September 2023

The Age of the Employee

Resorts look to housing, increased wages, and even wellness benefits to bridge lingering post-Covid staffing gaps.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment
The Meadow Haus at Idaho’s Brundage  Mountain Resort houses 18 employees. The Meadow Haus at Idaho’s Brundage Mountain Resort houses 18 employees.

After three tough years of Covid, the winter ski season staffing outlook continues to improve across North America, according to U.S. and Canadian resort operators.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reports that resort staffing recovered somewhat last winter, with 60 percent of ski areas reporting being understaffed in 2022-23, compared to 81 percent the year before.

“With the return of international workers, ski areas are feeling a little easier,” said Christopher Nicolson, CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. “We’re still in a challenging situation, still pressured, but it’s easier than it has been. We have more access to more people. You can measure it by resumes. Two years ago, we weren’t seeing any resumes. Now, we’re seeing resumes.”

“We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” agreed Helen Davies, director of employee experience and HR at Sun Peaks Resort, B.C. “It’s great to see the international market coming back when you’re a resort that relies on labor that’s not local.” 

And if early indicators are correct, what’s left of the gaps should continue to fill this coming winter. 

Getting Better, But Not There Yet 

Resorts report getting close to, at times even exceeding, pre-Covid staffing numbers—but are not quite fully staffed, especially in certain departments.

“I would never say [staffing] is easy,” said Jennifer King, VP of HR at Crystal Mountain, Mich. “But we actually did fairly well during Covid, and last season had our highest employee count ever.”

Crystal’s year-round operation helps. The resort has 150 more employees in the winter season, but “a lot of summer carryover,” King said. 

The resort’s location—30 miles from the cities of Cadillac and Traverse City—also helps attract recruits. “We also do a lot of work with different intern programs and J-1 visa programs,” King added.

At Cataloochee, N.C., which needs about 275 seasonal employees, president Chris Bates said the resort came within five to 10 workers of that goal last winter.

Sugarloaf, Maine, was short about 100 employees last winter compared to pre-Covid, said Leah Stevens, director, HR. “Some of that was intentional,” Stevens said. “We had about 900, pre-Covid. Our goal was to be in the high 700s to 800 and keep an eye on it. It was appropriate. There were not so many strains on departments as when we were running several hundred people down.”

Still struggling in areas. Despite improvement, Davies said Sun Peaks was “still struggling in key areas.” F&B, particularly, has not come back. “Chef roles are very difficult to fill, housekeeping as well. We’re looking further afield to locate qualified applicants. We’re spending more money on foreign labor to round out our work force. We’re also looking at two-year work applicants.”

As of mid-summer, Yves Juneau, president of the Quebec Ski Areas Association, said the province had 60 open positions for lift maintenance technicians and operators (who must be certified in Quebec) and was looking to do more to fill these roles. “We’re taking steps to make sure we have more recruits,” he said. “Training is one of the big items we have targeted. We are discussing with different schools that have general mechanic courses available to have some of those dedicated to lift maintenance.”

A recent survey of Quebec ski resorts revealed that 40 percent of certified lift mechanics plan to retire in five years. “It’s something we need to be aware of and take steps now to address,” said Juneau.

Seasonal staff play a role. Seasonal staffing, he noted, has become less of an issue as resorts continue to diversify and operate year-round—but still necessary. “We will always require seasonal staff,” he said. “We haven’t found a way for ski instructors to become year-round staff, so I think we need to make sure that students and people looking for jobs have a better idea of all the positions available in our industry.”

On a positive note, with many Quebec resorts located in major markets, employee housing is less of an issue.

At many other resorts, though, housing remains key. Jamie Lee Grimston, employee services generalist at Brundage Mountain, Idaho, which hires about 275 to 325 seasonal winter employees, said hiring was much easier last winter than years prior. “After the insane struggle during Covid, a lot of folks were ready to come back to work,” said Grimston. “And with the addition of employee housing, it was a lot easier to find people to come and stay the entire season. It did away with midseason turnover.” 

The Biggest Obstacle

More broadly, employee housing for both seasonal workers and mid-level staff remains the number one recruiting challenge across the continent.

“Housing is not great here,” admitted Stevens at Sugarloaf. “We invested in staff housing last summer and were able to put about 46 employees in that property. We also leased out a small motel north of us and put 15 people there. Housing is definitely the biggest obstacle.”

“Employee housing is the most sought-after benefit,” said Grimston at Brundage, which can currently accommodate 55 employees. “Housing is everything in our area. Values skyrocketed during Covid. It’s impossible to find a seasonal rental that somebody making a living, working wage can afford. You either must have two houses or two jobs.” 

Like most resorts, Brundage works with its own housing stock, local landlords, and other seasonal businesses to help match housing opportunities with employees. 

Likewise at Sun Peaks, which Davies said has just over 350 workforce pillows. But, with the resort and hotel hiring 700, “we have only enough pillows for half our seasonal force.” 

Looking to build. “We are looking to build more staff housing, with 60 or 62 more pillows, but it won’t come online until after the season, so we’ll have to muddle through,” said Davies, who added that the housing shortage does not stop with seasonal workers, but also impacts permanent hiring and recruitment. 

“We need more beds and options, not just for our seasonal work force, but for some of our permanent staff, particularly in the short term as they transition to Sun Peaks and need time to get established and find something privately.” 

Wages Going Up

Ski resorts are also increasing wages in an effort to attract more seasonal help. NSAA reports that the average ski area wage increased 18 percent from the 2021-22 season, outpacing the national average wage increase of 4.6 percent. 

“Wages are an important piece,” Davies said. Sun Peaks “conducted a significant compensation benchmarking exercise to ensure we are competitive across roles and not just within our industry where we need to bring in skills that are transferable.” 

Staying competitive. She said the resort has “decoupled” its minimum wage from the province’s (CAN$16.75). And, like many resorts, Sun Peaks will offer a seasonal retention bonus to encourage staff to stay all winter.

At Sugarloaf, Stevens said parent company Boyne Resorts has been looking at compensation at all its resorts over the last three years. “It’s helpful for us to work with our Boyne sisters to see where wages are, how different departments line up, and how we fit in. We’ve done a lot of work on that, and it’s helped us retain many people, and kept seasonal staff coming back feeling more valued,” she added.

Prioritizing wellness. At Crystal, King said wages are only part of the overall compensation package. “We believe in employee wellness. All our employees can freely partake in all the activities we offer—skiing, golf, fitness, pool, hiking, biking. It’s part of our benefits package.”

She said Crystal’s overall compensation package has helped it overcome one of the biggest shortfalls in the industry—housekeeping, where the resort has “been very successful.” 

Balancing Act

Looking ahead, resort managers continue to seek the right mix of technology, operational efficiencies, and labor. “Resorts are purposely operating in different ways—changing hours or menu items, for example, to make it easier to operate with fewer staff,” Nicholson noted.

Technology vs. guest experience? Other resorts are trying to figure out how many bodies they need to bring back after all the technological efficiencies they introduced during Covid, such as online ticketing systems and the like.

“Pre-Covid, everybody came into the lodge to purchase tickets,” Stevens said. “During Covid, we introduced ticket hubs outside. But now, how many bodies do we need inside to answer questions? We need to balance those efficiencies with that human element. We’re having those conversations now.”

King agreed. “Efficiencies are great, but we want to make sure guests are getting the experience they expect and are paying for. That’s our focus right now—bringing that level of service back. It takes a good mix of technology and humans.”

“It’s not about reducing our workforce,” said Davies, “but having a flexible workforce and meeting people where they’re at.”

She said Sun Peaks was actively increasing its part-time staff. “We can tap into local residents, high school students, and retirees to do a couple of shifts a week. We also have casual labor pools to use during the busiest times. These people don’t want regular commitments and don’t need accommodation but are willing to help.”

Sun Peaks, she said, has also created a “shared service model” for the resort and hotel across several departments where “we can have a more flexible workforce and cross-train and move people to where the business needs them most.”

Employee concierge. Bromont in Quebec has created a concierge desk dedicated to employees to take some of the pressure off supervisors. “Issues like a missing name badge or an error on a check—now there’s a concierge to handle small issues,” Juneau said.

And bigger issues, too. When the resort was having trouble recruiting lift operators, the concierge desk discovered a big reason why: lifties had no opportunity to get a warm meal during their shift. It was cold out there, and they wanted a hot meal. “Now they arrange the schedule so the operators can come in and get a warm meal,” Juneau said.

Problem solved. Staff happy.