Vermont’s ski industry lost an estimated $100 million last winter due to COVID-19. That means this year is critical.
With travel restrictions loosened, many in the ski industry hoped this season would be easier.
But a housing crunch and worker shortage — problems that have been simmering for years — have gotten even worse since the pandemic.
So ski resorts, and businesses that rely on them, are having to get creative about doing more with fewer people.
Mike Solimano, president of Killington and Pico ski resorts, says last year, he was worried about just being able to open.
This year, his biggest headache is staffing.
“It is the issue. It's pretty much all we talk about,” he said. “It’s depressing. You go to job fairs in town, and two or three people show up.”
The unemployment rate in Vermont is just 3%, well below the national rate of 5.2%. And since the pandemic, Vermont’s workforce has shrunk by nearly 30,000.
For Solimano, the shortage of workers has forced the resort to prioritize. This summer, for instance, weddings got staffed, and the resort offered mountain biking. But their popular ropes course, zip line and roller coaster were only open on weekends.
“And first time ever, we actually stopped booking rooms in our hotel for a period of time, because we didn't have enough housekeepers,” Solimano said.
He says they’ve invested millions in technology to automate what they can, like new ticket kiosks and an app to help direct guests around the resort.
But come winter, ski areas like Killington, still need hundreds more people, everyone from lift operators and snow makers, to trail groomers, parking attendants and folks to serve up French fries and hot soup.
Solimano says Killington goes from 500 employees during the summer to roughly 2,000 mid-winter.
This year he expects to be short by 20-30%.
It’s not just in Vermont.
“It's a bit of a reckoning in the resort industry,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association in Colorado.
She says resorts nationwide are offering seasonal workers everything from signing bonuses and meal perks to discounted child care and more flexible schedules.
She says some resorts are implementing vaccine and mask mandates, even if the local governments aren’t, to lure employees who might otherwise be worried about working in high-traffic public jobs.
According to Saia Isaac, “Vail resorts, the largest ski area operator in North America, has bumped up the starting wage to $15 in many of their mountain communities where the cost of living is higher.”
Okemo, Stowe and Mount Snow in Vermont are among them. According to Vail spokesman Adam White, Mount Snow’s starting wage will jump 28% this year, and he says salaries are the largest pre-season investment Vail is making.
Sugarbush and Killington are also bumping their starting wages to $15.
Steven Wright, president of Jay Peak, says they’re investing $2 million in salary increases this year, and seasonal employees are now eligible for paid time off and 401K benefits.
Historically, many resorts have relied on foreign workers to help fill out staffing.
Before the pandemic, Vermont ski resorts employed about 700 people who worked in the U.S. with J-1 or H-2B visas.
About 8,000 were employed in the ski industry nationwide according to Saia Isaac, who says many resorts would like to hire even more foreign workers this year. But she says it’s unclear if they’ll be able to because of the pandemic.
If resorts are allowed to bring in more foreign workers, she says that raises the question of where to house them. The pandemic has made an already-tight housing market in many resort towns even tighter.
Steven Wright of Jay Peak says the housing crunch pushed them to double the number of housing beds they offer to any of their employees.
Sheri Baraw Smith is one of the owners and general manager at Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa in Stowe. She’s also president of the Vermont Lodging Association, a newly-formed group that relies heavily on the ski industry.
She says the extra workload of contact tracing, new protocols and constantly having to remind guests to wear masks this past year took a toll.
“I specifically lost two department heads to what I'm going to call COVID burnout,” Smith said.
According to the Vermont Department of Labor, 28,000 Vermonters who left the workforce during the pandemic have chosen not to return.
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says burnout is one of many reasons.
“There’s the fear of contracting COVID; there is child care,” Bishop said. "The other piece we’re hearing a lot about is that this is that moment in time people have decided to make that lifestyle change.”
In fact, she says it’s estimated 10,000 Vermonters chose this year to retire.
The labor-intensive ski industry, like every other sector of the economy, is having to adapt. Restaurants in resort areas are cutting back on the number of meals they serve or removing tables. Ski lodges plan to offer more grab-and-go foods. Many hotels are taking rooms offline, and cross-training will be key.
“We're definitely seeing a new trend of ski areas hiring sort of resort staff, meaning they staff multiple departments, and they kind of follow the guests around during the day,” says Molly Mahar, President of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.
For instance, someone might direct parking in the morning, then shift to child care or a retail shop later in the day.
According to Mahar, year-round, salaried employees are having to be more flexible as well.
“Say you work in accounting or in the marketing department, you might be trained to fit ski boots at the rental shop, and then you might go to the cafeteria and scoop soup or make sandwiches or run a cash register," Mahar said.
But ensuring current employees stay, is just as important for resorts if not more so, than attracting new workers. That makes offering higher starting salaries and signing bonuses tricky, because resorts risk alienating staff who’ve showed up for years without those perks.
Chris Carter teaches mountain biking at Killington. While he and other bike staff appreciate the higher pay, they say professional development is another powerful incentive to stay at a job.
For instance, Carter said Killington paid for his instructor certification training, and now he's helping train new staff.
“Yeah, it definitely helps bring back people season to season,” Carter said. “And somebody who gets their certification here, through the hill, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is my home, this is now the place where I’m going to spend my time.’ So it made the difference for me this season as well.”
That's important, because while it's critical resorts attract new employees, they can't afford to lose the ones they already have.