The view above Lake Tahoe from Crystal Ridge at Diamond Peak Ski resort in Incline Village on Dec. 17. Photo: Diamond Peak
The Reno-Tahoe ski season got off to a rocky start this fall, largely due to warm November weather not allowing for much snowmaking — and thus resorts not being able to open early for the Thanksgiving holiday.
And when it did start snowing, resorts were still challenged with housing issues, a subsequent worker shortage and ever-changing vaccine mandates layered on top.
The week of Dec. 13, Mother Nature dumped nine feet of snow within five days at higher elevations across the Sierra Nevada, sending ski resorts scrambling to get as much terrain open. The latest storm dumped another 5-9 feet on the resorts, now the terrain is ready … the roads just need to re-open.
In Incline Village, Diamond Peak Ski Resort, one of two ski areas based in the Silver State, started spinning its lifts on Dec. 16.
Meanwhile, Nevada’s other ski resort, Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe in Reno, opened the same weekend, reporting 4-7 feet of snow on its 1,200-acre mountain.
Mike Pierce, marketing director at Mt. Rose, which boasts the basin’s highest base at 8,260 feet, says while opening after Thanksgiving will likely impact season revenue totals, the mid-December winter storm was a big boost.
“It’s all looking to be strong — the pre-holiday snow is a big help,” he told the NNBW before Christmas. “All seasons are different, but the skiing crowd is very much ready to be outside enjoying the winter.”
As far as whether there’s enough staff to manage lifts, oversee guest services, run food and beverage, and groom acres of terrain, most ski resorts — like many other businesses in the Tahoe service industry — are still hiring.
Regarding how Northern Nevada ski resorts are managing the pandemic, Diamond Peak’s website states it will “continue to follow all state and local health and safety regulations this winter.”
Additionally, while subject to change, as of Dec. 19 Diamond Peak — a government-owned ski area under the umbrella of the Incline Village General Improvement District — requires guests and employees wear double-layer face coverings when indoors; employees must undergo a pre-work health screening and are required to stay at home should they present any symptoms of COVID-19 or other illness; and guests must stay home should they present any symptoms of COVID-19 or other illness, among other protocols.
Privately owned Mt. Rose meanwhile, requires all staff to be vaccinated for the 2021-22 season and has a variety of positions still available in food and beverage, lifts, parking and transportation, ski school, rentals, and more.
Pierce says that while a small number of staff chose to not return this season, the resort did increase its minimum wage from $11.50 an hour to $15.
Last season, Mt. Rose didn’t hire as many employees due to COVID, cutting rental technician and ski instructor positions, but this season it’s ramping up back toward traditional numbers, Pierce says. He adds that Mt. Rose typically doesn’t have foreign employees in the U.S. on work visas because of transportation and lodging issues.
Diamond Peak raised its minimum wage as well, from $14 an hour last year to $17 for positions staffed in the 2021-22 season, due to the rapidly rising cost of living in the region and in hopes of retain returning employees attracting new ones.
“Diamond Peak is a great place to work for many reasons, but No. 1 amongst those is the great group of employees we have working here,” says Sales and Marketing Manager Paul Raymore. “It’s a small enough resort where you can literally get to know everyone at the mountain, and because we’re community-owned our employees can be proud of the fact that their efforts go toward creating incredible recreation programs for the local community.”
Raymore also believes Diamond Peak — and the Tahoe ski industry in general — appeals to voluntarily out-of-work folks because it offers a fun, seasonal employment opportunity that is quite different from a 9-to-5 gig.
“We hear from a lot of our employees that they don’t necessarily need to work, but they get a job at Diamond Peak because it’s a fun way to get out of the house and meet other like-minded people,” Raymore adds.
Working to attract, retain talent
Elsewhere, the Tahoe region’s other roughly 15 downhill and cross-country ski areas opened in various capacities following the mid-December storms, including the three downhill resorts operated by Colorado-based Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN) on the California side of the lake: Northstar California in Truckee, Heavenly Mountain in South Lake Tahoe and Kirkwood Mountain in Kirkwood.
“We are so happy to have opened on Dec. 12, and we’re thrilled with new snowfall that’s hit the ground at Northstar from the storm,” Northstar spokesperson Sara Roston told the NNBW. “When we have substantial snowfall in the early season, it helps us open more terrain, and of course, provide a more robust guest experience for more people who visit us. We’re happy to have guests back on our mountain, enjoying what Northstar California has to offer.”
At Vail Resorts, which owns and operates 34 North American resorts, there is no vaccine requirement for the public to ski or ride. However, guests age 12+ must show proof of vaccination to dine at its cafeteria-style restaurants, and all Vail Resorts employees are required to be fully vaccinated.
When asked if the vaccine mandate has created any issues for hiring and retaining seasonal staff, Roston replies, “We believe the COVID-19 vaccine is the way to end this pandemic, and the best way to keep our employees, guests and communities safe. The vast majority of our employees received the COVID-19 vaccination, and we feel confident we were able to attract and retain employees who were ready to get back to work safely.”
Roston adds that this season has presented some unique staffing challenges in certain locations given the nationwide labor shortages, so in Vail’s affected locations, staff is focusing efforts on where it can “maximize the guest experience.”
“As a company, we work to attract and retain talent through competitive wages, comprehensive benefits and a strong commitment to culture and leadership development,” Roston notes.
Vail recently increased its minimum wage for many workers to $15 an hour at 10 of its resorts in Colorado, California, Utah and Washington, and is offering paid sick time off to all full-time seasonal employees, in addition to COVID-19 Emergency Sick Leave.
Regarding projected seasonal revenue given the late start, Roston touches on early season pass sales and pre-bookings to help Vail keep course.
On Dec. 9, the company released its quarterly earnings report for Q1 of its 2022 fiscal year, which ended Oct. 31, reporting that 2.1 million skiers bought Epic Passes, which range from early purchased day tickets to unrestricted, season-long access.
According to the report, that’s a 700,000 bump in passes from 2020-21 and 900,000 more than the 2019-20 season, increases due to its decision to cut prices by 20%.
“By incentivizing pre-season purchasing of our passes, skiers and riders get an incredible value and so much choice with a geographically diverse network of resorts to access,” she told the NNBW. “In turn, it creates stability for our company, employees and communities in what used to be an industry ruled by weather, allowing us to continuously re-invest back into our resorts, our employees and the environment.”
Vail has invested $2.2 billion over the last 15 years at its various resorts by implementing state-of-the-art technological innovations, improving snowmaking infrastructure, lifts and terrain. As one recent example, in September 2021, the company kickstarted 21 lift upgrades across 14 of its resorts, including a new high-speed 6-person chair at Northstar and a new high-speed 4-person chair at Heavenly.