Q&A: Vail CEO Kirsten Lynch talks about last year’s staffing shortages

Kirsten Lynch, the chief executive of Vail Resorts, is beginning her second year at the helm of a ski industry behemoth that owns 41 resorts in the U.S, Canada, Australia and Switzerland, including five in Colorado.

Born and raised in Chicago, she fell in love with skiing at Wilmot Mountain, a tiny area in Wisconsin improbably nicknamed “The Matterhorn of the Midwest” despite having only 193 feet of vertical drop. Her family skied there often and made frequent ski trips to Colorado, fueling her “dream” to live here someday.

“When I went to Wilmot at age 6 and experienced the outdoors and what I perceived as ‘the mountains,’ it ignited in me an exhilaration, a passion, a thrill, this sense of freedom,” Lynch said. “And that was before I even came to Colorado and knew what real mountains were like. It just grew from there.”

In 2011 she quit her job at PepsiCo, where she was chief marketing officer of the Quaker Foods and Snacks division, and moved to Boulder without having a job lined up, “purely for my passion to be in Colorado, near the mountains and near skiing.”

She soon landed at Vail Resorts and spent 10 years as the company’s chief marketing officer before succeeding Rob Katz as CEO last November.

The first weeks of her tenure were challenging because of staffing shortages that caused long lift lines and hindered snowmaking efforts before the Christmas holidays, igniting a storm of criticism from angry passholders. In an interview conducted this week at company headquarters in Broomfield, Lynch addressed those and other issues with The Denver Post.

Q. How does it feel to be at the threshold of a new season, to have that first year behind you?

A. In some ways I can’t believe it’s been a year since I was appointed into this role. December and January were challenging. Our company — the entire industry, and our company in particular — experienced some compounding challenges during the holidays, our busiest time. We had low snow leading into Christmas. We had the escalation of a new variant of COVID, Omicron, that impacted our employees with exclusions from working, and we had the global labor shortage.

It had two negative impacts. One was on our employees, the stress and the strain of that. It also had a negative impact on some of our guests. We care deeply about the guest experience and we care deeply about the employee experience. We don’t make anything, we create an experience. When that doesn’t go well, our entire company feels terrible about it, myself most of all.

Part of experiencing that so early in my journey as the leader of this company was to listen intensely and understand what went right and what went wrong. I came out of that period intent on taking action. Creating a guest experience starts with our employees. In March I announced an increase in wages. We took our base wages up to $20 (per hour) and, in some functions up to $21. It was a $175 million investment in wages. In April we announced an investment in affordable housing. [NOTE: The company also announced other employee investments including access to mental health resources, reproductive healthcare and a career development initiative.]

Q. In retrospect, could more have been done going into last season to address your labor shortage?

A. I think we have to own that. Last year was a very unique dynamic for everyone. We still have to own that we did not take enough action to address it. Our company took up wages in July of last year, leading into the season, and it wasn’t enough. We should have done more. Coming out of that December-January time period, what was crystal clear to me was that more had to be done.

The key for me is, we’re always going to have challenges. We are constantly willing to listen, learn and change. We have to adapt.

Q. How did all the criticism you received last year affect you personally?

A. There’s two things. One is, it’s real. It’s valid. Any way any of our guests felt during that time period, it’s valid if they were frustrated. Our whole existence is to create a guest experience, so if our guests did not have a good experience, we have to take that seriously. Second is, I take it as feedback. I’m constantly looking at what is the experience of our guests, of our employees, and what actions we need to take to address it. Coming out of that Christmas time period in January, we immediately started talking about action: What do we need to do differently? That’s why we announced (increasing wages) so early, in March. I felt like it was really important for our guests to see we heard them, and for our employees to see we heard them.

Q. Where do you stand now on staffing for this season?

A. Our retention of last winter’s staff into this winter, our retention of summer staff into winter, and the applicant pool of new people coming in for hire, all three of those indicators I feel good about. I do not expect us to be understaffed.

Q. Where does the Vail employee housing proposal stand in the face of local opposition that has prevented you from moving forward?

A. Affordable housing is a crisis in Vail and it needs to be a priority for the entire community, us included. We have private land in East Vail that is ours and a commitment that we want to build affordable housing for our employees on that land. We had an approved project with the town (with) years of collaboration to get to that approval. Our stance has not changed. It is really important that all of our communities and our company are committed to solving this challenge.

Q. You have said a priority in your vision for the future of the company is promoting racial diversity. What are your goals?

A. The future of this sport is inclusion. This industry is not particularly inclusive right now. It’s not very diverse, it’s not always the most welcoming industry, and it’s not growing. Part of the reason it’s not growing is because some of the fastest-growing segments of the population are not participating in this sport. When you think about the future of the sport, it’s really important that we create a welcoming and inclusive environment that creates diversity in our guests.

Our approach is to focus on ourselves first and create a culture that is welcoming and inclusive in our own company for all marginalized populations — people of color, LGBTQ+, gender, persons with disabilities — and creating the right culture and environment so we can have diverse employees. That then will create the welcoming and inclusive environment to welcome diverse guests. It’s a long-term vision and a long-term goal. It is not going to be easy, but I think it’s absolutely critical for the future of the industry.

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