Aspen Skiing Co. concerned that housing, worker shortages will affect guest experiences |

Aspen Skiing Co. concerned that housing, worker shortages will affect guest experiences

Company raising starting wages, using creative tools to try to entice enough workers

Liftie Ben Pilger helps a family on to the Thunder Bowl Lift at Highlands on Thanksgiving Day in Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. Aspen Skiing Company opened a run on Buttermilk and Highlands to spread skiers out during the holiday.

Aspen Skiing Co. executives say they are battling the worker shortage by raising wages, renting a hotel in Glenwood Springs and doubling up on duties — but still doubt they will fill all positions this ski season.

The culprit is the lack of housing. Even with the addition of 150 new beds at Skico’s new employee housing complex called The Hub at Willits, chief human resource officer Jim Laing said the company would not be able to house all employees who apply to work.

“It’s really at a critical level,” Laing told the Basalt Town Council Tuesday night. Skico executives hold a near-annual preseason discussion with elected leaders of local governments.

Skico has 1,013 beds in its inventory that it owns or manages. That includes about 750 beds for seasonal employees.

“We’re going to need about double that number of seasonal beds just to maintain our current business model,” Laing said.

That will take awhile, so the company is taking several steps to find enough employees this season.

“We’re raising our starting wage, not just a little bit but significantly,” Laing said.

He would not divulge the increase to the Basalt council because he said employees haven’t been told about the pay hike yet. Pay rates will also be raised for workers returning for a second, third and fourth seasons. It is an effort to boost employee retention, Laing said.

Skico vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said the wage hikes won’t be announced publicly until later this week.

Starting pay was most recently increased to $15 per hour prior to the 2019-20 winter.

Skico is also restructuring positions to utilize some workers in multiple roles.

“We’re looking at guest specialists,” Laing said. “These jobs are going to follow the guests around. It might start in the rental shop where the guest starts their day and when that rush subsides, then (the employee) will essentially follow the guest up and work on the mountain during the day in the restaurants, bussing or whatever, and then at the end of the day they follow them back down to the rental shop.”

The multi-role employee is a necessity rather than an experiment in creativity.

“We have to figure out how to do this with fewer heads, fewer beds,” Laing said.

Ironically, as ski season inches closer, Skico has a record number of job applications. But the company has been there before. Last season also set a record for pre-season applications. This season is up 4%, according to Laing. Last season, the lack of housing meant numerous applicants couldn’t accept offers or they returned to hometowns once they arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley and found they couldn’t afford anything. Laing expects more of the same this season.

Skico has rented a hotel in Glenwood Springs to try to alleviate the shortage, he said. It will provide bus tickets for the commuters.

Skico will also try to entice local homeowners to rent rooms to its employees by offering a ski pass to the renters.

“If you’re short staffed, you can’t provide the same level of service.” — Jim Laing, Aspen Skiing Co.

Skico employs about 4,000 people during the height of the winter. Not all are full-time workers, Laing said. There are about 1,500 full-time, year-round workers.

The “headcount” has remained the same for about 20 years, according to Laing. While the number of employees is static, the amount of housing for workers is falling despite the company’s investment in inventory.

“The beds have been evaporating very quickly from the valley,” Laing said. “They’re not going away, they’re just going to different people. There are a lot of reasons for that. COVID is a big one. A lot of people came and they never left.”

Some of the newcomers discovered they could work remotely. Others don’t need to work. They gobbled up units that used to go to workers who pooled their resources to rent the space.

That change in the market is going to affect all employers, not just Skico, Laing said.

“This is likely going to impact our guest experiences everywhere,” he said. “If you’re short-staffed, you can’t provide the same level of service.”

Skico experienced shortages last year that forced it to close the Ullrhof restaurant at Snowmass on some days. The company aims to avoid closures or limitations on the slopes this season.

“Our plan is to keep everything open and running to the greatest extent possible,” Laing said. “We’re going to have to get creative with that.”