Vail Raises Frontline Pay to $20 an Hour, Accelerates Employee Housing Development
Company will also significantly expand HR team and allow employees back in resort communities via a flexible work program
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It’s getting weird out there. My first inkling that ski season might go sideways was a series of cross-country autumn drives in pursuit of my secondary passion, college football. In the windows and scrub-grass highway partitions of every gas station and Burger King, the signs. Help wanted. $17 an hour. Sometimes more. Empty lobbies. Drive-thru only. Lines impossible, as though an asteroid were inbound and everyone was snagging a Burrito Supreme en route to their woodland bunkers.
Caterwauling into the midst of this weirdest labor market in memory came Vail’s 99-cent Epic Pass, available next to gumball machines nationwide. Three years ago, this strategy may have driven season-pass prices nationwide into the basement, as flummoxed competitors tried to hold market share and appease hey-what-about-us passholders. But as we all know, three years ago may as well have been 50. Covid upended our world, and took the low-wage worker with it. Across Vail’s empire, from Stevens Pass to Park City to Paoli Peaks to Alpine Valley to Crotched to Attitash, not enough people showed up to blow snow, run the lifts, manage the parking lots, or groom the hillsides. “And we would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids-who-saw-the-opportunity-to-stand-in-the-cold-for-$11.25-an-hour-and-said-nah-I’ll-just-go-work-at-the-gas-station-for-like-double-that-Brah-but-thanks.”
By the time Vail instituted a $2-an-hour bonus in mid-January, it was too late to save the season across Vail’s Midwestern portfolio, where most of its properties had slashed hours and operating days, or in New Hampshire, where traffic, mechanical, and staffing woes rumbled in like aftershocks all winter long. Vail’s mistake was not in discounting Epic Passes, which drove the little white cards into the bootbags of 20 percent of America’s skiers, but failing to meet the moment in the strangest labor market since World War II.
Yesterday, Vail CEO Kirsten Lynch laid out an aggressive plan that reorients the company away from its McDonald’s-in-the-mountains reliance on low-wage labor and into a career-track organization invested in its employees’ welfare on and off the mountain. Here are the highlights:
$20-an-hour minimum wage for all North American resort employees for the 2022-23 season, $21 for Patrol (including unionized Patrol), maintenance technicians, and certified commercial vehicle drivers
A commitment to “aggressively pursue building new affordable housing on land we own”
A career-track program that creates a Yellow Brick Road from, say, bumping chairs to management positions and more
An enormous expansion of the human resources team to decrease reliance on Vail’s hated HR app
A flexible work policy that allows corporate employees to live and work in any community where Vail Resorts operates
This ambitious plan, launched alongside Vail’s second-quarter earnings release and (presumably) just ahead of its 2022-23 Epic Pass unveiling, lands in a complicated world, for Vail and lift-served skiing, yes, but also for America as a whole. Mountain-town housing is in air-raid-siren crisis. Inflation is rising. Skiing can’t decide if it wants to be the most or least exclusive sport in America. Covid is still circling. American workers are more assertive than they have been in decades.
In the midst of these complications, Vail still posted positive business results yesterday: net income, skier visits, and total lift revenue all increased over the previous two seasons. Still, it was clear that Vail could not weather another season in which its narrative was overwhelmed by debacles like the meltdown at Stevens Pass. “We think a critical question is will Vail defend its moves and tweak its business model, or consider a more substantial pivot to balance pressures in its communities and protect the luxury experience?” Bank of America research analyst Shaun Kelley wrote last week. There are a lot of ways Vail could have pivoted: pull Epic Pass prices back skyward, tweak the pass suite to better manage skier traffic, better define mountain capacity, invest in labor, or some combination of the above.
As usual, Vail dropped a plan that was more comprehensive and ambitious than most of us could have imagined. Initial reception has been strong. “…this [plan] sends a meaningful message that Vail is serious about improving its company and the on-mountain experience for its guests,” Kelley wrote this morning. The Epic Liftlines Instagram account, which had racked up 48,500 followers on themes of worker’s rights and overcrowding, announced that it was going into hibernation in a post captioned “WORKERS WIN!”
Here’s a closer look at each element of the announcement and what it means for workers, the communities they live in, skiers, and skiing in general:
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