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January 2017

Feel the Burn (Out)

Stimulate your staff to help manage the inevitable burnout that happens during a long season.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment
Sierra-at-Tahoe has a resort-wide “department scoreboard” program that shares how the resort and departments are doing in a fun, competitive, and rewarding way. Each department creates a unique scoreboard—there are even prizes for the best one—that displays up-to-date performance stats based on goals they set at the start of the season. Sierra-at-Tahoe has a resort-wide “department scoreboard” program that shares how the resort and departments are doing in a fun, competitive, and rewarding way. Each department creates a unique scoreboard—there are even prizes for the best one—that displays up-to-date performance stats based on goals they set at the start of the season.

To the outside world, it may seem preposterous: the idea of someone working in an amazing resort setting suffering from burnout. After all, aren’t we the lucky ones? We get to be outside and on snow—a lot. We get to gaze out at spectacular scenery. We get to welcome a customer base that’s living their dream. How could anyone burn out?

Ah, but we know the truth. What we do as an industry may be absolutely glamorous and the envy of many, but the reality is—it’s hard work, the season is long, and there are few breaks. So, yeah, burnout is a thing.

The good news is dual. First, mountain resort managers are working proactively to motivate all levels of employees to help avoid burnout. Second: We are an easy crowd to please. So simple—and yet so brilliant—are some resort strategies, it should give hope to those that have not cracked the burnout code yet. All we need, it seems, is a little pat on the back, some fun, and maybe, from time to time, a few tchotchkes.

Get Ahead Of It

Consider the strategy at Sierra-at-Tahoe, where the season can be long and employees can become bogged down in the routine, despite the glamour of the locale. “We are a sexy industry, with the whole après thing and more,” says Melinda Stearns, director of human resources at Sierra. “A lot of it is true. But there is real work to these jobs. You get some storm cycles, some holidays, and in January you come up for air and think, ‘holy cow, what did I sign up for?’”

That’s why at Sierra-at-Tahoe, burnout is addressed before a prospective employee even puts on a nametag. “We are sure, in interviews, to paint a picture of what this really entails. We like to be sure not to put down the fun, but to point out the real at the same time,” she says.

At Timberline Lodge, Ore., a “season” could last the entire year, so the staff there feels midwinter strain when most other operations are in summer cruise control. Timberline mountain manager Logan Stewart says, “It happens once right after Christmas break, again in the spring, and then once or twice during the summer ski months, like clockwork.”

This predictability is helpful, but ultimately it’s up to the managers to recognize it, and do something about it. Oftentimes, the best practice is to simply look in the mirror. “Managers are the key. How they act directly reflects on the crew,” says Stewart. “Remember to keep smiling and keep your head up, be a positive example for your team.”

Stearns can see a pattern to the season, too, and tries to match employee events to it. “February,” she muses. “We call that ‘employee relations month.’ That’s when they run amok, and that’s when a lot of things come to light. By March, we call it ‘spring fever,’ they really need a boost.”


So that’s what they deliver, and once again we see proof of how simple a breed we are. “We have March Madness, with simple, silly things like theme dress-up days with competitions. They look forward to it, and they love it. You know, change makes people increase productivity, so even a simple one-day theme change can boost everyone,” says Stearns.

A Little Recognition Goes A Long Way

At Loon Mountain, N.H., the resort puts some control of both recognition and guest satisfaction in the hands of all employees.

Loon’s S.O.S (Safety Or Service) employee-to-employee program allows all employees to recognize one another. At the start of the season, every staff member is given a stack of bright yellow index cards. If one staffer sees another do something great, they can give him or her a card. The recipients then turn the card in for extra cash on their employee pass, which amounts to basically enough for a free lunch. And who doesn’t love a free lunch?

According to Loon’s director of HR, Ruth Berkeley, a card can be given for the simplest of things. “Let’s say someone sees someone else picking up trash as they walk in or out of work,” she says. “That’s a very worthy and simple thing that not everyone chooses to do, so it’s a great reason to hand someone an S.O.S. card.”

Berkeley says employees love the program because “it’s in their hands.” In other words, kudos from your boss is great, but sometimes kudos with substance from a fellow worker feels even better.

Sierra-at-Tahoe utilizes a similar system for staff recognition with its “Moments of Magic” scratch cards. Managers have them on hand, so any time they see a staffer do something remarkable, they can immediately reward the person for it. Winners scratch off the card to find anywhere from $5 to $25 in money that can be used on mountain.

And then there is the Purple Cow Award, which was started without management input by the guest relations department (but now heralded by all). Every day, guest relations gives one ping pong ball each to three random guests and asks them to give it to a staffer they see do something nice. When that staffer returns the ball to guest services, he or she is awarded a purple cow pin to wear on their uniform—and wear it they do.

“It’s really simple and silly, but those pins are coveted now,” Stearns says. “They are a true badge of honor and everyone dreams of getting one.”

Loon has its own, coveted Horseshoe Award. It started years back when the resort had horses at the base. Staff would clean up old horseshoes, paint them, and give them to guests. Now, the Horseshoe Award is given to staff who are nominated by fellow employees. Just two winners are named each season, awarded with the Horseshoe and $200 cash.

But free gear and cash isn’t always the answer, says Stewart, because then it becomes expected. And if one department gets something free and another doesn’t, that can create animosity. “We focus on activities that people will remember and use [the activities] as teambuilding, rather than focusing on physical gifts or swag,” he says.

Empower Your Staff

Loon also puts the guest’s emotions in the hands of its staff. With its “Make the Guest Right” program, all staffers have the ability to fix a guest situation without having to seek management for help, or find another department to chime in.

For example, if a guest in the rental shop is stressed out and perhaps yelling, any employee can pull out a certificate and give the unhappy guest a gift—free hot chocolate, lunch, etc.—to help diffuse the situation. If a guest drops his lunch tray, after helping clean it up, any staffer can hand him a certificate for a free lunch.

The ideas are endless, Berkeley says. And by empowering staff to help make guests happier, it helps avoid the burnout that comes from dealing with unhappy people.

Fun And Games

At Copper Mountain, Colo., employees are rewarded with what they are there for in the first place—the joy of experiencing mountain life. All employees get unlimited ski and ride lessons, plus some free lessons for family members, as well as free access to Woodward Copper’s extensive facilities.

Kelly Renoux is Copper’s director of employee experience, a unique title that speaks to the resort’s commitment to its staff. Renoux says they also reach outside of their borders to spark the fun by running exchanges with other resorts, as well as some “field trips” for employees who live in The Edge on-mountain employee housing. These trips and events are created, she says, because with the long hours and with many staff living on site, “The edges are blurred.”

Stewart advises doing something similar, but using it as a training opportunity. “Go secret shopping,” he says. “Go to neighboring resorts and take a few of your staff. Yes, it is training, but you’re also riding another mountain.”

Employees want to know if their jobs are making a difference, so Sierra has a resort-wide “department scoreboard” program to share how the resort and departments are doing in a fun, competitive, and rewarding way. Each department creates a unique scoreboard (see example, page34)—there are even prizes for the best one—that displays up-to-date performance stats based on goals they set at the start of the season.

“So each employee can see how their job is impacting our success,” says Stearns, “even the liftie who’s here to have a fun season and ski or ride. We find that once they see how they are helping the entire resort succeed, they get more into their jobs.”

When a department hits a goal, it gets money put into its “pot,” which it can tap for special things any time the department head wants. Smart supervisors, Stearns says, use it all season long. Staffers don’t want to wait until April for a reward on a good job done in January; they want it closer to when the good deed occurs.

No One Is Immune

One of the things resorts agree on when it comes to fighting burnout is that it hits all levels on the totem pole, not just the entry-level workhorse.

“Particularly as we go into the holidays, we remind managers to keep their own light on,” says Stearns. “We remind them, and all employees, to make sure they’ve planned out their personal lives, because they’re not going to be able to for a few weeks here and there. If supervisors are not taking care of themselves, there is no way they can take care of the front line.”

Stewart says one way for managers to take care of the front line is to become part of it. “I find the best way to keep the ship afloat is to make sure the employees see their boss side-by-side with them, so everyone is going through the burn together.”

And what of the big end-of-season employee bashes thrown by management most years? They are helpful (and perhaps expected), all agree. But most suggest that it has to happen before mud season, as well.

In the end, it’s all about simple fun, boosting morale, and reminding staff why we are here. “I tell our staff all the time: we’re not saving babies here. We’re in the business of having fun. And when you have fun, it trickles down to your guests,” says Renoux. “Simple as that.”