Jeremy Rubingh, a documentary filmmaker who focuses on climate and public lands issues, spent about 10 minutes on his phone after Christmas writing an angry screed against Vail Resorts and the company’s struggle to open terrain at the Stevens Pass ski area in Washington state.
“When I posted it online, I thought ‘I don’t know, maybe 200 people will see this,” said Rubingh, whose “Hold Vail Resorts Accountable” petition has collected nearly 40,000 signatures. “It’s been crazy. But it reveals the impacts of this company coming in and not caring about people or place. The Vail Resorts approach is a disaster and it’s tearing communities apart and it’s ruining mountain culture. And up until recently, it appeared they either didn’t know or didn’t care.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
The largest resort operator in North America is not having a good start to the 2021-22 season. Even though the snow is there and so are the visitors, the company’s headaches are growing.
The company says it is enduring a “global talent shortage.” And the highly contagious new coronavirus variant has reduced staffing even more, leaving the operator of 37 North American ski areas limping into 2022. Contract negotiations with unionized ski patrollers at the company’s Park City resort in Utah have broken down and patrollers have voted to strike if a deal is not reached soon.
And Wall Street appears to be noticing the struggle. Vail Resorts’ stock peaked at $372.51 in early November, a month before the company reported selling 2.1 million advance tickets and season passes and told investors it had $1.5 billion in cash on hand for new acquisitions. Now Vail Resorts is trading around $300.
The outcry from workers and guests in recent weeks, criticizing the company’s achingly slow opening of new terrain after selling 47% more Epic Passes than in the previous season, has spurred rare mid-season reactions from the company.
At Stevens Pass, where the ski area was shut down for several days due to high avalanche conditions that have closed the highway to the resort in the Cascades east of Seattle, the company has replaced the general manager.
Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch this week told the company’s 55,000-plus workers they will get an end-of-season bonus equal to $2 for every hour they worked starting Jan 1.
“The experience the company creates for you enables you to create the experience for our guests. It is the reason this company exists,” Lynch wrote. “You are the core of making our mission come to life. And it has not been easy this year to do that.”
Last week Lynch sent a note to workers saying the omicron variant was causing “significant impacts” in the company’s ability to get lifts spinning and terrain open.
“In a season where staffing was already going to be tight, COVID-19 exclusions created challenging impacts on operations broadly, including our ability to open terrain, as we will never open lifts or terrain unless we can do so safely,” she said.
Lynch last week told her workers that after visiting resorts and reviewing employee comments on the company’s regular surveys, “it is clear that there are actions that need to be taken this season.”
Three days later she announced the bonus for workers who finish the season. On Thursday the company posted a job for a manager of “change and culture communication” who will direct internal communications with employees “that support large-scale change and culture efforts.”
“It is unusual to take these actions in the middle of the season, but this is an unusual season,” Lynch wrote.
And it’s been a busy season so far.
Inntopia’s DestiMetrics, which surveys 290 property management companies in 18 western resort communities, counts December 2021 among the busiest holiday months it has ever recorded. The group reported occupancy at nearly 30,000 rooms across the West was up 37% compared withDecember 2020 and 12% compared with the same month in pre-pandemic 2019. Last month also generated highest-ever incomes for hotel owners who reported a 92% increase in revenues compared with December 2020.
“And though employee staffing issues have been garnering negative attention and driving some pushback from consumers, and rising inflation continues to be of concern, visitors appear unaffected by these issues and are continuing to flock to mountain resort communities,” Inntopia’s head of analytics Tom Foley said in a statement announcing the strong December.
The record-setting traffic is creating unprecedented stress on resort-area employers as they navigate increasing numbers of COVID cases with reduced workforces. Mid-season incentives and raises are one strategy for keeping the machine humming as resorts head into the middle of the season.
An asterisk at the bottom of Lynch’s letter said the bonus was also offered to Vail Resorts workers represented by a union, “subject to their acceptance and the terms of their contract.”
Last weekend the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association announced that nearly all its 171 members have voted to authorize a strike. Park City patrollers are part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, which also includes patrollers at Vail Resorts’ Crested Butte, Breckenridge and Stevens Pass ski areas.
This week Park City patrollers held their 51st bargaining session with Vail Resorts in the past 17 months. One of the patrollers’ top requests is a starting wage of $17. (With the $2-an-hour bonus on top of its $15 hourly wage, that is essentially what the company is paying at most of its resorts this season.)
A strike by patrollers would likely close the 7,300-acre resort.
“We understand that a strike has significant consequences reaching far beyond our membership to other mountain employees and the Park City community,” reads an online post by the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association this week announcing that 98% of its members had approved a strike authorization. “Ideally the company sees this authorization as an indicator of our collective strength and offers us a reasonable contract without requiring further action.”
Last week more than 100 Breckenridge ski instructors signed and delivered a petition to Vail Resorts’ Broomfield headquarters asking the company to address safety issues with dedicated teaching-only areas and “policies to eliminate dangerous overcrowding.” The instructors also requested a role in shaping corporate policy and “compensation commensurate with the expertise and work effort of instructors in light of the exorbitant cost of living in our mountain community.”
Ski instruction makes Vail Resorts a lot of money. For fiscal 2021 the company reported $144.2 million in ski school revenue, compared to $189.1 million in 2020 and $251.1 million in 2019.
In 2020, two ski instructors and an hourly worker at the company’s Beaver Creek resort filed a class-action lawsuit against Vail Resorts in U.S. District Court, arguing the company violated federal labor laws. The lawsuit, which now has 16 hourly workers at resorts in nine states, alleges ski instructors are paid for 6.5 hours a day but often work longer. The company faces similar labor and wage complaints filed by workers in two California lawsuits.
The petition signed by Breckenridge ski instructors asks for “fair compensation for the number of hours actually worked by employees,” a stipend for equipment like skis and boots and pay for days when instructors report for work but are not needed.
“We share with Vail Resorts the goal of creating the next generation of skiers and riders and hope that these requests are met in the spirit of cooperation,” reads the petition, which said the company’s investment in safety and a “satisfied and enthusiastic teaching corps” will pay dividends with “retention of a loyal customer base.”
Rubingh’s petition asks Vail Resorts to open more terrain at Stevens Pass by Jan. 15 or return 60% of the cost of the Epic Pass to local skiers. Rubingh said he’s been contacted by high-profile law firms, asking about access to his list of petition-signers for a possible class-action lawsuit.
Rubingh said he wants Vail Resorts to make it right at his local ski hill. He’s hopeful that a new manager and the company’s recent work to secure housing for workers are steps toward improvement.
He’s seeing more people lining up to work at the resort, so he’s “cautiously optimistic.”
“I would love to be able to activate this many people on climate or protecting our public lands or social justice,” he said. “But this is a larger story about corporate responsibility. If you are getting richer and richer and profits are exploding but wages for your workers are not going up, that’s a real problem. If someone is managing our ski community like it’s a bottom line for a hedge fund manager, we are not going to put up with it.”