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May 2016

The Challenge of Being Small

Six small-area leaders join a wide-ranging roundtable discussion.

Written by Timothy Sweeney | 0 comment

A number of smaller ski areas struggle to find employees to fill roles that require training and expertise particular to the industry, such as grooming, snowmaking and lift maintenance. Have you experienced this, and how have you solved this dilemma?

Scott Grasser: At Lost Trail we have five year-round employees, but during the winter we have 35 regular staff members, 35-40 ski school instructors, and 65 on ski patrol. Fortunately, we have a 92 percent re-hire rate each season and, as I’ve seen people blossom, I’ve moved them into bigger roles. The key to successful turnover has been setting up a chain of command that employees understand. It becomes apparent in their first week or two on the job if an employee will last one season or many.

Kris Blomback: I see us kind of like a baseball club, in that we have to bring that farm system along. Let’s be honest: there’s a degree of turnover in this business. We’ve tried to make an attractive package by adding a 401K with a match and a profit sharing component. Both have helped to substantially decrease employee turnover. Pats Peak has 24 year-round, full-time employees ranging from accounting to lift maintenance, and all are fully benefited. That number swells to 700-800 employees during the ski season, and we are always sifting through that database of seasonal employees to see who might have a skill set we can develop. Many times I will bring someone on if I know they have the skill set even if I don’t have the budget at the time. There is so much work to be done at a ski facility that if you find a good person with a good skill set, you’ll have no problem keeping them busy.

Troy Hawks: Cross-training is huge for us. When we’re short-staffed, it’s not uncommon to see our GM fielding guest service calls, our assistant GM driving the parking lot shuttle, our group sales manager selling lift tickets, and our marketing coordinator fitting boots. While I’d love to say that Sunlight’s cross-training is the result of intelligent design, it’s really just people making it happen. We’re lucky to have that, but it can also be a somewhat fragile and stressful existence. Others call it fun.

Are there specific positions that you have trouble filling?

Robert Huter: At Mount St. Louis Moonstone, we find it specifically challenging to fill lift mechanic positions in Ontario, mainly due to the training required for licensing in this province. Being legislated to only hire certified lift mechanics hinders our flexibility to hire other trades, such as millwright. To offset this, we work diligently to internally promote employees and support them through the required training, which is quite extensive and requires upwards of 4,000 hours of work experience. Other skilled trades, such as electricians and Class A mechanics, are often difficult to hire and retain, because many positions offered to them elsewhere are at a substantially higher rate of pay. As a smaller operation, we compete with a lifestyle in Banff or Whistler, and it is hard to equal that experience.

Rick Schmitz: We struggle to find employees year after year in our snowsports school. We can never seem to have enough instructors at either hill. Our learn-to programs and private lessons continue to grow, and we could always use more good instructors. A big reason we struggle to find instructors is the volatility of our lesson demand. We are drive-to day-visit areas, so lesson demand varies greatly depending on the weather. It’s harder to keep good employees if we can’t give them consistent hours.

Hawks: Food and beverage and instructors are the biggest challenge areas for us. We hire locally, but here in the High Country, “locally” often means within a 40- to 60-mile radius of Sunlight. This past season we had a cashier who drove more than 100 miles to get to the job, and he worked for us for the entire season. That’s uncanny dedication and it shows that it all boils down to the equation of how hard we’re asking employees to work, divided by how much we’re paying them, multiplied by the value they assign to a season pass and the “cool factor” of working at a ski area.

We’ve heard about struggles to find local candidates for certain roles and this Sunlight employee driving 100 miles each way. Are most of you able to source employees locally, and how do you train new employees from outside the industry?

Jesie Melchiori: We fill most of our positions from the local colleges and from Northern Michigan University. We also have access to students from our state’s Ski Area Management Program at Gogebic Community College. If we can employ those students at the beginning of their programs, we usually keep them for four seasons, but as they get close to graduation we have to start new hiring and training. Retaining is always a problem in this industry.

Schmitz: We source all of our employees locally. As the economy has improved, we have found it more difficult to staff in general than it was five years ago. For outside operations specifically, we utilize lots of training for our staff. We often hire guys that are good mechanics and send them to schools and training seminars to learn the ski industry. These include classes at Gogebic Community College, SAVMI, RMLA, Cutter’s Camp, the MSAA show, and classes put on regionally by our suppliers. It can be a challenge to retain some of these people, but overall we have been very fortunate to find some great people that have stuck around.

Grasser: Our secret to retaining employees over time has been simple: treat them really well and give them room to use their own thoughts and ideas. Like others have mentioned, cross-training employees is one way we do this. And we all get together at the end of the day for a beer and enjoy what we do. A lot of our employees have grown up in this area. They love Lost Trail and want to see it grow and get bigger and better.

When it comes to marketing your resort to potential visitors, do you outsource to an agency or local company to assist in the creative development, or do it in-house?

Hawks: We handle 90 percent of our marketing and design in-house. We outsourced the design and development of our new website, but now we’re maintaining it 100 percent in-house. We’ll continue to hire locally for some of our online ad campaigns and larger design projects.

Huter: We do all marketing and promotion in-house, working with each platform’s sales rep (radio, TV, newspaper, web) to develop a program consistent with our brand.

Melchiori: Our marketing is done in-house as well. We use radio, TV, and a lot of social media. We have our own radio personality, Suzie Snowflake, who is a hit in her weekly updates. Using snow report videos produced in-house, we’re able to give guests a good look at the mountain and the weekly events. We also employ an intern from Northern Michigan University to do our promotional work including all social media posts, the weekly snow reports, promotional posters, and terrain park updates.

Schmitz: Two years ago we moved from one full-time marketing person in-house to using nxtConcepts to assist with our marketing and utilizing a part-time staff member. This has worked well, in that we are still able execute on all the marketing channels we want to while keeping a local connection to our guests with our part-time staff. Our markets are affordable enough that we are still able to do some of the expensive marketing (TV and radio), although we would do more if we could afford to.

As Rick said, there’s always a desire to do more marketing if you could. Is that true for everyone? And what other channels have you found useful in lieu of spending big chunks of money?

Hawks: There’s always more work than budget or staffing. There’s a finite capacity to what we can all get done with a three-person marketing, sales, sponsorships, events, and communications department. You focus on the immediate priorities, and sometimes that translates into running to Wal-Mart for more plastic spoons for the chili cook-off. We’re doing a small bit of advertising on Facebook, and we have a pretty aggressive ground campaign distributing posters and fliers. It’s an important space to be in here, and its great for staying connected with the communities we serve.

Schmitz: Social media has been a game changer for us. This is my 11th season at Nordic Mountain and fourth at Little Switzerland. When I first bought Nordic Mountain, social media was first coming on to the scene. It’s amazing how important it has become to all of our marketing, and there is no better way for us to connect with and communicate with our customer base. While we spend the most money on radio and TV, we spend the most time on social media.

Grasser: Social media is important at Lost Trail as well. We are very fortunate to have great snow quality (325 inches annually) and grooming, so our marketing is 100 percent based around our snow story. To tell that story we rely on Facebook, our website, and we just started email powder alerts when we get six inches or more.

Have you had any success doing anything nontraditional?

Huter: One thing we offer is for all on-air talent from any channel to experience our sports free of charge. Specifically, we work with local radio stations to bring out non-skiing or non-snowboarding announcers to learn and convert them to being winter enthusiasts. We’ve seen a great benefit in their exposure to the sports.

Blomback: One big area we have made strides in recently is hosting a diversity day every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when we welcome nontraditional skiers to our facility. If you had asked me 20 years ago if we’d be advertising in Mandarin Chinese, I’d have said, “What?” Even our rental shop is staffed with employees who can speak Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, some French, and of course English. On busy days, English might be the second language down there. Being 90 minutes from Boston, we get a fair share of students from BC, BU, MIT, and others. At the end of the night, if those employees with language skills are working, we will have an announcement in all those languages to return rental gear. Things like that further reinforce the welcoming of diversity.

In particular, how have you marketed toward new skiers and riders?

Melchiori: We started a Winter Kids Program that we offer to fourth and fifth graders. Students come and learn math and science ski hill style and then receive a lesson and an afternoon of skiing. We’ve also implemented Wednesday Night is Kids’ Night, with $5 lift and $5 rental to anyone 17 and under. It is incredibly popular and a successful way to bring in new skiers and snowboarders at a young age. In March we tried a new Ski for Free in March program in hopes of attracting more beginners. We gave free lift and rental to newbies to ski or ride.

Blomback: We offer a traditional starter special, and we discount to bring beginners to the area. Like Killington, we offer a free set of skis after four visits. Let’s face it, it’s never been easy to learn the sport of skiing. If you are a beginner and you want to go on this epic journey of skiing, we as an industry need to really throw some incentives at you. In our rental shop, we staff more employees than would normally be needed because we’re obsessed with providing not just the fastest service possible, but also the best. That includes a greeter as well as boot fitters that stroll the boot area advising guests. If you are new to the sport, you think you need three pairs of socks, and people are stuffing jeans into their boots. We are surrounded by giants of the ski industry, so we have to compete by offering great customer service—right down to fresh paint on the walls and good carpet on the floors. Those are little things, but the little things add up.

What about providing ticket prices that appeal to families or young adults? Has that challenge evolved in this new era of pass deal battles between larger resort companies?

Melchiori: We have different specials every day of the week in hopes of everyone being able to find the right fit for their budget. Two seasons ago we were able to add family pass pricing to our season pass structure and it has been huge, encouraging many families to participate as a whole instead of just one or two family members. Mountain Money, or money in a gift certificate form to spend at the mountain when a season pass is purchased, has been added as an incentive. In addition, we have collaborated with other resorts in the area to offer a free voucher for season pass holders at participating resorts.

Grasser: Lost Trail ticket prices are $40 a day for adults. That is a hard price for the big places like Big Sky and Whitefish to compete with. We live in a fairly economically depressed area so keeping our lift tickets, rentals, food, and lessons affordable is our primary goal. We want to make skiers! The only way to get people back after college or after they have families is to make it affordable. Besides the snow, the affordability is our primary asset. We also have a yearly season pass deal. For $375 customers get the rest of this year (March through mid-April) and all of next year. It’s ridiculously inexpensive. But we’ve had to compete with other smaller ski areas in the region, and if it works for them, we can make it work. I’m part of Montana Ski Areas Association and we are all good friends. We’re not trying to pull people away from each other; we’re all working together, so at Lost Trail we try to be in the same range as our competitors on pricing.

Huter: We introduced night skiing to remain a viable option for consumers. We’re located within a highly competitive market in Ontario. The three best ski resorts in this province are our neighbors and direct competitors. To combat this, we have worked diligently to offer a strong reciprocal program for our members with the province and at other ski resorts outside of our direct marketplace. Because we know that no one travels to a ski resort alone, and it is often someone close who brings you for the first time to begin this love affair with our sports, we also have a Bring a Friend program. All members can bring up to three friends at a highly discounted price, and the power of this program is incredible.

At most smaller ski areas, high-priced facilities and brand-new buildings are not a viable option. Does relying on older facilities or smaller buildings cause you to find innovative ways to handle crowded days?

Blomback: Yes, facilities can be a challenge, but you can’t build a church for Easter Sunday. You’re not always at maximum capacity, so you have to find a balance. We are blessed here at Pats Peak with a low overhead. We don’t borrow a lot of money and can afford to sink some money into the buildings. We’re focused on skiing being an experience, not a commodity. Our buildings are nice, large A-frames and the grounds are beautiful. We say, “People are not buying a TV set. They are buying an experience.” That starts with being greeted by mascots, everyone being in a nice, clean uniform and, when you arrive, you walk through a central landscape that is more Disney than Costco.

Schmitz: Aging facilities and infrastructure has been one of my biggest overall challenges at both mountains. Each year we have to spend a great deal of our cap ex on maintaining and upgrading aging lifts, snowmaking, and buildings. They are backend expenditures that the customer usually doesn’t notice, but vital to keep us going and improving. At Nordic Mountain, we have reinvested in these improvements heavily for the last 10 years. We are finally turning a corner where we can perform more routine maintenance and front-end improvements that the customer notices. At Little Switzerland, the resort had been closed for five years when we purchased it. Much of the infrastructure had been ripped out and sold at auction. Because of that, my brothers and I spent more initially to rebuild the entire resort, including a new snowmaking system, a complete lodge renovation, and numerous other upgrades. The result was an old resort with excellent infrastructure right out of the gate.

Grasser: It is an issue for us at Lost Trail. We did a major expansion from 2000 to 2005, doubling the size of the ski area and increasing our skiing acreage and the amount of skiers we could have at one time. But our facilities are on the older side. It’s too small about 30 days of the year. The rest of the year, it’s very adequate, so you just deal with it. When my dad was alive, he would say we’re not doing our job because there are lines at the ticket window or the restaurant. So we just build a couple more ticket windows or whatever it takes. We have a 30-foot yurt and a cooking facility down at the bottom of one of our chairlifts that really helps on those super busy days. The things to plan for are bathrooms, parking, the kitchen, and seating. You have to plan and budget for those most crucial areas.

In particular, does your infrastructure impact how your ski school is set up?

Huter: Our buildings have very little to do with the customer’s ski school experience. Training ski school employees over and above their CSIA/CASI certifications and having clear expectations for customer progression has benefited us tremendously and improved our learning experience. Also, having a very large beginner area adds to a positive experience for those guests new to our sports, as well as for more seasoned skiers and boarders in that the flows very rarely mix. That also adds to the safety of all guests.

Hawks: What we lack in terms of the intuitive flow of our facilities we make up for by interacting directly with our guests and doing what we need to do to get them rung up on the till, into their gear, and on the slopes as seamlessly as possible. On weekends our ski school director is boots-to-the-ground outside of the sales office, answering guests’ questions and helping them sign up for lessons. It’s the difference between customer service at the family hardware store versus the big box warehouse, and it’s an area where small ski areas really continue to shine. This summer we’ll be taking a hard look at our base facilities to find areas we can reconfigure and innovate. There are a few small pockets of slopeside square footage that I think we can better utilize. The end goal is to provide better flow for our beginners.

Blomback: Beyond facilities, developing new skiers is a challenge. Our after-school program used to be 10,000 students, now we have 8,000. Where you used to have five fourth-grade classes in a New Hampshire school district, now you find three. The nearby school district numbers are flat to declining. There are more choices for that discretionary dollar—more hockey rinks and indoor soccer facilities and other things like that are being built.

Kris, you’ve been a bit frustrated with the ability to pass your developing skiers up the funnel to larger resorts. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve learned?

Blomback: In our surveys we ask how important is it to have joint pass perks with other resorts, but our customers are loyal to Pats Peak. That said, we know we are limited in that people will eventually want to move on to a bigger resort. So, we’ve reached out to larger resorts and told them we have all these skiers and riders, and would they be willing to give our customers a deal on tickets or passes? I’m perplexed that these resorts aren’t interested in what we bring to the table. Like I said, we’ve got 8,000 skiers in our after-school learn-to program. We do have great reciprocity with Cranmore and Gunstock, two bigger areas nearby, as well as Jay Peak, Waterville, and Mount Sunapee. They really understand the notion of working together and using what I call that vertical conduit. But in general, we’ve found working with larger resorts to be daunting. Most of them just don’t get it, and I think they’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish. The whole industry is saying we need to grow the sport, and it’s amazing some of the silly things large resorts bring up when you ask about these things.

Grasser: If one of our passholders goes to another MSAA resort, they pay a half-day rate. That’s $5 or $10 off, but you are giving them something, and that’s what people want. The big resorts in our region are focused on people coming in from California and Texas. That’s their market, not ours. Our market is the locals. Our staff can take their company ID and get two free days at Montana Snow Bowl, Black Tail, or Big Sky. It really helps with employees and keeps their focus on going skiing.

Hawks: At Sunlight, we’re the GMC dealership located in between an Audi, Porsche, and four Ferrari dealerships. In terms of accessibility to the sport, without us, local families and youth would be looking at a vastly different landscape. NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes Grant Program is a great platform helping small and mid-sized ski areas invest in their futures. I think there’s opportunity to duplicate the program in the areas of IT, point-of-sale system upgrades, new lift financing, maybe even insurance, and more.

Blomback: We really need to get the kids off the couch and get them outside. Here in New Hampshire, there is tremendous pressure to eliminate the February school break and move it to the first week in April, which would impact our business greatly. Still, despite all that we’ve discussed, I’m bullish on the future of skiing. As long as we provide a great product with great customer service, I think we’ll be fine.