Health

For skiers, a winter of discontent

But this
time, the usually morale-boosting “we’re all in this together” gesture was a
necessity, as the company’s mountains, like those throughout ski country, faced
hiring shortfalls and a surge of omicron-driven COVID cases. Having executives
chip in “was not only a goodwill gesture, but it definitely helped with
staffing levels,” said Jim Laing, chief human resources officer at Aspen Skiing
Co. The company’s hiring has been down about 7 p[ercent this winter, and at one
point it had 275 employees out sick on one day. “We didn’t shut down a
restaurant, a shop or a lift,” he said.

Across the
United States, ski areas both big and small have been scrambling to keep lifts
spinning, terrain open and crowds of pandemic-weary skiers happy and fed.
“Every resort in the country is experiencing some level of staffing shortages,”
said Doug Fish, president and founder of the Indy Pass, which gives access to
81 independently owned ski areas.

At
Killington, in Vermont, where winter staff is down 20 percent to 30 percent,
according to resort spokesperson Kristel Killary, only one of three base-area
rental locations is open and some on-mountain restaurants offer limited service
on weekdays. Nearby, Magic Mountain, lacking enough ski patrollers to operate
safely, didn’t open at all one day in early January. Likewise, New Hampshire’s
Black Mountain was shuttered for five days because of a COVID outbreak among
staff. Other New Hampshire resorts, including Attitash, Wildcat and Crotched
Mountain, struggled to open much of their terrain.

At Crested
Butte Mountain Resort, in Colorado, the T-bar that offers access to many of the
resort’s signature steeps hasn’t operated yet this season, requiring guests to
hike — skis or snowboard in hand — anywhere from 15 minutes to a half-hour or
more to reach those slopes. (“Lift ops are hiring!” reminds a sign at the start
of the hike.) Staffing shortages forced Utah’s Alta to cancel its traditional
New Year’s Eve torchlight parade and fireworks display. And Timberline at Mount
Hood in Oregon didn’t open its Summit Pass area for two days in mid-January.

The weather
affected ski operations, too, as later-than-usual snowfall in the Rocky
Mountains challenged resort preparation, while warm temperatures and
below-average snowfall at Eastern resorts taxed snow-making resources. The
Pacific Northwest experienced heavy snowfall and frigid temps that wreaked
havoc on roads and utilities; a record-breaking 200-plus inches of snow fell in
Lake Tahoe during December.

As guests
have encountered these disruptions, some have taken to social media to air
frustrations, and many have directed their comments toward Vail Resorts, which
operates 37 ski areas and offers the multiresort Epic Pass. Epic Pass holders
accuse Vail of using a flawed business model that exacerbates this year’s
challenges. The Instagram account Epic Lift Lines (started in spring 2021) has
nearly 36,000 followers, and an online petition to “hold Vail Resorts
accountable,” launched in late December by Jeremy Rubingh, a Seattle skier
frustrated with logistics at Vail-owned Stevens Pass, has been signed by almost
44,000 people. Complaints run the gamut from no parking spots and lengthy lift
lines to a lack of open terrain and limited operating hours and services at
Vail Resorts’ ski areas across the country.

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Rubingh, 41,
a documentary filmmaker and commercial fisherman, typed the petition on his
phone after driving one hour and 45 minutes from his home to Stevens Pass to
find plenty of snow but more than half of the mountain closed. “I think we
should all have a little grace around the pandemic and the impact it has, but
when I looked around at what every other ski area in the state was doing, they had
the majority of their lifts and 90 percent or more of their terrain open,” said
Rubingh, an Epic Pass holder. “I felt disenfranchised as a customer.”

Vail Resorts
spokesperson Jamie Alvarez said in an email that “the impacts of omicron on our
workforce was significant over the holidays. At some resorts, we had more than
10% of our employees excluded at once.” Alvarez said that meant resorts could
not open some terrain and restaurants, and everything from parking to
transportation and ski and ride school was affected. She said the numbers have
since subsided, and the company is still trying to hire. Alvarez also cited a
recent announcement that Vail Resorts will add or upgrade 21 lifts across its
ski areas for next season, part of a $320 million capital investment.

Rubingh and
other commenters point to a recent surge in Epic Pass sales as one of the
primary culprits behind the disruptions. According to a December shareholder
report, Vail Resorts sold 47 percent more passes this winter than the previous
season, in part because it lowered the price by 20 percent; that equates to
700,000 more passes.

But
according to the company’s data, not all those passholders have been skiing: In
a mid-January report to investors, Vail Resorts said total skier visits, as of
Jan. 2, were down 1.7 percent from the comparable time period the previous season,
and down 18.3 percent from the same period in 2019-20. The company also limited
day ticket sales between Christmas and New Year’s and over the Martin Luther
King Jr. holiday weekend and will do so again from mid- to late February.

Many ski
areas have seen robust business, though. According to Destimetrics, which
tracks lodging at mountain resorts, December occupancy at 18 Western ski
destinations was up 37 percent over December 2020 (and almost 12 percent over
the same period in 2019). Small ski areas are busy, too, like Mount Ashland, in
Oregon, which is on track to break its visitation record this season, said
Michael Stringer, director of marketing and development for the nonprofit
resort near the California border.

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Soaring Real
Estate Prices, Lack of Housing

Labour
issues in the ski industry go beyond temporary COVID absences. Vail Resorts has
been involved in negotiations with the ski patrollers at its Park City resort,
in Utah, for a year and a half, and just reached an agreement to raise their
wages. The National Ski Areas Association, a trade group, reported in June 2021
that 605 of resorts surveyed were not fully staffed the previous winter. But
the pandemic exacerbated existing issues. The well-documented spike in mountain
real estate prices, accompanied by the conversion of many long-term rentals
into more lucrative short-term ones, have put housing out of reach for scores
of workers who earn notoriously low wages. The No. 1 reason for staffing
shortages at its resorts, said Laing, is the lack of available housing.
“Everything dried up,” he said. “Overnight, we went from challenge to crisis
mode.”

Moreover, in
a tight labour market, the traditional perks of a free season pass and time to
ski that have offset lower wages no longer hold the same appeal. Even the
return of international students with J-1 nonimmigrant visas, a labor pool that
larger resorts typically relied on pre-pandemic, is not enough to fill the gap.
And reflecting a similar trend in the larger hospitality industry, resorts have
found food and beverage jobs the most challenging positions to fill.

To address
some of these issues, at least a dozen individual resorts — plus multi-area
operators such as Boyne Resorts, which owns and operates 10 ski areas, and Vail
Resorts — increased their minimum wages in the past year, with many offering
$15 per hour, and sometimes more. Vail also announced in early January that all
hourly employees will receive a $2-an-hour, end-of-season bonus for hours
worked since Jan 1.

Ski areas
aim to offer more employee housing options, too, although demand far outstrips
supply. “Many communities got caught flat-footed, but we’ve been investing in
dorms and housing for decades,” said Stephen Kircher, president and CEO of
Boyne Resorts, whose mountains include Big Sky, in Montana; Sunday River, in
Maine; and Boyne Mountain, in Michigan. Most recently, Boyne converted a hotel
at Sunday River into a dorm. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in Wyoming, added
some 120 beds to its housing pool this winter for a total of just under 300.
(The resort employs about 1,700 workers, said Ty Hoath, the chief
administrative officer.)

Aspen Skiing
Co offers more than 1,000 employee beds, but that is not enough. This fall, the
company took an unusual approach with its Tenants for Turns programme, asking
local homeowners to rent a room for at least four months to ski area employees
and offering them a season’s ski pass as a bonus. The program received mixed
reviews on social media, but Laing said the overall response was “great,” with
30 residents signing up to offer housing.

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What to
Expect

Resort
operators believe the problems will ease as the season progresses. “It is
getting better — that’s the good news,” said Geoff Hatheway, Magic Mountain’s
president, who helped park cars and flip burgers at the ski area over the
holidays to help offset a 10 percent staffing shortage. “We’re continuing to
recruit, and we’re finding more staff.”

Vail-owned Crested
Butte has hired more lift attendants and aims to open its closed T-bar by the
end of January, said the general manager, Tara Schoedinger. (She doesn’t know
if the sign at the beginning of the hike brought in any applicants.) “I feel
like it will be a really normal experience if someone comes today or this
weekend,” said Schoedinger, noting that because of abundant snowfall in late
December, more terrain is actually open than usual at this time of the season.

As for
Stevens Pass, there is a new interim general manager who grew up skiing the
resort and posts daily to a blog with operating updates. The ski area aims to
have its coveted backside runs open within a couple of weeks, Doug Pierini,
chief operating officer and senior vice president of Vail Resort’s Western
region, said in mid-January. “Staffing is our biggest hurdle, but we changed
quite a bit up there in just the past couple of weeks,” he added.

Measures
catalysed by the pandemic that bypass the need for in-person interactions —
online ticket and rental purchases, on-mountain ticket pickup boxes, more
grab-and-go food — also help. And at some mountains, required reservations for
parking and for holders of the other two big multiresort passes, Ikon and
Mountain Collective, as well as limits on daily ticket sales, help manage skier
numbers. The latter two steps have allowed Jackson Hole to get by with fewer
staffers with almost no disruptions, said Hoath.

In addition
to maintaining employee numbers, ski areas must contend with burnout and the potential
for sagging morale, especially this season. That’s why in mid-January, the Indy
Pass launched a Love Your Lifty campaign, which encourages guests to show
appreciation for any resort worker by posting a photo or story to social media.
Weekly drawings award Indy Passes for next winter to posters and the employees
they highlight. “We did it to create awareness,” said Fish. “The average
consumer just shows up and thinks, ‘What’s going on? Why isn’t that run
groomed? Why isn’t that lift running?’ They’re not used to that.”

“Anything
people can do to show some appreciation of how hard people are working would be
so appreciated,” said Laing. “It would absolutely make their day.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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