Sun Peaks looks to locals to fill its ranks this winter

B.C. resorts employ creative approaches to deal with this winter’s unprecedented labour challenges 

With travel restrictions still in force for the foreseeable future, the province’s ski resorts are sure to look and feel a bit different this winter. Traditionally reliant on young international workers on holiday visas, B.C. resorts are shifting gear and looking to hire local. 

“Through our HR team, we have a whole bunch of efforts to get our job opportunities in front of the right people,” said Aidan Kelly, chief marketing officer for Sun Peaks Resort LLP. 

Kelly said the challenge will be eased by the fact that fewer staff than usual will be needed this year.

“If you’re running a restaurant or an indoor facility at 50 per cent capacity, then in theory you don’t need as many people as when you’re running at 100 per cent capacity,” said Kelly.  

He added that there are still a number of people in Canada from other countries who have proper work visas and will serve as potential employees. 

Over at Big White Resort, senior vice president Michael Ballingall said restrictions have dramatically changed the resort’s approach to hiring. The resort typically hires around 1,400 seasonal employees, 60 per cent of whom are Australian. 

“It’ll completely change the way that we run our recruiting drives,” he said. “They’re no longer [focused on]  Australia, New Zealand, Europe. They’re [focused on] Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg…That’s how we used to do it in the eighties,” he said with a laugh.  

Another challenge facing both destinations will be housing workers, as both resorts will have to cut back on the number of people they can house in staff accommodation, as they are often made up of shared spaces. 

In a typical year, Big White can house around 700 people, but that figure has been significantly reduced this year, said Ballingall. 

“The problem now is, how do I match up hiring someone with a bed?” he said.

“We’re going to run out of beds before we run out of interested people, so we’re going to have to recruit people to live in Kelowna [or central Okanagan] to do the commute.” 

Christopher Nicholson, president and chief executive officer of the Canada West Ski Area Association, said that hiring is a challenge for resorts at the best of times and has been made worse by the pandemic. Canadians tend to be resistant to seasonal work, and it can be challenging to recruit them, he explained.  

Nicholson added that some ski areas are likely to double down on core experiences this winter, while perhaps cutting back on certain offerings like restaurants. 

Going forward, Nicholson said he’s hopeful the government will continue the  Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy Program. It has allowed resorts to keep employees on payroll and allowed employees to stay in ski towns, he said. 

Nicholson added he thinks that there are opportunities for resorts to get creative when it comes to hiring. Resorts are already looking at flexible work arrangements and targeting a wider demographic when it comes to hiring. 

Both Sun Peaks and Big White are already doing just that. They see an opportunity with young people who may choose to take a gap year rather than sit behind a computer, taking all their classes online. “We see we see a bit of an opportunity with the student population just because there’s so much uncertainty [when it comes to how universities will operate],” said Kelly.