September 2020

Keep the Staff Informed (Guests, too)

This ski season will bring plenty of change. How will you keep everyone pulling the same rope?

Written by Skip King, Rick Kahl, Dave Meeker | 0 comment

If the last eight months have taught us anything, it’s that we should take nothing for granted. We’ve seen an unprecedented shutdown of businesses and public gatherings resulting from the pandemic. We’ve seen an explosion of civil unrest after the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protests for which went international. We’ve seen people change the way they react to one another—mask/no mask, conservative/progressive, you name it.

Ultimately, all of this will stabilize. But that will take time, and it’s still anyone’s guess what the new normal will look like. This means that we enter the 2020-21 winter sports season in a state of flux. We’ll likely be changing things on the fly. Most of us will be learning as we go.

How we communicate with two very important groups of people—our staff, and our guests—is always important. But it’s probably more important this year than it’s ever been before.

Your Guests

The public is now largely accustomed to the idea that local and state governments can and will set new rules, even if some of the public rather resents the fact. Given the sense of freedom inherent in skiing and snowboarding, we should probably expect that the free-wheeling nature of snow resort clientele is likely to create some issues.

Case in point: One Oregon resort reopened in late May 2020 for about two weeks. Access was limited to season passholders, and only 500 of those per day. The resort used an online reservation platform that filled up each day’s capacity in a matter of seconds. Many passholders who failed to get slots were irate and made that fact known on social media channels.

Manage expectations by communicating. Managing guest expectations going into the season will be hugely important. With any luck, we won’t see a continued uptick of infections or a new round of shutdowns, but we have to be ready for them. With that in mind, we strongly recommend that you carefully review your cancellation policies as they relate to date-specific products such as lodging and online ticket, snowsports school, and rental product sales. Taking a hard line is fine, if you so choose—but we’d caution that some of your competitors are likely to be more flexible, and that will almost certainly lead to unflattering comparisons.

Know your limitations. Assuming social distancing protocols are still in place, you’ll have to set capacity limits for lifts and interior spaces such as lodging properties, F&B outlets, and restroom facilities. These limits could cause real guest-service problems if, say, someone has to wait outside a lodge for a space to open up.

We’ll leave the specific operational aspects to you. The bottom line is that you need to figure out the choke points that will limit your capacity, and figure out ways to adapt to them.

Communicate the changes. And then, you need to communicate the adaptations—to staff as well as guests. Websites and social media give us wonderful tools for doing this; onsite signage also helps. The key is this: Make sure people know, to the extent you can tell them, what they can expect when they get there. Make sure they know things could change. If you have the ability to reach guests about new changes via email or text messaging prior to their arrival, so much the better.

Above all, make your operational policies easy to find. Post them regularly to your social streams and make them prominent on your home page. You don’t need to spell out chapter and verse in each message, but you’d be wise to make the high points prominent and link to more detail. Don’t be afraid to be somewhat blunt: People know things have changed, they know you’re trying, and they still want to ski and ride. Be upfront about what that experience may look like.

On site, post signs and instructions around the resort in key locations and at each point where procedures have changed.

Be sure to point out the positives in these changes. If you are requiring advance reservations for tickets, gear, or even cafeteria time or F&B orders, point out that these advance decisions will make your guests’ days go more smoothly. Some of the changes you’re making will have long-lasting benefits, so make sure guests perceive them as such.

Managing guest expectations will limit conflict. When things don’t go as planned, guests tend to get angry and take things out on your staff. So let’s talk about staff next.

Your Staff

Staffing is going to be a challenge. Let’s be clear: Some folks are simply leery of working in close contact with the public, out of fear of infecting themselves or their loved ones.

One plus: It’s possible that the labor pool will be larger than in the past, filled with workers laid off during the pandemic. On the flip side, the freeze on the H-2B and J-1 visa programs—which so many ski areas rely upon—could have a seriously negative impact on resort front-line staffing. Unless President Trump’s Executive Order is rescinded or modified, resorts may have to limp through Christmas vacation week without international workers and then scramble to train them starting January 1—if that’s even allowed then.

This means that your core staff could be hard-pressed to keep up.

Managing expectations. As with your guests, managing expectations is key, and that starts with hiring interviews and orientations. Make sure new team members know what to expect—and that “what to expect” includes sudden changes.

Dealing with the public. Your staff needs to understand that much of the public is confused and angry about what’s happened since the beginning of the year (at least the Murder Hornets haven’t taken over). They must be sensitive to guest needs and always cognizant of how they, the staff, are perceived by guests.

Given the current racial angst in the country, for example, an emotionally-charged interaction with a guest of color could easily explode on social media. Training staff to recognize emotionally charged situations and how to de-escalate them is always a good idea—but this year, it’s of paramount importance.

Staff safety measures. Make sure staff recognize that some changes are for their protection: having and wearing a mask; staying behind a plexiglass shield; maintaining social distancing. It’s important that staff know how you are protecting their safety, and that this is a high priority.

Evolving job responsibilities. “What to expect” may also include changes to job responsibilities. What sorts of changes? It could mean cross-training for other jobs. For example, if you’re down a bunch of lift operators, you might ask ski patrol to do relief and break work on lifts. But they need to be trained for this work, and you must plan for that—and spell it out to those staff members. Similarly you might train marketing folks to work the line in the cafeterias during the lunch rush.

These types of job-sharing practices were once common in the industry, and are still used by some resorts today. But many resorts have moved away from them for a variety of good reasons. You may not have that choice this year—and if that’s the case, staff needs to know that right up front.

Communicating sudden changes. OK, so those are some of the season-long challenges you can expect. But what happens if things change suddenly? How do you get the word out to the front line?

If you’ve oriented them properly and regular staff meetings and in-service trainings reinforce the idea that changes may come at any time, you’re halfway home. Nobody likes to be surprised if the surprise makes their life more difficult, but as long as you’ve prepped them with the idea that surprises could happen this year, you’ll be in a better position.

Make it timely. Any such changes must be communicated in a timely and effective manner. There are a variety of ways you can do this. You can utilize email or text blasts; there are mobile phone apps such as Beekeeper, which has been adopted by a number of Alterra resorts. But in reality, this is all about change management—and changes are often best communicated to front-line staff by their direct supervisors.

Top-down communication is a prevailing issue in the mountain resort industry. Front line staff often complain that they learn of changes from the resort’s social media. Or worse, a guest receives communication about a change before the front line is made aware, and when that guest asks an unaware staff member about it, an awkward, unsatisfactory exchange ensues. Create a plan where supervisors quickly get the message, and communicate it to the front lines.

The supervisors’ role. It’s the supervisors with whom front-liners have a relationship. Front line staff may know who the GM is, but they have no particular reason to trust him or her. Especially if the change is an unpleasant one, a directive from the corner office is pretty easy to cast in us vs. them terms.

Given this, it’s often better for changes in protocols and policies to be communicated in person, by supervisory personnel. Tools like Beekeeper or email blasts can be handy for in-stream updates, but we think it’s a good idea to establish, to the extent possible, weekly departmental or unit meetings in which the expected operating protocols for the week (or weekend) are laid out for front line employees.

Two-way street. By the way, this information flow really needs to be a two-way street. Front line operational staff are often the first to recognize an issue—road and parking backups, base operations and on- hill issues, etc. Make sure your staff knows that they’re expected—encouraged, actually—to reach out to their supervisor immediately upon identifying an issue, and that supervisors can quickly work things through the chain to solve the problem.

All of this requires planning by senior management. Protocols must be set and reviewed for practicality by department heads, and then someone—either communications, HR, or both—needs to package that material for distribution to relevant employees throughout the hierarchy. Don’t try to tackle this on Sunday evening for a Monday morning staff meeting.

And let’s be realistic here: these departmental staff meetings are going to be paid time. It would be smart to budget for that, because having a clear flow of communication up and down the chain is vital, especially this year.

Be Mindful

It’s likely that, no matter how much planning goes into your opening protocols, some things simply won’t work as expected. Be ready to address these instances quickly. Actively look for procedures that aren’t working. Encourage staff to report issues to their supervisors immediately. You simply must root out the glitches, devise a new plan, and communicate it to staff (and guests) as fast as is practical.

Guests can forgive a small failure if it’s addressed promptly. If it seems as though you don’t care enough to fix the problem, then the real trouble begins. And your employees will be the first to hear about it.

Besides: With luck, COVID-19 will be in the rearview mirror by the time the 2021-22 season arrives. You may very well be back to delightfully overstuffed base lodges by then. But the messaging and response systems you set up now can streamline staff communications and lead to higher guest satisfaction—and pay dividends for many years going forward.