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September 2013

Creative Staffing

Technology is not a panacea when it comes to scheduling, but it can often help.

Written by Janice White, President, Janice White & Assoc. | 0 comment

Recent seasons have been watersheds for many areas as they scrambled to respond to the economic downturn and lack of snow. It was all hands on deck. Managers found themselves on the front lines in growing numbers, a consequence of tight staffing levels. It felt more like triage, with resorts using a variety of strategies to reduce staffing costs without sacrificing the guest experience.

One positive outcome was that the downturn created incentives for resorts to explore both technology and variable operating plans to more effectively schedule and communicate with employees.

Bring Your Own Device
Case in point: the food and beverage department typically faces the greatest challenge in scheduling, and several resorts are using When I Work (a product of and HotSchedules to streamline this process.

HotSchedules allows employees to receive their schedules any way they would like: e-mail, text or smart phone application. “With HotSchedules, food and beverage employees can request days off, trade shifts or communicate with managers if they are unable to show for whatever reason,” says Nate Shake, director of human resources at Bogus Basin. “Once the employees are there, managers use more traditional methods such as snow breaks to adjust staffing levels. With a couple of poor snow seasons back to back, this has allowed F&B to meet or beat their very tight labor budgets.”

When I Work has been popular with a growing number of resorts across the country, including Jackson Hole, Aspen Mountain, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Cataloochee. Schedules can be created in a calendar-based view or segregated by individual employee shifts. A two-way text messaging service allows for direct response approvals to time-off requests. For example, when an employee requests a day off, managers receive a text message and can approve or cancel the request with a simple reply.

Carin McConaughy-Munn, director of product sales and reservations at Jackson Hole, rolled out this software for summer operations. She said the greatest benefit was going from an Excel spreadsheet, which is a static process, to an intuitive scheduling method that can be quickly adjusted to business volume. The ROI? “It takes supervisors much less time to manage their schedules and time off requests,” McConaughy-Munn says. It’s working so well the area plans to implement the software for winter ops.

Last year, Mountain High fully implemented When to Work software (not to be confused with When I Work). Robert Chacon, VP of operations, likes that the software lets the manager populate shifts based on availability calendars. The employee logs on and can set up to have communications sent via text, e-mail, or both. Managers can look at who is at work and on what shifts, and if weather changes mid-afternoon with high winds, say, and they know they will need to close lifts, all it takes is a simple click to communicate with staff.

With the majority of Mountain High’s employees in the 18-to-24 age bracket, the software’s Swap Board has been hot. Employees can request a shift trade, see who is available and qualified to work the shift, and upon their manager’s approval, co-workers can go online and “snag it and tag it.” Power outages? No problem, as managers are still required to post hard copy schedules for their employees as a backup plan.

Ski School and POS Tech
Both Siriusware and RTP are helping integrate point of sale systems and scheduling needs. For example, Killington Resort, Vt., ski school director Dave Beckwith says that RTP allows access to schedules remotely via smart phones, tablets, computers, etc. “The fact that we can remotely view our schedules rather than needing to be on property allows more flexibility, particularly for our part-time staff.

“We try to be respectful of our employees’ time. If we don’t need them based on business levels, we can call them off or change their location and job duty,” he says. Employees can see client bookings, especially important when guests have requested them. This allows instructors to better prepare for their lessons and provide a more personal experience. Employees can review their hours for accuracy, too, which helps better manage payroll and discrepancies.

Beckwith concedes that it took some time to get used to the technology, especially since it is in real time and tends to change with business needs. But the effort was worth it. “The system gives us the pliability to manage the day at a macro and micro level, making best use of our staff and providing the best level of service to our guests,” he says.

Operating with Agility
Sierra-at-Tahoe is using a pretty sophisticated system for scheduling with a color-coded labor management set-up (LMS). Green, blue, yellow and red are the four business-level codes. Green indicates a slow midweek day, red, a peak day. The system is used with a variable business operating plan that determines which restaurants and lifts are scheduled to open that day based on history and date.

“We can eliminate a ton of show-up pay by managing and communicating changes ahead of time,” says GM John Rice. “Once the day starts, skier visits are watched hourly, and if we are not looking to hit our forecasted numbers for the day, supervisors will send people home and close outlets as warranted. If they need more employees, we can find them on the hill via their pass [which tracks their presence on the hill] and message them to see if they want some hours.

“Our LMS program has become a key piece of our labor controls within each department’s operating plan. Each morning the Daily Sales and Labor report shows how they did the day before on labor tracking to expected sales. It takes the guesswork out of the supervisor’s hands so they don’t blow it two days in a row. It is color-coded red for over and green for under the budgeted hours.”

Intranet and Social Media
Perfect North Slopes uses its intranet for communicating with staff and to manage the ever-growing flood of paperwork. The resort developed a web portal from its website with an extensive employee section for staff to use for information and communication. It has PDFs of all of the paperwork they need to complete for HR purposes, along with a link to the area’s timekeeping software where employees can log in to see their schedules. “With additional costs of employment, we are under more and more pressure to be efficient with our labor,” says Chip Perfect, president.

Facebook has become a creative communication tool for some resorts. Sierra-at-Tahoe is using a ski school employee- specific Facebook account that instructors can use for a variety of reasons: meeting topics, ride sharing to work, scheduling, stay home on snow days, training, housing, etc. In addition, a general employee Facebook is used to send out information to all employees regarding bus schedules, carpooling, housing, summer job opportunities, extra shifts in other departments, etc.

Balancing Old and New
Not everyone is racing to embrace technology for scheduling. At Holiday Valley, N.Y., each department head is responsible for establishing his or her own system to handle staffing. Dennis Eshbaugh, president and CEO, notes that the rental shop manager will only accept phone calls for staffing changes, so he can hear employees’ voices and be better in touch with his staff. Snowmaking uses an old-school voice mailbox for staff to call in and check operations and scheduling. E-mail expedites communication to all departments about events and factors that affect anticipated occupancy and staffing, while the office staff uses texts to reach lodging, maintenance and housekeeping, a tool that also provides a record of the communication.

At Boyne Resorts, there are no set policies for the use of technology. “We just do a lot of blocking and tackling every day,” says Stephen Kircher, president and GM. “It really is based on the manager’s technical ability or comfort level.” Boyne sets up pre-determined levels of staffing, and adapts as necessary. If the weather forecast is for rain, the resort may set staffing at level 3, which calls for fewer lifts, restaurants etc., and employees are notified via phone, e-mail or text.

Interestingly enough, some resorts have gone full circle with technology. At Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Minnesota, GM Fred Seymour says they found that text messages from managers were getting buried in their young employees’ other traffic. So the area is moving back to a more traditional approach: the phone.

Finding the right balance is key. We may never see a day when managers are not flipping burgers or parking cars on peak days. This can be a good thing, as it connects key staff to our guests. But it’s always best when it’s done on purpose.