#1: FIS Race Recap: Cancellations, Relocations, and Another Shiffrin Resurgence:
Hello, and welcome to Top Five Fridays, the January 7, 202
12 edition! This week we’re ringing in the new year in the best way we know how: by bringing you the most honest representation of this week’s ski news. Unfortunately, that means we’ve got a couple of highlights this week that would be more accurately classified as lowlights. Before we get into a back to back bummer session (don’t worry, we’ll lift your spirits before sending you off), let’s start by recapping ski racing news from the week.
As you might recall from last week, this week was set up to be a bit more relaxed for the athletes than recent ones have been, as both the men’s and women’s field had just one slalom race scheduled for Zagreb. For the men, things became even more relaxing as their event was ultimately cancelled on account of course conditions not being up to snuff. Well, to be fair, maybe “relaxing” isn’t the best word choice for all of the male athletes, as the decision to cancel was only made after 19 athletes had already attempted the perilous course. In the wake of that cancellation, the men will continue to rest until reconvening this weekend in Adelboden, Switzerland for a giant slalom and a slalom race. You can preview those events here.
On the women’s side of things, there was a bit more excitement. For starters, their nighttime slalom race was actually held. Secondly, Mikaela Shiffrin was able to return to action after being forced to sit on the sidelines for the previous race, having tested positive for Covid. While slalom is Shiffrin’s speciality, there’s always questions surrounding an athlete’s recovery time after having contracted Covid, so it was really anybody’s guess as to how she would perform. At the end of the race though, Shiffrin had answered those questions in style, coming in second place. Also earning points in that race was Paula Moltzan who finished in 11th. Looking ahead, the women have an action packed week, with just a minor wrinkle. This weekend, they meet in Kranjska Gora, Slovakia for a giant slalom and a slalom race. From there, rather than heading to Flachau, Austria for a slalom race, they’ll instead head to Schladming for a slalom race, on account of rising Covid cases. To catch a recap of last week’s races, click here. To preview this weekend’s races in Kranjska Gora, click here. Finally, to know what we know about the recent rescheduling, check out this coverage from EuroSport.com.
#2: Is Vail Too Big to Fail? This Season’s Certainly a Stress Test:
Next up this week, we have more Epic news. A few weeks back, in mid December, we found ourselves covering a triple header of Vail news. The third tidbit in that coverage was a bit of non-news, meaning that we were catching wind of murmurings regarding epic shortcomings this season. This week, those murmurings officially became news as multiple outlets have begun telling the tale of an incredibly difficult and problematic season for Vail resorts across North America. Fortunately, amongst the publications sharing this story, was one of our favorites, The Colorado Sun.
In their coverage of the situation, the Sun paints a picture of a seemingly well-intentioned business that’s become absolutely overwhelmed by challenging circumstances- some of which have happened purely by chance, while others which have been self-inflicted. If the idea that Vail resorts are struggling is new to you, the shortest way to state the issue is this: the guest experience has been exceptionally lackluster across the board this season. The problems plaguing the resort reads like a domino effect, with one problem leaning directly into the other. The first, and most noticeable domino in this sequence are the extremely long lift lines that make perfect social media fodder as frustrated guests share images showing lines as far as the eye can see (literally, that’s not hyperbole). The cause of that domino falling? Limited terrain access as resorts struggle to get up to full trail capacity. While the weather is certainly partially to blame, recent snowfalls have revealed a labor shortage as resorts simply don’t have enough employees to open the entire resort at once. The reasons for the employee shortages? Well, they’re numerous, but let’s focus on the two that are most relevant: housing shortages and low wages. For the employees that are at the resort, their employment has also been less than desirable as the app that Vail uses to handle a bulk of its HR efforts has reportedly been dysfunctional. And then, compounding all of these issues, is the fact that Vail dropped Epic Pass prices, effectively increasing sales by 76%, ultimately resulting in 2.1 million passes sold. In other words, Vail is finally appearing to be in way over its head this season.
Now, we realize that there’s a strong contingency of skiers praying for Vail’s downfall. While we always do our best to keep our opinions neutral here on Chairlift Chat, we have to say, we’re not amongst that crowd. For as messy as this season’s been, there are still a lot of reasons we should all hope to see Vail succeed. Their ability to upgrade on hill amenities, improve and update lifts, their commitment to becoming environmentally friendly, and their ability to introduce new participants to skiing are all laudable efforts. Furthermore, should Vail fail, the future of literally dozens of resorts could be in question, and we all know how hard it can be to reopen a resort once it fails. So, with that in mind, what’s the solution? In our minds, and in the mind of one anonymous Breckenridge patroller who was interviewed for the Colorado Sun story, the problem really starts and ends with employee management. If Vail is willing to invest in their staff by introducing a more effective HR system and offering higher wages, shortages will be a thing of the past, lifts will resume running, lines will decrease, and the company will have at least started to correct the errors that’ve brought them to this point. Other issues will remain of course, such as mountain town traffic congestion, but at least the company would begin to get back on track. For more on this, check out the Colorado Sun.
#3: More Details Behind Park City Ski Patrol’s Ongoing Contract Negotiations Revealed:
Picking up right where we left off, our next highlight this week is very much on the topic of employee compensation. If you’re a regular reader, you know that the Park City ski patrol operates as a union and is currently working without a contract in place. You also may know that they’ve now made a total of 47 efforts to come to an agreement with Vail, but haven’t been able to achieve their goals. We’ve touched on this topic a couple of times here, most recently when we shared the news that Breckenridge ski patrol did come to an agreement with Vail, and rather quickly too. At that time, we wondered what specific details were holding back the Park City patrollers, but didn’t have any further information. This week, we’ve learned more specifics about the issue, by way of the Salt Lake Tribune.
This week, in an article from author Zak Podmore, we’ve finally learned the details behind the disagreement. Prior to this week, we knew that disagreements regarding wages was the hangup, but we didn’t know the exact numbers being debated, or why it’s proven so much more difficult for Park City patrollers to reach an agreement. Now, we know. Over the Summer, Vail announced that it would be offering a $15/hr starting wage for all of its employees. Left out of that agreement however, was the Park City ski patrol, who negotiates their wages separately. As a result, Vail is currently offering first year ski patrollers $13.25, while second year patrollers are making $14.50. This makes these two categories of employee the lowest paid staff on the mountain. Despite needing to possess above average ski abilities as well as medical knowledge, year one and year two patrollers are earning less than other employees who (and no discredit to them), utilize far fewer skills in their line of work. As a result of all of this, Park City ski patrol is demanding a starting wage of $17, with a $1/hr raise each year for the first three years. This, they argue, would be a suitable reflection of the additional knowledge and risks that ski patrol incurs in their line of work.
While it seems like a simple raise would be in Vail’s best interest, particularly when considering the level of community support (a donation-only solidarity fund raised over $56,000 in just over a week and a half), as well as the fact that a strike by ski patrol would force the entire resort to close, there is another perspective. According to assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah, Marshall Steinbaum, Vail’s reluctance might not be directly tied to the cost of raising the salaries of these employees. Instead, their hesitation might have more to do with their desire to not set a precedent in which employees can unionize at their resorts and successfully strike for higher wages. Considering the minimal amount of impact that giving this small group of patrollers a raise would have on Vail’s bottom line, while also thinking about the size of Vail’s workforce on the whole, this concept seems particularly viable. Still, the bottom line here is that the Park City ski patrollers have both a strong argument and significant leverage. If Vail doesn’t find a way to appease the group, it’s hard to see how this situation doesn’t continue to snowball beyond their control. To learn more about this, check out the writeup from the Salt Lake Tribune.
#4: Clearing of Valemount Glacier Destinations’ First Trails is Set to Get Underway in January:
Finally, after a couple of not-so-fun highlights, we tried really hard to find an article that’s a bit more fun and exciting to end the week on. Fortunately for you, we were moderately successful. This week, we learned that very preliminary efforts are about to get underway at the site of the Valemount Glacier Destinations resort, a proposed mega-resort located in British Columbia that would rival the largest resorts in North America once completed. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s been a few years since we’ve had a chance to bring it up. In fact, the last time we discussed Valemount was back in 2017 when the developers for the resort had just had their master plan approved. Humorously, at that time, ambitions were large enough to expect that the resort could begin operations in as little as a year. Little did they know, if they got even just a little bit delayed, a global pandemic would push their plans out even further.
This week’s good news though, is that the developers of the resort expect to start getting started on developing the area in January. We chose our words carefully there because at the moment, the developers for the resort are still seeking funding before really letting loose on the construction phase. Keeping that in mind, they’ve decided to begin logging operations in the areas that will become trails. By taking these initial steps, it should speed up the next steps in the development process when they’re ready to build. Additionally, the local community will also be benefactors of this logging effort as they’ve been approved to utilize part of the terrain as a local ski hill, accessible via a rope tow, until the entire resort is opened. If all goes to plan this Spring, it’s expected that the rope tow will be installed and ready for community use next Winter. As for the resort itself, final timelines remain up in the air as the team behind the proposed mega-resort will need to secure funding before moving forward with certainty. If they are able to achieve that feat however, Valemount promises to be one of the most impressive resorts in North America, boasting one of the longest vertical drops in the world, year round glacier skiing, and much more. To learn more about this week’s news, click here. To learn more about, or to refresh your knowledge regarding Valemount, check out their official website here.