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November 2017

Evolving Orientation

Yes, you can make the onboarding process both more entertaining and more effective, as several resorts have discovered.

Written by Dave Meeker, Sarah Borodaeff | 0 comment
At Mountain High, Calif., the resort’s Yeti costume is incorporated into  orientation—by the payroll manager— to help entertain, and introduce staff to company culture. The Yeti welcomes guests (opposite page) equally as well as it does staff. At Mountain High, Calif., the resort’s Yeti costume is incorporated into orientation—by the payroll manager— to help entertain, and introduce staff to company culture. The Yeti welcomes guests (opposite page) equally as well as it does staff.

Employee orientation programs at some ski areas have grown way beyond stale slideshows. Now, they may include everything from game shows and rapping competitions to deep involvement by senior managers, all aimed at imbuing workers with a sense of resort culture as they come onboard—or even if they’ve been at the mountain for decades.

Some dynamic programs sometimes aren’t even called “orientation” anymore. At Vail Resorts’ Park City Mountain, for example, the series of a dozen start-of-season programs are dubbed “Employee Welcome Back” sessions. They focus as much on the staff’s role in ensuring visitors have “the experience of a lifetime” as they do on delivering information about workplace policies and procedures.

For progressive resorts, the days of having staff sit through hours of mind-numbing, unproductive presentations is a thing of the past.


The merger of Park City and The Canyons two years ago offered both a challenge and an opportunity to revamp the program for new employees and “align the team on what we are all about,” says Bill Rock, senior vice president and COO at Park City Mountain. “We had two separate resorts with two separate cultures that were now owned by Vail Resorts. The overlap was taking pride in our work, that we love to serve guests, and a passion for the outdoors and the environment—which are all core values for our company.”

So, when leadership sat down to develop a new program for staff orientation and training, it set specific goals for the program. Among them:

• Ensure that all staff understand where the resort is going and what it will take to get there.
• Create a consistent focus on safety, service, community, and leadership.
• Help staff understand strategic business imperatives and their role and contribution to the company’s success.
• Get staff inspired for the upcoming season.
• Build a “one team” mindset.
• Strengthen company culture by bringing all levels of employees together to interact and learn from each other.

“Oftentimes there is disconnect between the employee and guest experience,” says Rock. “We are in the people business, and our people have a huge impact on delivering a great guest experience. If they don’t know what the goals are, that’s almost impossible.”

“There is Only One You” is the overarching message in Park City’s Welcome Back programs. Yes, programs. These are typically held with groups of a few hundred employees, who are separated into smaller groups of less than a dozen for breakout sessions. New, current, and returning employees are all required to attend.

“People who work here do so for all different reasons, and come from all different backgrounds,” says Rock. But, he adds, “no matter what job you have, you make a difference in the guest experience.”

The importance of delivering this message to new workers—and reinforcing it among returnees—is reflected in the deep involvement in the day-long program by Park City’s leadership, up to and including Rock, who often delivers the welcome address. “I love doing it because I feel like I get to know all of our employees on some level, and they feel more free to come up to me during the season and say ‘this works’ or ‘this doesn’t,’” he says.

After a brief recap of the previous year and a preview of the coming season, breakout sessions focus on the touchstone topics of safety, service, community, and leadership. The day ends with an expo-style resource session, with booths where employees can get information on a variety of practical and cultural points, from perks and benefits to opportunities for volunteerism and engagement, as well as take care of necessary tasks like getting uniforms sized.

“We don’t just sit in a room and tell people what they can and can’t do; it’s very inspirational,” says Rock. Enlightened self-interest—“what’s in it for me?”—is an acknowledged motivator for employees to deliver an excellent guest experience.

For example, one breakout session is led by a terrain park manager who began working at the resort 30 years ago as a groomer. “New employees get a burst of energy because they see the face of team members who’ve worked here a long time, and they see where they can go,” says the resort’s senior communications specialist Jessica Miller, who, like all employees, attends the program each year.


Every resort takes a slightly different approach to staff orientation, but education is one universal goal. Many resorts try to make their program entertaining to help employees retain information.

At Mountain High Resort in Wrightwood, Calif., for example, the resort’s payroll manager enlivens her presentation on properly filling out time sheets by dressing in a Yeti costume. In other sessions, candy is tossed to audience members, and filling out a Bingo card with key phrases can earn restaurant gift cards or free passes to SeaWorld.

A scavenger hunt helps employees learn the answers to common guest questions, such as where to get medication for a headache (the gift shop, not ski patrol). “It’s hard with any group of people to keep their attention for long periods,” admits Tammy Jaqua, human resources manager at Mountain High. “There’s a lot of information they need to absorb, so our approach is to keep it fun.”

Games are also part of the program at Stevens Pass in Skykomish, Wash., where orientation has evolved in recent years from PowerPoint presentations. The area has added a scavenger hunt and a Jeopardy!-style game with questions about products, safety, culture, employee benefits, and resort rules.

For example, “Court Wing” is the answer to the question, “Which employee has worked at the ski resort the longest?”—67 years—and the correct response segues into a discussion about employee IDs. The next question may be, “What’s the most popular item sold at the company store?” The answer is cheese, which leads into an explanation of the employee discount on food purchases.

Similarly, activity-challenges illuminate staff perks as well as guest experience messaging. To promote use of the employee discount card at a local yoga studio, for example, employees compete to see who can hold a yoga pose longest. To reinforce the resort’s Own Your Zone mantra of taking pride in one’s work, staffers get two minutes to create a rap about their position. All can earn prizes.

“Groups work together for points and prizes, and it gets people talking to each other and learning as a group,” says Stevens Pass training and administrative coordinator Wendi Mingo.

Other tangible employee perks and benefits are emphasized in the half-day orientation at Stevens Pass. The resort’s “Mountain Exchange” program, which gives workers free passes to other ski areas, “has definitely had more participation than ever before, and that’s because we let employees know about it right up front,” says Stevens Pass human resources manager Rosemary Sherman.


Seven Springs Mountain Resort in western Pennsylvania aims to tailor its orientation program to its culture. Resort training manager Bob Horrell—who came onboard in his newly created position last May after volunteering on the Seven Springs ski patrol for eight years—says that the resort’s half-day training program emphasizes the history of Seven Springs as a small-town, family-run, and family-friendly resort. “We really try to convey that to our new staff,” he says.

In addition to a property tour, presentations, and teambuilding exercises, the program emphasizes the resort’s commitment to sustainability and involvement in the community—as when the resort mobilized volunteers to help those affected by flooding in the area in 2016, including family members of employees.

“We have a homegrown, organic pool of workers,” Horrell explains. “Sustainability, culture, hospitality—the program shows how it all ties in. We’re looking to be profitable, as we have been for 84 years, but it’s also important for employees to know we have their wellbeing in mind.”


Staff orientation programs are evolving because they are now seen as an opportunity, not just a box that gets checked off the pre-season to-do list. “Our program is designed with outcomes in mind,” says Rock, and that includes aligning employees with the corporate mission, ensuring a positive customer experience, and making operations as efficient as possible.

At Stevens Pass, Sherman credits the orientation program for contributing to a five-percent decrease in year-over-year employee turnover, as well as smaller but still significant improvements, noting, “We’re getting fewer questions at our human resources open window, because employees are getting (and retaining) more information.” That, ultimately, is the goal.