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What Vail Needs to Fix If It Wants To Retain Skiers—And Their Respect

Halfway through our third pandemic ski season, the problems are glaring. What we need are solutions. Here’s a start.

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Earlier this winter I visited Crested Butte during that stretch of scratchy high pressure that dragged on for weeks. I’d come to my favorite ski town to try to tick through some laps, but the terrain off the T-bar wasn’t even open. “Lift Ops is hiring” a whiteboard by the bull wheel read. 

I was disappointed. But I was there, I was skiing, so I tried not to get deterred by the closed terrain or the crappy snow. I called a friend who lives in town to see if she could come ski. “I can meet you after I drop off my kids,” she said. “We don’t have any school bus drivers this year, because no one can afford to live here on a bus driver’s salary anymore.”

In Crested Butte, a place I hold in my mind as perfect, basic functions of ski town living are on life support, visitors aren’t getting the resort experiences they paid for, and employees are barely scraping by.

And it’s not just there. You’ve seen the photos and read the rants on Epic Lift Lines all season long, and it’s happening at both destination resorts and small ski areas from the East Coast to the Sierras. From Stevens Pass to Vail to N.H.’s Attitash to Pa.’s Seven Springs to Wilmont in Wisconsin, staff shortages have led to limited lifts, closed terrain, a lack of dining options, long lift lines, parking woes, and general skier dissatisfaction.

What we haven’t heard enough about is what’s being done to remedy the problems, both this season and in the future, as the issues that are at the heart of the matter—labor shortages, monopolization, record number of passes sold, workers rights,  climate change, and the ongoing global pandemic—seem to be here to stay. 

Most of the complaints have centered around the Vail-operated ski areas, and the company knows it’s getting hammered. Their stock has literally dropped. It’s been on a steady downswing since November 5th. So if anyone can stand to benefit from addressing the cascading issues they’re creating and compounding, it’s Vail. 

“We did not get off to the right start this season, and our responsibility as a leader in the ski industry is to create a great guest experience,” said Vail CEO Kirsten Lynch, who stepped into the role in November. “We have to invest to make that happen, and one of my biggest focus areas is employees.”

That’s one thing. But what more can they do—what must they do—to hold onto the sustainability of skiing, on every level? And how can that trickle down and out to smaller ski areas, and the communities that surround them?

Take Care of Your Workers

Lynch said that her number one priority is investing in employees, starting with a $20 million dollar investment that included $2/hour seasonal bonus. That’s crucial to bringing workers in, retaining employees, and operating the areas. But it needs to go beyond a one-season investment. Wages have to be commensurate with local living costs, to keep employees in town. On February 10th, Aspen announced $3/hour pay raises for all hourly and seasonal employees. Lynch said they’re in the process of assessing their overall compensation and benefits, so if you’re a shareholder, or a skier, keep your eyes and your voting power on that conversation.

Breckenridge shuttle driver
BRECKENRIDGE, Resorts are struggling to hire shuttle drivers, and many other frontline employees whose roles are crucial to a ski resort’s success, because they don’t pay them enough to find reasonable housing.

Raising wages is just the first step. Resort management also has to hire enough staff to manage their operations. They should set programs in place to make sure workers are fully compensated for their work, and that they have room to move up and grow in their jobs, especially jobs where longstanding knowledge is crucial.

That’s currently hitting a breaking point.

In January, Breckenridge ski instructors delivered a petition asking for a safe workplace, and “fair compensation for the number of hours actually worked by employees,” including things like days when they were expected to show up for work, but then weren’t needed. It’s the most recent step in a discussion about how Vail Resorts violates labor laws, and which includes a 2020 class-action lawsuit that the resort company is currently trying to settle.

Ski patrol groups across the country have been coming together to organize and unionize to try to guarantee pay and benefits, the lack of which they say is bleeding out their industry. The most contentious battle was at Vail-owned Park City, where an agreement finally came together in mid-January, after patrollers voted to strike. In both those cases, companies have to be willing to listen to employees, especially low-paid seasonal ones, who historically haven’t had much bargaining power if they want to retain workers. They’ve struggled to hire, and if they want to attract good people, they need to offer a good working environment, and that needs to be consistent across the whole company.

Help Customers Have Realistic Expectations, Then Deliver On Them

Much of the vitriol from skiers has been directed toward operational hang-ups: long lines, closed lifts, and crowded parking. It came to a head in January at Washington’s Stevens Pass. After a frustrating day, where he waited in excessive lines, while watching unmanned lifts sit dormant, skier Jeremy Rubingh penned a petition asking for accountability from Vail, and saying that the resort wasn’t delivering on the promise it had made when it sold season passes. “Frankly I was pissed as a customer, and then I was even more upset when I started talking to lifties and other people,” Rubingh said. “They were not given the tools to succeed. It felt like watching the death of a community.”

The petition now has more than 40,000 signatures, and has caught the attention of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is collecting complaints to see if there is a viable consumer protection case against Vail. 

Rubingh, who grew up in a Colorado ski town, said he fully understands the logistics of holiday crowds, and the difficulty of staffing during a pandemic, and of working to safely open terrain,  but he’s most frustrated about the lack of transparency. “I can wrap my head around more people wanting to be outdoors so there’s more pressure, and I can wrap my head around there being little lines here and there, but to not have that terrain open when every other resort in the state had theirs open is such a cognitive dissonance,” he said.

He said he’s hearing skiers say they just want honesty, and communication about what’s going on, and about what their experience might be like. He cites Magic Mountain as a place that communicated well when they didn’t have the capacity to operate their lifts. Skiers want value for what they paid for, and they were frustrated when Vail offered them discounted passes for next season before they addressed this season’s issues.

They might need to change supply and demand—Vail said they’re working on next year’s pricing structure—but it can start with talking about what they’re working on. At Stevens, they’ve brought in a new manager, Tom Fortune, who has been actively blogging to keep skiers updated. Rubingh said it doesn’t solve everything, but it gives benchmarks. “It’s really amazing to see how collectively by raising our voices we’ve gotten their attention. They’ve committed to $2/hour bonuses and Tom Fortune says he’s secured more affordable housing and staff,” he said.

Open the Pipeline, But Manage What You’ve Got First

The most vocal frustration has come from the heavily-visited mega resorts, but there have also been widespread issues at small ski areas too, which Vail has been steadily acquiring. “We’re purchasing these places to create growth and bring in new, super passionate people,” Lynch said. Those feeder resorts, Lynch said—like Wilmot, where she grew up skiing—are crucial to getting people to love the sport, and are an important part of how they’re trying to bring new people into a pastime that can be highly exclusive. 

But Vail has faced blowback that they’re not operating the new resorts in ways that make them accessible. A skier at Boston Mills in Ohio said the resort is so short-staffed that they’re making ski instructors operate lifts, and they’ve reduced hours, which cuts off locals who might previously only have skied at night, and alienates pass holders who aren’t getting what they paid for. It’s been a step down. “Skiers are a hardy, loyal bunch, but Vail may turn us off the sport for good,” she said in an email to SKI. 

Speaking of pass holders, one of the major cruxes of the future of skiing is the mega pass, which Vail pioneered, and which appears to be at the heart of a lot of the current divides. It’s caused trouble for both pass holders like Rubingh who said Vail oversold them on what would be available this year, and for new skiers who aren’t able to pony up for a season pass, and feel alienated when a single day ticket can cost over $200.

Lynch, who said they’ve worked to keep day ticket prices lower at smaller resorts, said the season pass is a crucial part of their business model, and a piece that insulates them against climate change, because skiers invest before they know what the snowpack is going to be like. “We would be thrilled if no one bought lift tickets,” she said, but she acknowledged that they’re working to create pass products, like their Epic Day ticket, that aren’t as big of a commitment, so beginners can learn.  

Rubingh is skeptical. “The access part to me is really interesting,” he said. “It’s a super important conversation about expanding access to winter sports like skiing. The more diverse we become the better it is for everyone. The more people who play the more people win. But they say selling an $800 ski pass is creating more access? That’s garbage.”

He said he wants to see reasonable day ticket prices, and safe, open terrain for beginners. It’s crucial to keep new people coming into the sport. To do that, resorts can’t keep raising prices, they need to even out their supply and demand.  

Support the Community

Ski hills don’t operate in isolation, so resort managers have to invest in the area around them, to make them livable for workers, manageable for visitors, and sustainable in the long run.

A big part of that is environmental sustainability. Vail committed to being net zero by 2030 through zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill, and zero net operating impact on forests and habitat, but it also has to come from social sustainability.

Housing is a crisis issue across most of ski country, and one that impacts both the availability and viability of workers, which in turn impacts the ski areas ability to operate, and the surrounding town’s ability to exist.

Breckenridge housing
The Wellington neighborhood, near Breckenridge, has both affordable and traditional housing mixed together, so no can tell which is which. Communities surrounding resort towns need more of these types of developments to support resort workers. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

“Companies have to come in, realize each place is unique, and if they want entry-level labor they have to be really invested in affordable housing,” Rubingh said. Lynch knows that, and as the biggest employer in a lot of the places they operate, they have to step up. “I want to be clear that we and our communities need to partner together, and we are ready to spend money on it. We are ready and willing to invest in this,” she said.

We need to see that in spades, and we need it soon. Sara Olson, Vail’s VP of Communications, said they have several housing projects in the works, like the second phase of Keystone’s Wintergreen Development and a public-private partnership in Park City. But other projects, like Vail’s Booth Heights, have been waylaid or sidelined because of lack of agreement or funding, or have been considered insufficient. Fighting through the red tape on housing, and heavily investing in affordable options, should be a big piece of prioritizing employees.

Vail is a publicly traded company, as is Alterra, the second-largest resort group, which means that they answer to shareholders. But if they’re not also accountable to skiers and workers, they won’t have a product to offer. 

So much of this comes down to investments in the future: in sustainability, in long-term workers, in skiers who will be a part of the sport for a lifetime, and in communities that can be resilient.  We need bus drivers and beginner skiers. I want Crested Butte to be a funky bastion of tough skiing forever. And I want to ski the T-bar when the snow warrants it.

Skiing is fragile, we need all the investment we can get. And the companies and people who stand to benefit the most from it need to own the problem, and to adjust their operations if they want it to survive in the long run.