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September 2014

Driving Employee Engagement

Keeping employees motivated and enthusiastic will increase retention and add to your bottom line.

Written by Janice White | 0 comment

The latest Gallup “State of the American Workplace” survey, released in 2013, included a worrying statistic: only 30 percent of employees were engaged in and happy with their jobs. Gallup defines "engaged" employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to the organization in a positive manner. In a service-oriented business such as the winter sports industry, we have to beat that average.

Motivating and retaining key talent are primary ingredients for successful operations. So it’s easy to see why many resorts are addressing employee retention and engagement in a very deliberate and intentional manner.


Culture can be defined as what we believe, what we do, and how we do it. To create a culture of high engagement, it’s essential to have a mission, vision and values that are known, understood, and modeled by management. Those cultural elements connect employees to your resort and your guests.

Outside Magazine has recognized Aspen as one of its top 100 Best Places to Work. "We have over 500 employees with more than 20+ years of service, and almost 200 with 30+ years of service," says Jim Laing, VP of human resources. "People looking in from the outside will frequently comment, ‘aren’t you just like all other resort companies?’ and we typically reply, ‘ask our employees.’

“I believe it is a combination of many things, including respect, caring, authenticity, humility. We are a ski company, and not just a company in the ski business. We have soul, and honor our employees’ commitment to our company and our industry. It’s a lifestyle and not just a job."

Rob Walz, president and GM at Cascade Mountain, also believes company culture is key. "We are in the fun business, and if we don’t live it, we can’t expect it from our staff. We make our year-round staff feel like family. I want our year-round employees to feel like we cannot survive without them.

“I would hope that everyone at Cascade tells you the reason they work here is because they love winter sports and interacting with customers, and that they get treated fairly. It would also make me feel good if they said it is the most fun place to work.”

Walz concedes that he wishes he did more in-season for year-round employees. They are the ones creating the dance parties, pancake breakfasts, and other fun events for the seasonal staff.


When Mike Solimano took over as president/GM at Killington, one critical initiative was to open up a communication portal between employees and the management team. The goal was to create a culture where employees felt heard and where their opinions were valued.

To that end, after being shelved for seven years, the annual Employee Opinion Survey was revived. “Open feedback is the driver of increased engagement,” says Judy Geiger, HR manager.

But that was just one step. The area is also holding communication and service improvement (CSI) meetings to identify barriers to service and how to streamline processes. Last summer, a group of 80 key personnel met to brainstorm ways to make Killington a better place to work. The results? More generous discounts were given, including access to the fitness center, along with increased social events and a long-term goal of increasing training opportunities.

Vail Resorts uses an employee engagement survey, too—one that was designed by the employees themselves. “Traditionally, we have found that our top three drivers of employee engagement have been sustainability, leadership development (having good leaders) and employee development,” says Mark Gasta, chief people officer. The survey results are reported to employees, followed by creation of action plans. Employees are involved in the process, and progress is communicated regularly.


Given the value of employee retention, it makes sense to find out why employees leave. Winter Park is tracking voluntary turnover, and while there are no clear trends, “more often, ineffective management or improper addressing of poor performers leads to good performers leaving,” says Karen Gadberry, VP of HR. According to Scott Horn, VP and chief administrative officer at Jackson Hole, the resort sees more voluntary turnover from individuals who want to return to an urban environment to continue their career or continue education.

Mike Holtzman, president of Profitable Food Facilities, a contractor that works with resorts, golf and water parks and other venues to improve F&B sales and profit, says exit interviews are a missed opportunity for many organizations. “Employees have a story to tell when they decide to leave their job,” he says. “However, few resorts are recording, tracking and utilizing this type of data.”


Community service is a factor in shaping employee culture at Spirit Mountain, Minn. The area’s “Great Spirit” committee plans and executes social events throughout the year, and actively seeks volunteer projects that the staff can work on to make a difference in the community, including cleaning up a section of the interstate. “These kinds of activities provide an opportunity for socializing and community service and strengthens our camaraderie,” says former GM Renée Mattson.

At Vail, “Epic Volunteers” is one program that came about as a result of the employee engagement survey. Employees were asking for more volunteer opportunities, so year-round employees are given a week of paid time off to support a charity of choice. That may range from reading in local schools to working in an orphanage in Nepal.


Work/life balance also plays a large factor in retention. Although there is not a lot of balance during the ski season, Walz says that staff can take off “almost” as much time as they want in summer, depending on summer projects. Year-round employees are also encouraged to bring their kids to the slopes if they want to or need to. “What better place to keep your eye on your kids but at your job? It keeps Cascade human,” Walz says.

Jackson Hole is also focused on work/life balance. The resort’s #1 ranking in Ski Magazine speaks to this. “We believe that our employees come first, and if we treat them well the customer will be treated well. The culture is unsurpassed and reflects our ski hard, work hard ethos,” says Horn. In addition, Jackson provides a competitive wage and benefits package, with day care being a major incentive for parents. “We are flexible regarding working hours, and that resonates well with younger staff members,” Horn says. People come to Jackson for the lifestyle, and allowing employees to maximize their outdoor interests is part of the balancing act.


Addressing employee retention and building bench strength may not always involve a structured career program. There may be informal, unstructured and/or individually tailored approaches. Snowbird, for example, openly recruits internally for all positions above the entry level. “This is critical to assess interest, motivation and readiness for career advancement,” says Mark Patterson, director of human resources. “Frequently, managers have a particular person in mind for the position, but by recruiting it and not just promoting, other employees can express interest and be evaluated for the current or future positions, and we can provide feedback and training to get them ready.”

Job progression, a university-type training program, and recognizing the star performers and incrementally adding responsibilities to grow and retain the best is a significant part of the process. For example: a star server in a restaurant might be given a second job, such as helping train newer staff, opening and closing the restaurant, and supervising certain shifts, and thereby develop management talent.

Vail has a more structured program for succession planning, and engages employees in conversations to help identify an individual’s aspirations and career advancement readiness. For example, is he five years out to fill a key position? One year out? Building bench strength also includes a tracking process via a “live profile” where an employee’s skill set, education, roles, and location preferences are logged. Managers are also held accountable for developing others and how they are building bench strength in their departments.

In a nutshell, to win customers, you need to win the hearts and minds of employees. Gallup says it best: “Engaged employees are the ones who are the most likely to drive the innovation, growth, and revenue that their companies desperately need. These engaged workers build new products and services, generate new ideas, and more importantly, create new customers."