Is the Ski Bum Dream Over?

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Is the Ski Bum Dream Dead?

Nearly 30 years ago, I rocked up to a major Colorado resort with long blonde hair and a fresh face, looking for a job.

This is a transcript of the short interview.

Gary the boss: So how many days skiing do you want?
Me (dressed in construction gear): 4 per week please.
Gary the boss: So you’ve saved up some cash?
Me: Yes, I’ve been working as a bricklayer for a couple of years now.
Gary the boss: And you’ve got your accommodation sorted.
Me: Yes, I’m in employee housing in town.
Gary the boss: OK. Here’s the deal. I can see you’re a hard worker and got your act together. You’ve got the job. You’ll get 4 days skiing a week and a seasons pass, but you’ll need to give me 10 days straight over Christmas New Year.
Me: Thanks Gary, I won’t let you down.

I’m bald now, and am asking the question, has the ski bum dream disappeared like my once beautiful hair?

The Ski Bum Dream

Gary understood the ski bum’s dream and the unwritten contract. Ski bums will happily work for low wages and cramped living conditions, but they won’t do it if there’s no powder upside. The ski bum dream is also unsustainable if workers aren’t breaking even at the end of the season. They still need money to get to their summer jobs or the Southern Hemisphere winter season.

I’m not sure ski resorts have worked this out yet.

Living Conditions 

One consequence of resorts being understaffed is the existing workers are being pushed hard. $15 an hour, sharing a tiny room with another two people, and only one day off a week doesn’t exactly have people lining up for another season.

Yes covid has enhanced existing problems with staffing, but deep down, the ski industry must know things have to change significantly to keep service levels up.

The $2 per hour end-of-season bonus Vail Resorts are offering is simply throwing money at a short term problem to stop it getting worse.

Staff Shortages

It’s not just ski resorts either. $35 per hour barista jobs go unfilled in Australian tourist towns because there’s no affordable housing. A major microbrewery in Port Douglas (a tropical beach resort on the Great Barrier Reef) shut down for two days to give their overworked staff a break. When a thriving business closes it’s doors to protect their staff from burnout, costing the owners serious money, the warning signs are pretty obvious. There’s a world wide hospitality staff crisis.

The problem gets more complex with skilled workers. Why would a groomer or mechanic take $20 per hour when just down the road, construction companies are paying double or triple that rate for machinery operators.

Ski Patrollers on $15 per hour? That was the same terrible pay rate people were getting when I had hair, and daily lift tickets were a third of today’s prices.

Staff shortages at resorts, and lack of affordable housing, also hurts small businesses in towns. That overworked liftie isn’t picking up a couple of dinner shifts at the local restaurant, and that highly experienced chef wants more money because her rent is so high. That puts pressure on small business operators.

The reality is, the staffing shortages at ski resorts are generations in the making, and pointing the finger at Covid isn’t solving any of the long term trends that have lead to chronic understaffing and a diminished visitor experience.

There are no quick or cheap fixes. When the ski bum’s experience doesn’t live up to the dream, resorts are going to churn through more employees every season, and those leaving will but harder and harder to replace next year.

And it’s just not the individual workers that leave, it’s their advocacy for resort life that goes as well. Back in the early 90s I was living the ski bum dream and telling friends about it. Siblings and friends followed, and all up there was ten of us at the resort over multiple seasons.

Aspen in the mid 90s had 40 “Scousers” (people from Liverpool) from the same high school working on the front lines. That group of workers started with just one person. We were telling people “you have to come” while over-worked staff are now saying “don’t bother”.

And that’s a recipe for terrain closures, longer lift lines, and more expensive apres ski beers delivered by an overworked and unhappy waiter.

One interesting trend we could see next year is, skiers voting with their feet and shunning resorts with poor visitor experiences caused by staff shortages. There’s roughly 470 ski resorts in the USA and another 300 in Canada. Many of them have incredible skiing without chronic traffic problems, long lift lines, and closed terrain.

Will the 2022-3 ski season be a winter of spreading out, where small and independent resorts take skiing days away from the big boys?

Anyone, be they a visiting skier or resort worker, who has stood in hour long lift lines this season must be seriously considering going to that not so famous resort next season. Sure the vertical drop may not be as big, and it doesn’t have heated chairlift seats, but at least it’s 100% open and the lift lines can’t be seen from outer space.

Accommodation near Colorado

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Iain Lygo

With a double degree in accounting and finance, Iain Lygo has successfully avoided an office job all his life. He has just launched Big Adventure Club. This adventure travel club has 6-8 epic tours a year including motor bike trekking in the Himalayas, surfing in Indonesia, back country skiing in BC, Mountain biking from Colorado to Utah, and road biking in France.


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