Staffing up for winter—always a challenge for ski resorts—has run headlong into pandemic aftershocks, which have created a labor shortage that not even a free season pass can fix.
In what economists have dubbed the “Great Resignation,” employees all across the country are quitting their jobs in record numbers. At the same time, businesses trying to reopen and expand untethered by Covid restrictions can’t find enough workers. In the middle of this unprecedented labor upheaval, ski resorts face the daunting proposition of trying to hire tens of thousands of seasonal workers. So far, it’s not going well.
“Hiring for the winter season can always be a struggle. This year, it’s even more worrying,” said Alison Crick, director of HR at SilverStar Mountain Resort, B.C., which normally starts recruiting staff for winter in June, but this year started in April.
When Taos Ski Valley, N.M., invited 14 other local businesses to join them for a job fair in June, five prospective candidates showed up. “It was terrible. The worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said HR manager Lori Rangel.
“Yes, finding help has been a challenge and continues to be,” agreed John McColly, VP of sales and marketing, Mountain High Resort, Calif. “The people who do apply don’t seem to have much foundation in the ski industry, and they all want to work from home.”
THE DISAPPEARING SKI BUM
The ski bum—that diehard who would do almost anything if it meant getting to ski most days—has become hard to find.
“The ski bum served the ski industry well for a long time,” noted Paul Thallner, CEO of High Peaks Group, a leadership and organizational development company. “Nothing wrong with that. But it presented limits to selling the industry as a great place to build a career. Career-minded folks have a different mindset than people who just want to ski.”
And although the season pass remains one of the top perks in attracting seasonal workers, it has also given rise to some misconceptions among potential employees, said Tammy Jaqua, HR manager at Mountain High. “They think they have to ski to work here,” she explained.
To combat that misconception, Jaqua said Mountain High is creating a fun recruitment video to show potential employees that more than just skiing happens at the resort.
Casting a wider net. Other practical steps ski resorts are taking include year-round recruiting, increasing wages and benefits, expanding employee housing, creating more flexible work hours, cross training, and recruiting a wider spectrum of potential workers.
“Many resorts are looking at how they can do operations differently and structure job positions with more flexibility, shortening hours, more part-time people, targeting retirees, for example,” said Canada West Ski Areas Association CEO Christopher Nicolson. “They’re trying to be more creative, recruit new sources of people.”
Crick said SilverStar recruits people ages 14 to 82. “We had a grandfather, father, and grandson working here together. We’ve learned the last couple of years we have to be very flexible in hours and shifts, more part-time positions.”
Taos is creating more internship programs and raising rewards for its employee referral program.
Instead of job fairs, Mountain High is hosting “meet and greets” that tour different operations—lift ops, rentals, F&B, etc. “No interviews at this time,” said Jaqua. “People can attend as many tours as they are interested in, ask questions, and get a feel for our resort.”
Housing the needed. Resorts have also learned they need to provide more employee housing, a tough challenge in many mountain communities. SilverStar, which can house 280 employees at the resort, last season rented three motels in nearby Vernon (25 minutes away) and ran shuttle buses to get workers back and forth to the resort. “We’re going to do it again this year, it worked so well,” Crick said.
(For more on employee housing, read“Skiing’s Prickliest Problem: Housing,” on p. 48 of the September print edition of SAM.)
PANDEMIC RESETS VALUES
Although the pandemic created operational challenges for employers, it also brought opportunities.
Sun Peaks, B.C., which relies on foreign workers to fill about half of its 450 seasonal positions, had to switch gears last season when international work visas dried up. Cashing in on the remote work phenomenon, Sun Peaks ran a “work from anywhere” campaign to recruit college students and office workers to work at the resort.
What people want. “Wouldn’t you rather be here in the mountains looking at the wonderful view and studying and working online than be in an office or your parents’ basement?” asked Helen Davies, Sun Peaks director of employee experience, HR. “The rules of the game have changed where people work, how they work. Enabled by tech, they can deliver commitments from all sorts of places.
“There’s been a shift in values and what people want life to be,” Davies continued. “They want more fresh air, space, leisure activities on their doorstep. They are opting out of the traditional workplace to pursue their passion.”
Sun Peaks is leaning into that sentiment with email footers showing a snowboarder doing a flip with the tagline, “No cooler place to work” and the Sun Peaks logo, or a person riding down a mountain bike trail with the tagline, “Trade Zoom time, for zoooom time” and the Sun Peaks logo.
The employee value proposition. Thallner said the ski industry is well positioned to take advantage of this employment reckoning.
“I think the answer is creating a very attractive employee value proposition,” he said. “Any outdoor company has a distinct advantage because they can offer employees what they’re looking for: freedom and flexibility, a less structured environment where they can see the results of their work right away, a more laid back, less intense atmosphere, people looking out for each other. I think the ski industry can really lean into that in a way other industries can’t.”
Recognizing that the great urban exodus has brought many newcomers to the area, SilverStar is offering more flexible hours and promoting working at the resort as “a great way to meet new people.”
THE VALUE OF CULTURE
At Arapahoe Basin, Colo., “quality of life and culture” are major themes in its employee recruitment.
“It’s been a good differentiator for us for a long time,” said VP of operations Peggy Hiller. “People want a fun time, which is not hard for ski resorts, but they [also] want to feel respected and valued. Not just a cog in a wheel, but given the opportunity to make their own decisions. They don’t want to feel micromanaged. It’s not just something you can put on paper. It’s truly culture.”
She said culture starts at the top with the CEO and open communication. “Operations can’t be territorial. You have to have a common goal. Everyone pitches in. Even top managers might be out parking cars, or shoveling snow if needed. When people work shoulder to shoulder as a team, it helps everyone realize they are just as important as anyone else.”
Jay Peak, Vt., GM Steve Wright agreed that culture matters: “Culture is something we’ve worked very hard on. You can’t do what you need to do if employees are not on board, engaged, motivated,” he said. » continued
Investing in culture. Wright said a resort’s culture starts with pay and benefits—“you have to be competitive”—and ends with teambuilding. Jay sponsors many events for employees to come together outside of work, including employee acknowledgements and legacy dinners, even the first and last days of skiing are reserved for employees only.
In a normal winter, Jay’s staff balloons to 1,300. That’s a huge number in the sparsely populated Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and it requires constant attention.
“That’s where your investments really pay off,” Wright said. “You can’t sell yourself as a forward-looking company only when you suddenly need to ramp up. It doesn’t work. It’s an investment all year round.”
Taos has invested heavily in marketing its status as the first ski resort in the world to be recognized as a Certified B Corporation for its environmental and social practices. It also promotes its status as the state’s top family-friendly employer. Rangel is confident those investments and the resort’s local community focus will pay off, although “it takes time,” she admitted.
SELLING THE VALUE PROPOSITION
Thallner said good salary and benefits help to attract workers, but these are not what keeps employees.
“You should talk about money, and housing, and benefits—make them as competitive as possible to attract the best possible candidates. You have to be competitive to get people to look at you. These are good things, but they are baseline things,” he advised.
Beyond money and benefits, Thallner suggested employers examine their value proposition. “What are the intrinsic benefits of working at a ski resort? What matters most for employees is a great workplace culture, where they feel seen and heard,” he said. “They want to work for a really great boss, work with dedicated people, at a place where they can develop real skills, grow, and learn. Ski resorts should talk up all these benefits as much as possible.”
Diversity is also important. “Employers should make strong, significant efforts to bring in diverse people—racially, ethnically, by sexual orientation. Prospective employees want a welcome space without feeling isolated or worrying about any kind of reprisal,” said Thallner.
Use all available channels. Finally, be very deliberate and intentional in how the resort portrays itself, he counseled. “The most obvious way to do this is through all your public channels,” said Thallner. “But looking for alternative channels to present that message and what it’s like to work at the ski resort increases the chances of bringing in more blood, new blood.
“You’re not just looking for warm bodies to fill positions, but bringing in new perspectives.”