Winter of discontent for some ambassadors
December 29, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN There’s discontent in the ranks of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Ambassador Program, according to a number of ambassadors who either have quit recently or are on the verge of doing so.Some ambassadors complain they are spending less time on skis interacting with visitors. Rather, they are handing out snow reports in parking lots and at other off-mountain locations, or performing tasks that the Skier Services department is too understaffed to handle.And, critics contend, morning meetings of the different teams of ambassadors are no longer held. The meetings were when a team leader was named, assignments were handed out and the volunteers would chat, which some say boosted morale and camaraderie in the ranks.But the Skico brass, along with some ambassadors, believe the program is functioning as it should.”I’m sorry if some people are unhappy,” said David Perry, Skico’s senior vice president, mountain division. “But I don’t think it’s a deep-seated problem.”The Ambassador Program was started about a dozen years ago as a way to put locals to work promoting Aspen to tourists. It has been a popular way for locals to get a free ski pass and spend time during the week on one of the local ski mountains. It is loosely modeled on similar programs elsewhere in the United States and in Europe.Ambassadors are expected to extol the pleasures of skiing the local slopes, offer tidbits about local culture and answer questions. They also pass out cookies, water, coffee and hot chocolate on the mountains or at the base area in the mornings, and generally “make people happy,” in the words of one former ambassador.
Shirlee Myers – whose late husband, Al, first suggested the program to then Skico CEO Pat O’Donnell – was an ambassador herself for a decade. She recalled that the program always involved time in the mornings at the base areas, handing out information or talking with arriving skiers, and then doing the same in the afternoon as skiers left the mountain.Myers said she has not heard criticism from any current ambassadors about the program’s management, but she knew of changes to the program. As for the disaffection of some ambassadors, she said, “I can understand that they want to be active … out there skiing and working with the people, not standing around.”In interviews with The Aspen Times, some ambassadors reported feeling less than comfortable or welcome in their own program; some have quit over what they believe is unsympathetic treatment by program managers.As one former ambassador remarked, “last year, we had esprît de corps.” But this season, the changes have alienated many longtime ambassadors. He and others critical of the current management declined to be identified for this story.”The nature of the duty has changed,” said another ambassador. “And none of us has been told why.”At one time, she said, an ambassador’s task was mainly to spend one day a week skiing on an assigned mountain, interacting with guests and performing the job’s other functions as laid out by Skico management. “Now,” she continued, “it’s been cut down to three hours in the parking lot giving out grooming reports. Every year the job has gotten less and less [about] time on the mountain … skiing with our guests.”The unhappy ambassador, who said she plans to quit the program as soon as she can find another volunteer gig that gets her a free season pass, added that as a businesswoman herself she understands the Skico’s need to refine its services.
“You’re always tweaking your business to make it work better,” she said. But she learned of the changes to the program via e-mail, without any explanation, which she found unacceptably abrupt and unilateral. And some longtime ambassadors recently got letters saying “your services aren’t required any more,” again with no explanation.The woman said she has no idea if Skico upper management knows of the situation, but continued, “The Skico needs to be made aware” of what is going on within the ranks of the organization.Ambassador Paul Chichester, who knew Al Myers and was involved in the program’s early years, quit last year but may get involved again if conditions change. Asked why he quit, he said simply, “It’s a great idea, a great program … it’s just not the same program that it used to be.”Among the critics, a main source of tension seems to be program coordinator Chris Kelly. One detractor said Kelly “doesn’t have a clue” about the personnel and managerial skills needed to manage a group of volunteers. Critics describe Kelly as overly critical, too insistent on making rules and enforcing them to the letter, and unable to handle criticism of her abilities.Kelly did not return calls from The Aspen Times, nor did guest services director Susan Cross.Some said the program is fine despite the changes, however.”It’s up to the individual to make it what they want to make it,” said longtime ambassador Kristen Henry, who works at the Snowmass Ski Area.
She conceded that there have been changes in the ambassadors’ duties, but continued, “That’s what goes along with the job.”Henry called Kelly “a good program coordinator … she does a good job” and noted, “Nothing’s going to stay the same.”Perry, contacted last week, was not aware of any particular unhappiness among the ranks of the ambassadors.”Frankly, we think the program’s going really, really well,” he said, saying it appears popular with both guests and ambassadors. “The intent of the program is always to have the ambassadors be at what we call ‘the hot spots,’ which in the mornings could be at the bottom of the mountain as skiers arrive.”Then, he continued, later in the day the ambassadors are shifted to on-mountain roles, and at the end of the day are brought back to the base areas.”It’s always been a kind of mobile program,” he said, adding that, in his estimation, there has not been an unusual number of volunteers leaving the program.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org