Vail Responds to Tough Season in the Midwest With These Changes



It's no secret that Vail Resorts had a tough season. Pass holders across the Midwest and the country have been frustrated with how they handled this past ski year- dramatically cutting operations despite selling a record number of Epic passes.


Vail Resorts announced several changes aimed at their staff members for the 2022/23 season in response to these challenges. I will be breaking down all of these changes and will give you my thoughts on what I think will be a pivotal season for the future of Vail Resorts.


Why Vail Continues to Be Important to the Industry

Now I want to stop and give a little disclosure here, specifically to all of the Vail haters. I know it's easy to hop on the Vail hate train, but the truth is that Vail Resorts' success is good for the entire industry.


Like it or not, Vail holds the large majority of the marketing power around the industry and can directly impact the growth of our sport. Vail has also reinvested heavily in our Midwestern hills and could have likely even saved a few from potential permanent closure.


Additionally, Vail has been instrumental in bringing affordable season passes to the market. Either by being one of the first to offer a multi-resort pass or even by strong-arming others to form partnerships with other resorts to increase value for their skiers and riders.


Any way you cut it - we owe a lot to Vail Resorts, and yes, they don't get everything right, but I think it's essential that we acknowledge their importance to the industry.



Vail’s Major Issue in the Midwest This Season

If you missed it, let's get you caught up on some of the issues - specifically in the Midwest. So let's take a look at Snow Creek, a Vail-owned resort located just North West of Kansas City, Missouri.


Snow Creek only operated with limited days and hours this season. 3 to 4 days per week, which came out to a total of about 20-24 hours of operational time on any given week. If you compare this to the typical Midwest resort that operates 70+ hours per week, about a third of the hours compared to other Midwest hills.


And it doesn't take a long division to figure out that this is not a lot of skiing time, especially with how short the season can be for our southern Midwest ski hills. As you could have guessed, this outraged a lot of pass holders, as they couldn't use their pass as much as they would have liked and felt they paid for a product that did not live up to their expectations.


Vail cited staffing shortages as the primary cause for these operational cuts, stating, "the staffing shortage that has affected so many across the country and the impacts from the Omicron variant have also impacted Snow Creek. At this time, we just don't have enough people to operate during the weekdays and do so safely."


Passholders were quick to critique Vail Resorts, blaming vaccine requirements for employment and low starting pay in a competitive market. Others pointed out that other ski hills were still able to operate a full schedule, despite staffing shortages.


Many locals lost trust in Vail Resorts this past season, but could this change for next season?!


Last Month Vail Resorts announced several changes that they will be making in response to this past season in a letter titled "A New Direction." So let's break down those changes for you.



Upcoming Staff Changes for 2022/23 Season

The first and one of the most notable changes is Vail Resorts will be upping their starting minimum wage across all of their resorts to $20.00 per hour starting next season. This is a noteworthy change, especially for the Midwest, where the previous starting wage was $12.50 per hour, marking a 60% increase.


Looking at data from ZipRecuiter.com, the Midwest's average hourly range is anywhere from $19.92 per hour in Michigan to $16.33 in Illinois, making $20.00 per hour a desirable rate for the region.


Moving down, they also announced a new seasonal frontline leadership development program. This program is designed to help seasonal employees work toward a career with one of the industry's largest employers. The letter gives a couple of examples of individuals that followed this path, including Chris Sorensen, who started in Lift Operations back in 2004 at Keystone and is now Keystone's Vice President and General Manager.


Continuing on, the letter stated that Vail will now be offering 40% off MSRP for all gear in their Vail Resorts Retail location. This is on top of continued free season passes for staff and their dependents; discounts on food and beverage; discounts on lodging; ski and ride school benefits; access to health insurance, sick pay, free mental health resources, and more.


Further down, Vail restated their commitment to affordable employee housing and more recently gave more specifics on what they are working on in this regard. They will be providing new affordable housing to more than 875 Vail Resorts employees across Park City, Whistler, Vail, and Okemo. This marks a 10 percent increase compared to what was offered by the company the previous year.


Vail Resorts will also be making a $4 million investment in their Human Resources Department, adding 66 more staff to their central people connect and payroll teams. This increase marks nearly a 50% increase in their central HR Services staff.


Vail also discussed adding more flexible remote work for their corporate office employees but is planning on reopening their Broomfield office on May 16th.


In addition to their minimum wage increases, Vail Resorts is increasing pay for their salaried employees, bringing the average merit increase to 6% compared to the previous 3%. The reason stated for this change was to reflect the changing dynamics in the current labor market.


And that pretty much wraps up Kirsten's Letter. Lot's to unpack here, so let's talk about the effect these changes could have on our resorts and my thoughts on some of these changes.



My Thoughts/Concerns About These Changes

First off, will this solve the staff shortages from this past year? Which was cited as the major source of the reduced operational hours across the Midwest. I think it will. IVail had a few things that worked against them this season, including lower than average starting wages and requiring vaccination for all employees.


The $20.00 per hour is a massive step as this is above most, if not all, the average wages across our Midwestern states. So this season, Vail shouldn't have any issues hiring entry-level employees at this pay rate.


Now the x-factor here is again the vaccination requirement. At the time of writing this, Vail Resorts has still not made an official decision on whether or not they will require it for staff next season, but given the current environment - I'm leaning toward they will likely not require it. But only time will tell.


Either way, I think Vail will be staffing up in a big way this season to avoid what happened this year. Now there is something in this letter that concerns me: their Seasonal Frontline Leadership Development Program.


Upon first reading, I thought this was an excellent program - keeping great talent in the industry is always a massive plus. But then I thought about how Vail Resorts has treated the Midwest as part of this program. Unfortunately, smaller Midwest ski hills have been treated as stepping stones for Vail, where GMs are consistently changed as they pursue bigger and better things.


Take, for example, Chris Sorensen, who was mentioned in this article. Chris started at Keystone and spent almost ten years before moving to Breckenridge. Then in 2016, Chris was moved to Mt. Brighton in Michigan as GM for just two seasons - before then moving to Afton Alps to serve a similar role for 1 season. Chris then worked as the Vice President and GM of the entire Midwest region for just under two years before heading back to his current position back at Keystone.


By looking at the amount of movement here, you can get an idea of how often Vail Resorts moves and "promotes" their staff, especially in the Midwest. In fact, Wilmot Mountain has had over four different GMs in just the past five years.


And that's a pretty big concern for me. It is not uncommon for GMs to take at least 1 to 2 seasons to find their bearings before actually making notable positive changes. This may even be compounded if they are not already familiar with the region and don't have a full grasp of the culture and identity of the individual ski hill.


Not only is the constant changing of GMs in the Midwest a concern for the health of the individual ski hill, but it is also somewhat of a concern for the ski hills staff as well. Having a different boss every year or two can pose a challenge for setting consistent expectations and employee morale.


In the current employment environment where staff need to be both compensated with higher pay, they also need to feel valued. A lack of consistent direction and management might not be the best route to retain quality talent at some of our local Midwest resorts.


But looking on the other side, these movements make sense from the corporate point of view. You're retaining your top talent with promotions and diversifying their skill set, but maybe there is a better way of doing this.


I'd focus on keeping local talent - local and work to promote employees within a specific region. If you look at the majority of our Midwest hills, you'll notice that most that work there have a passion for that particular hill, vibe, and culture - because without that - it just becomes a job. I challenge Vail to find those individuals and work to promote them into Manager positions. Make Midwest resorts the final destination for those that want to be here rather than a stepping stone for those that don't.


Find workers who grew up on your slopes and genuinely want to see it succeed because they want to teach their children to ski on the same run as your father taught them. And maybe this is a pipedream, but I feel this would bring back the "soul" to the Midwest Vail resorts.


Final Thoughts

Overall, these changes will be a massive step forward for Vail in a season that I think will be pivotal in gaining back the trust of many of their Midwestern pass holders. In my opinion, this upcoming season will be a test, and I'm optimistic that Vail will come out ahead.


Of course, Vail has hit some bumps in the road this past season, but I have to give credit where credit is due, it takes a lot to admit mistakes and work on correcting them, and Vail is doing just that.


But these are my thoughts on the subject, and I would love to hear what you guys think about these changes coming from Vail Resorts. Do these changes help build trust going into next season, or are you still on the fence regarding future operations? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.


But there you guys have it, a brief overview and a few of my thoughts on Vail Resorts' new direction - If you want to learn more, you can read the entire letter by clicking here. But until next time, I hope all of you have a great week, pray for snow, and we'll see you out there!


-Matthew