Editors Note: A big thank you to Natalie Ooi, Program Director, Ski Area Management Program, Colorado State University
Coming off one of the best winter seasons that North America has experienced in recent years, some of you may be thinking, ‘How can I turn my stoke for skiing/snowboarding into a legitimate career?’
This is a conversation I often have with college graduates looking for advice on what direction to head in life, as well as successful working professionals who have come to realize that their current career path is not quite aligned with who they are and what they love to do. Here is some insight on the opportunities available in what is a dynamic, exciting industry that is undergoing significant change as it looks towards the future.
The Traditional Path to Senior Management is Being ‘Shaken Up’
If you talk to ski area managers, many of their stories of how they got to where they are follow a similar vein – they moved to a ski town and started as a liftie bumping chairs, or in some other mountain operations role (think grooming, snowmaking, lift maintenance, or ski patrol). Before long, they found themselves as a supervisor, and then on a path towards Mountain Operations Manager, before ultimately becoming General Manager/President/CEO. This has historically been how you rise to the top, given the traditional focus on mountain operations.
However, as ski areas find themselves operating in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment that is being challenged and influenced by climate change, the rise of technology and big data, along with changing guest needs and wants and many other trends, there has been a shift. Ski areas are no longer solely in the business of uphill transportation and lift ticket sales, with most owning or overseeing lodging and property management, food and beverage, retail, rental, events and conferences, and summer operations, in addition to ski school and mountain operations. As a result, what is required for successful ski area management today goes beyond operational expertise to encompass the ability to lead and inspire across departments, while also being flexible, innovative and able to manage constant change and uncertainty. Given these skills can be developed within any department, we’re starting to see growing numbers of ski area managers making their way up through all aspects of the business, whether it’s food and beverage, finance and accounting, ski school, or marketing. The point is – whatever your area of interest and expertise, the opportunity for career progression is there. You don’t have to be an operations guru to get to the top.
There are Career Opportunities Beyond Seasonal Employment
While there is no shortage of need for lifties, ski school instructors, housekeepers, servers and other seasonal employees, there are a range of year-round positions and long-term career opportunities in all areas of the ski business. In particular, the rise of the resort corporation (e.g. Vail, Alterra, as well as Powdr, Peak, and Boyne Resorts) and the retirement of many senior managers, means that there are more management positions available than ever before. As a result, ski areas are starting to pay more attention to internal talent management and the development of career pathways for employees, to ensure that they are nurturing and developing the right people for the right positions at the right time.
You Don’t Have to Start at the ‘Bottom’
Even though many managers within the ski industry started as frontline employees and have worked their way up, things are changing and this is not the only way forward. The pathway(s) to senior management is more diverse than ever before. As ski areas seek to adopt the latest technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations and the guest experience, the range of skills and knowledge required has increased. This includes a need for expertise in IT, revenue management, procurement, logistics management, social and digital marketing, account management, business systems analytics, customer relationship management, global development – the list goes on. This demand for diverse talent has created new entry points and pathways into the ski industry that don’t all start at the bottom and are often year-round.
You Don’t Even Have to Live in the Mountains
Mountain living isn’t for everyone. It’s remote. It’s cold. Winter feels like it can go on forever. It can also be expensive, and trips to the grocery store can become a two-hour ordeal as you inevitably run into someone you know, because you pretty much know everyone in town. For those who choose the mountain lifestyle, these are the trade-offs for living in spectacularly beautiful surroundings with amazing access to the great outdoors. However, for many who love to recreate in the mountains, it just may not be a reality or a desire to live in the mountains.
Here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be. Given that the head offices of the two largest resort corporations (Vail and Alterra) are located on the Colorado Front Range, there are opportunities for those who want to fully immerse themselves in the mountains, as well as those who prefer some of the comforts that more urban living (or less isolated living) can provide.
A final point here – these shifts in the way that ski areas are hiring, training, and developing employees is in recognition that the world is rapidly changing and the need for innovation, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities among future leaders is paramount. As a result, ski areas are increasingly open to bringing in outside perspectives that question why things have always been done in a certain way. Just as a taxi driver didn’t invent Uber, more and more managers recognize that the next big thing that is going to revolutionize the ski industry may likely not come from within.
So, if you are interested in a career that inspires and encourages active lifestyles and a love for the mountain environment, ski areas are looking for talented, fun, and passionate people in wide range of areas who are hands-on, hard-working, and all about living life to the full. What’s stopping you from being one of them?
LinkedIn: CSU – Ski Area Management
The online Graduate Certificate in Ski Area Management is a 12 credit online program designed for those who are passionate about a career in the ski industry. It has been designed in consultation with current and former ski area managers and industry experts to ensure students obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to differentiate themselves from others and advance their career as a successful ski area manager.