“Although the project is currently in the court system, we remain committed to this project and we are looking to collaborate on all opportunities to bring incremental affordable housing to Vail,” says Jamie Alvarez, director of corporate communications. The company doesn’t share by-resort staff sizes but says its number of employee beds is 3,200 between Summit and Eagle counties, where Vail and Breckenridge are located. In Jackson Hole, the resort currently houses 20 percent of its workforce in apartments and townhomes. At Big Sky, 142 beds were added over the summer, bringing the current total to 791 employee beds—roughly 40 percent of its wintertime employees.
These resorts are usually the biggest employers in town, and the way they treat their employees has a reverberating effect. Last season, Vail Resorts came under heavy scrutiny from its stockholders, staff, and customers. In addition to intense backlash due to overcrowding at multiple resorts, it faced two class-action lawsuits brought on by employees in California and Colorado claiming unfair labor practices and unpaid wages, along with prolonged contract negotiations with ski patrol unions at Washington’s Stevens Pass, Colorado’s Breckenridge, and Utah’s Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association, all of which reached agreements last winter.
Soon after, in March, all of Vail’s 23 North America properties committed to increasing their minimum wages from $15 to $20 an hour for non-tipped employees. This followed an increase at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, from $15 to $18. (Big Sky declined to disclose its minimum wage.) According to these mountains, terrain closures due to low staffing aren’t expected this season, but it’s always a good idea to check resort websites and social media for up-to-date information on what’s open.
What to expect at ski resorts this season
As for the visitor experience, what you’ll likely notice this season is that these communities have learned to adapt: Many pandemic-era operating measures will continue, especially across hard-to-staff food and beverage operations. Expect fewer in-person interactions, more to-go than dine-in, and reduced operating hours. That also applies to hotels, where you’ll continue to see optional daily housekeeping, mobile check-in, and a preference for messaging requests to the front desk over calls.
As for lines, waitlists, and full parking lots—well, that remains to be seen. All eight mountains are still hiring, but assert that staffing is in great shape. Many resorts are requiring single- and multi-mountain season pass holders, as well as day-ticket purchasers, to reserve their days ahead of time. For some, this is to limit overcrowding. For others, it’s to determine how best to distribute staff.
As much as these resorts and towns have a responsibility to provide a certain level of service, the continued troubles may demand that we, as visitors, revise our expectations. One day last winter, some 15,000 visitors descended onto the Big Sky area, which has 3,500 residents.
“If you increased the population in Anywhere, U.S.A, by four times, you would see a lot of the same issues,” says the Riverhouse’s Wisniewski of last season’s long waits and traffic. But there’s also the fact that, even if these resorts and towns were fully staffed, they wouldn’t move at a pace that suits every visitor—it’s just not part of the culture: “You get off the plane, grab your rental car, check into the resort, pick up your rental skis, get the kids to the ski lessons on time,” says Wisniewski. “I think the thing that gets missed in all of that is that you came here to relax—and that’s exactly how the rest of us, who choose to live in places like these, live our every day.”
Tips for travelers this ski season
Plan ahead, but prepare to be flexible: Book your on-mountain days and make restaurant reservations, but if there are longer-than-expected delays, don’t let it derail your vacation. If you’re renting a home with a kitchen, consider cooking or hiring a personal chef. If you’re dining out, plan for a wait and have a back-up/take-out plan. As a result of the pandemic, many resorts have prioritized posting real-time availability, from parking to lifts, on apps and social media. Check these resources as you’re planning your trip, as well as on days-of.