—and has formed a public/private partnership with the state to target the long-term unemployed.
Other resorts have an easier time filling winter positions, and expect that to continue. Bob Allen, HR director at Bridger Bowl, Mont., says he has to “beat applicants off with a stick. We live in a sheltered world. Everybody wants to be here.” Most of Bridger’s 325 winter employees are returnees. “We have minimal openings,” he says. “Only about 70, and we get 500 applications.”
Ditto at Mammoth, one of the few resorts that actually laid off employees last winter. (Many resorts cut hours and whittled down workforces through natural attrition.) “The advent of online recruiting has changed a lot of the variables,” Vadheim says. “We used to draw mainly from southern California. Now we have the ability to reach people around the country, and even internationally.”
In the first five hours after going live with its job site July 9, Mammoth received 65 applications for the 2012-13 season. “We just passed 70,000 applications in 11 years of online recruiting,” Vadheim says.
Keeping Options Open
After last season, Gretchen Swanson, HR director at Crystal Mountain, Mich., says communicating with new employees is more important than ever. “I think the seasonal staff has the expectation of working through March,” she says.
“In the hiring process, it’s very important they know how weather-dependent we are,” she adds. “We need to make sure we have that schedule flexibility. We have to be nimble. Last winter really underscored that. The staff member who is trained in multiple areas is so valuable. We need to stress all that during the hiring process—more realistic expectations, schedule flexibility, and cross training—with all of our new seasonal workers.”
“We can’t over-promise,” agrees Kim Hankins, HR manager at Sunapee, N.H. “We can’t guarantee employment.”
Other learned similar lessons. “We learned we could use people in more than one department,” says Krotz at Holiday Valley. “Cross training is huge,” agrees John Monsoon, director of sales and marketing at Sugar Bowl, Calif.
So is employee loyalty. When last winter’s snow drought forced Sugar Bowl to drastically cut workers’ hours, Monsoon says the area offered employees free meals, parties and waived rent in an effort to keep key staff. “If they were not earning a check, we wanted to help staff sticking with us in other ways,” Monsoon says.
That loyalty was returned when the snow finally came in March, and Sugar Bowl had to ramp up with a depleted staff. Loyal, flexible, cross-trained employees were essential to the effort.
Monsoon says managing visas better is another lesson learned from last winter. “Reducing hours was more difficult for the few who came over on visas, those farther away from home who invested a lot to get here. Moving forward, we need to handle visas a little better.”
Government restrictions and high domestic unemployment have caused many ski areas to sharply reduce their use of foreign workers. Last season’s snow drought will likely result in even more cutbacks.
Over the last four years, Snowshoe has gone from 398 J-1 students to 70. Snowbird, Utah, which ramps up from 1,000 employees in summer to 1,700 in winter, canceled its second group of J-1 students last winter, and has reduced its H2-B visas to only about a dozen. “We’re recruiting from a million-plus-population metro center six to eight miles away,” says Mark Paterson, HR director.
“We significantly reduced our numbers,”?says Vadheim at Mammoth. “We really don’t have any difficulties filling positions.”
But many resorts continue to make foreign staff part of the mix. “Even when resorts scale back their seasonal hiring numbers, most continue to use the program because of the benefits it provides to their guests and their corporate culture,” says Elizabeth Brennan of the Center for Cultural Interchange. The J-1 program provides a learning experience for the foreign and local workers alike. “Guests also love the energy and enthusiasm that the international programs bring to the resort,” Brennan adds.
And that’s the bottom line. For the coming season at least, it is still an employer’s market. L.G.