In a typical ski season, Canada’s ski resorts depend on international workers for staffing, relying on employment outsourcing companies to fill their ranks with workers from around the world looking for a taste of the Rocky Mountain lifestyle. But, thanks to COVID-19, this isn’t a typical season.
A small number of those international workers will still be able to experience the Rocky Mountain slopes as employees. However, with new restrictions on travel and international worker exchanges, Canadian ski hills are faced with the task of staffing their workforce with more locals while simultaneously making sure their resorts are as safe as they can be during the pandemic.
“If you’ve been to many North American ski resorts, you know that Australians and Kiwis make up a significant part of our staffing as well as other international students. That’s not going to be possible this year, at least not the same levels as the past due to restrictions on foreign workers,” says Dan Markham, director of communications for Lake Louise Ski Resort.
The Working Holiday Club is one of the companies that helps bridge the gap between ski resorts and international workers. On average, 70 per cent of their participants are from Australia, with the other 30 per cent coming from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Sweden. In an average year, they help around 1,400 international workers find jobs across 11 ski resorts throughout Alberta and British Columbia.
This year though, that number has dropped to 170. According to Jake Gibbs, the founder and general manager of The Working Holiday Club, that drop is because the Canadian government stopped processing international visas on March 16 – the same month most people start signing up for their program.
That meant there were between 400 and 500 people in Australia alone that had signed up for the Gibbs’ program, eager to come to Canada, who are now unable to.
However, the company is still working hard to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for those individuals still able to make the journey. For example, the Canadian government requires international workers to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entry. So, the Working Holiday Club partnered with a hostel in Vancouver, where their office is located, to provide isolation period accommodation.
“Everyone must do their quarantine at the hostel on arrival unless they have some family or friends in which they can safely do that,” says Gibbs. “We’ve organized for them to get three meals a day delivered to their individual dorm, and they can also order drinks, Skip The Dishes, Uber Eats and things like that to their dorm during quarantine.”
He still believes that it will be a worthwhile experience for those participating.
“It’s such a vastly different environment, weather-wise, than what we have back home,” says Gibbs. “A lot of our guys have never even seen snow before, nevermind skiing and snowboarding. Everyone is hardworking and loves to have a good time when they’re not working.”
The unique experience is what got Gibbs hooked to working holidays.
“I would say, without a doubt, it is one of the best experiences of their lives. It’s how I got started. I did a ski season myself and I thought, how can I do this for the rest of my life without getting paid $8 an hour, which is what it was when I got started. I love my skiing and my snowboarding.”
Tami Green is one of the few people still coming to Canada with The Working Holiday Club. Her and her husband, Chris Green, are travelling from Auckland, New Zealand.
“There were 11 resorts to choose from and Lake Louise struck us as perfect. It’s close to Banff but a bit out[side], beautiful and has staff accommodations. Everybody was raving about it,” she says.
She is going to work as a lift operator at Lake Louise Ski Resort, but will merge into a snowsports instructor as the season continues.
But doing a working holiday was not always their intent. They wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail into Canada and work for a while. But, because of COVID-19, they were forced to take a different route.
“We always wanted to go to Canada and we love traveling. Pacific Crest Trail was canceled due to COVID but we still want to use our visa, so we are going,” says Green.
They have packed the necessary precautions for their trip, including masks, hand sanitizer and gloves. They have already made the conscious decision to take a taxi, not transit, to keep themselves as safe as possible – although she is worried about an overnight layover their flight has to make in Los Angeles before they arrive in Vancouver. That’s because their insurance won’t cover them if they get sick in the United States.
Nevertheless, Green says, “I’m excited to see the beautiful mountains, a new culture, and different food. I am excited to ski in actual powder and meet new people!”
Nor will Green be alone. About 50 per cent of staff at both Lake Louise Ski Resort and Sunshine Village are international workers, according to Markham and Kendra Scurfield, director of communications for Sunshine Village.
“Right now we are seeing some positive numbers coming in, so we’re hoping we will be able to run everything much like a normal season, but we are going to have a slightly smaller team this year than we have had in previous years,” says Scurfield.
That’s good news because, despite having fewer international workers this year, the ski hills aren’t expecting a decrease in guest numbers.
“In the wintertime, about 80-90 per cent of our guests are regional guests. International and US guests really only make up a little over 10 per cent. We believe that people are still eager to get out in Alberta, B.C, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and enjoy activities outside,” says Markham.
That means ski resorts have been forced to get creative to recruit the employees they need to support those visitors. Rather than having companies such as the Working Holiday Club provide a list of foreign applications, resorts have turned to Canadian specific job boards, career fairs and students.
These new tactics seem to be working. COVID-19 has left many people without work, and the ski hills have a surplus of new job openings.
“We’ve seen significant growth in interest from students who are just graduating high school and delaying a year or two of their college or they’re currently in university and are waiting a year before they go back. They’re looking for opportunities, as well as folks who are retired and are looking for something to do for the wintertime since they can’t cross the border and go south,” explains Markham.
New Rules and Regulations
The resorts those new employees will be working at will look slightly different this year. Both Sunshine Village and Lake Louise Ski Resort have put in place new measures to ensure their guest’s safety during the pandemic.
These new precautions include outdoor heated tents, reduced capacity in indoor spaces, outdoor washrooms and mandatory face coverings.
“The biggest change we have for the 2020/2021 ski season is that face coverings will be mandatory to ride all of our lifts and to enter any of our buildings and facilities. A face covering can include a neck warmer, a mask or a scarf, it just has to cover your face,” explains Scurfield.
The lifts and gondolas will also look a little different this season.
“Our gondola will be running as normal, but we will be encouraging guests to load their own equipment so we don’t risk touching it and there will be team members there to help them with it,” says Scurfield. “We of course will try to accommodate people to load in their cohorts, but on busy days it will have to be loaded at capacity. We will also be sanitizing our gondolas a lot more frequently.”
Both resorts are encouraging guests to purchase season passes and to do as much booking online as they can. This will streamline the process, prevent long lines and reduce the need to be inside in general.
With these precautions in place, the resorts expect the guest experience to be comfortable and safe.
“Once you are up on the ski resort, our terrain has enough cubic acres to accommodate 26 000 skiers and snowboarders throughout a day. On a typical busy day, we at Sunshine Village will have about 6000 skiers and snowboarders, so when people are skiing there’s a lot of room for them to spread out,” says Scurfield.