Thursday, January 11, 2018

Altitude Advocates

Me climbing up to the Hospice du Grand St Bernard in the late 80s - great soup and chocolate!
As an almost lifelong skier, I've always been fascinated by the background stories of people who live and work in resorts. Some are from the actual area, lucky enough to have been born there (for example, Patrick Bruchez from the Hotel de Verbier), but most have migrated to ski areas due to an undeniable delight in downhill. 
Hotel de Verbier, Verbier, Switzerland
Rosshutte overlooking Seefeld - Olympiaregion Seefeld, Austria
The first ski seasonaire I ever met was a rep for Swans, a British ski tour operator in the 1970s. I was 13 at the time on my first ski holiday to Seefeld, Austria and I was so jealous of that rep!! But I was also impressed with the idea that you could choose where you lived and worked and that there were jobs for foreigners in the Alps and elsewhere. It was right then that I vowed never to miss a ski season - and I have stuck to that so far. I also worked for tour operators, myself, in the 80s and early 90s, lived in various ski resorts, and made a career out of ski writing

In order to inspire younger seasonal workers about various careers in ski areas, I was asked by Style Altitude editor, Elaine Deed, to write an article about different powder pathways. It was published last week and you can check it out here: 

As usual, I wrote too much!! So here are some of the out-cuts with a slightly different focus: 

Seasonal ski workers are a huge resource for the longevity of the ski industry. Not only are they dedicated employees that will do any job for their ski fix, but in later life they are not likely to stop skiing just because they have their first baby, mortgage or career. While they are actually working in a ski resort, they will encourage friends and family to come and visit them (for example, all those Aussie and Kiwi families who fly around the world to come and visit their offspring in resorts like Panorama - I met loads of them recently in the highly sociable hot tub!) Although many seasonaires return to city-slicking, others will carve out a cunning career designed to keep them in the mountains. Skiing or riding will always be their primary priority and they’ll figure out how to scrimp and scrape to ski or ride with their kids as soon as they can walk. 

Jenevieve LeBlanc and kids in the Sunshine Village gondola
Family Focus
Take Jenevieve LeBlanc, for example, whose criminology career plans were derailed by the wonders of working at Lake Louise and Whistler Blackcomb. After changing tack to a tourism management degree she is now, at age 32, Media & Marketing Supervisor for SkiBig3, the company that encompasses the sister ski areas of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mt Norquay

So, what was it about wintersports that changed Jen’s direction? “I remember distinctly how different I felt in the mountains. I was much calmer, rooted and I seemed to find a new appreciation for little things. For example, we rock climbed a lot back then and the smell of the wet fauna in the morning always made me so energized,” she reflects. The summer she spent working at the Chateau Lake Louise was pivotal but it was the snowboarding that clinched it for her. “I mean I was used to the icy hills of Bromont in Quebec so anything softer was a challenge. My first powder day was epic, I spent three hours trying to go down one run,” she recalls. “Kept falling and eating snow and trying to dig myself out but I was hooked. I spent a great amount of time on my snowboard the following years, exploring new terrain, meeting new amazing friends from everywhere in the world and working to live, not living to work. The people I met became my family, they opened my horizons and made me want to raise my children with these values.”

Now married with two children, Jen also skies regularly at all three resorts, sometimes staying right on the hill at the luxurious Sunshine Mountain Lodge – another perk of working for SkiBig3. “Milan, my son, and I did it quite a bit actually. It was nice to have some mother-son time on the mountain. It really makes bonding easy quite honestly. We actually had an amazing powder day there where the night before it had snowed so much that the roads to Sunshine Village were closed for a good part of the day and so we had the powdery resort to ourselves. Milan rode his first powder run at three.”

Apart from the family fun focus, Jen says that snow sports teach kids perseverance, independence, the importance of being safe, and the means to be active in winter. “We talk a lot, too, on the gondola, in the chairlifts, over hot chocolate. They meet like-minded people and we all share our stories at the end of the day. Everyone can contribute not only the adults or the teenagers. It also seems as if age doesn’t matter when you are on the mountain. We just all share the same thing.” Jen anticipates a great future with SkiBig3 and says that, whatever happens in life, riding will always be the priority.

Lake Louise by Chris Moseley - courtesy of The Lake Louise Ski Resort
So, now that Jen is part of the ski hill hierarchy, I asked her how SkiBig3 resorts reach out to former seasonaires to keep them committed. It turns out that Lake Louise has organized several alumni reunions, a great way to harness the word-of-mouth potential of ex workers. There was one back in 2010 and another last winter in late April, advertised as a weekend-long celebration to reconnect with former co-workers in their old stomping grounds. The $50 registration fee included live entertainment, appetizer buffet, champagne toast, and free breakfast next morning. As well as skiing/riding, on the agenda was a free concert and a Locals & Legends Party. Lake Louise also has an extensive social media network of over 100K and an email list in the tens of thousands both of which help in keeping in touch with their many, multi-cultural alumni. 

Dan Kwong, Northstar California, Tahoe
The Fervour of First Love
How does an electrical engineering graduate with a Masters in Management from Harvard end up as Senior Manager for Talent Development at Vail Resorts’ Tahoe ski hills? It’s a classic love story with a happy ending. Now 33, Dan Kwong had spent his childhood in Silicon Valley and mapped out a distinct techie career for himself. However, he took a winter season off in 2006 to work as a teaching assistant with the Children’s Ski & Snowboard School at Northstar California Resort, Lake Tahoe. “This also happened to be the place where I took my first pizza pie turns,” says Dan. “My family made Northstar a home away from home since the early 1990’s mainly due to the great employees, village atmosphere and a culture of care and inclusion.” That first seasonal job revolved around making tater tots and sugar cookies, taking kids to the bathroom, serving lunch and cleaning up the ski school space. Despite the menial work, that season morphed into a series of six winters whereby Dan progressed in kids’ instruction, private lessons, ski school supervision and management – Silicon Valley aspirations gone by the wayside. “It was not only the fun that brought me back each season, but also the people and just how much I was learning about myself,” Dan explains. “I was creating a career where I didn’t think it was possible.” 

In order to make this lifestyle year-round, in 2008 he launched Tri DNA Multisport, a fledging race production company, specializing in college races and race equipment rentals. “I learned a lot of fail-forward lessons during those years, but most of all I was able to align my passion with my work,” Dan comments. The travel itch returned in 2012 when Dan went to Innsbruck, Austria for the first Youth Olympic Games. “I worked for the British Olympic Team and the Olympic Organizing Committee. I got to set up the rooms for the athletes, work with BMW to procure team vehicles, assist the coaches and support the athletes. It was an amazing experience that made me grateful for having a connection to snow sports,” he recollects. All set to pursue a full-time career with the Olympics, he got the opportunity to apply for a Human Resources management position at Northstar. “I had never considered a career in the ski industry and definitely not in HR, but I applied when I realized it was the people that brought me back to the resort each year,” says Dan. He has been there ever since: “This journey has been one where I’m able to align who I am with what I do in an industry where I live my passion and do my best work.” With plentiful powder possibilities from his Tahoe office, part of his role involves travel further afield to resorts in Utah and Colorado where he says he gets to expand his ski legs. Future plans including tackling Whistler Blackcomb, Canada, now also under the Vail Resorts’ umbrella. But Northstar remains his first love: “My family’s winter home is at Northstar, so it’s familiar and I love the village, tree skiing, mile long leg burning runs and the secret stashes at Lookout Mountain. Because I work for a ski company there are many perks including my EpicPass, buddy tickets for friends and family and discounted food and retail. We all have things that we spend money on and I choose to spend it at Northstar (and other ski resorts) because it is my passion and I value the experience I get when I’m here - on and off the clock.”

Tim Wolfgram with the Solitude Snowsports Services team
Serial Seasonaire
Carving a career out of ski instruction, Tim Wolfgram has worked his way up to Director of Snowsports Services at Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah. Having started skiing at age 14 in Minnesota, and instructing since 20, Tim has done seasonal work for decades filling in the gaps with guiding and instructing in New Zealand as well as construction and restaurant jobs. More recently his role has become year-round involving summer operations such as the mountain biking program, bike rentals, and adventure parks. “Yes, I have been a seasonal ski bum for most of my life,” he says. “I started teaching skiing in college in 1975, I've been doing it ever since. I have worked at resorts in Montana, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, New Hampshire and New Zealand.” 

Tim Wolfgram at Solitude
From his early days as an instructor, he moved on to become a trainer, then an Examiner and Clinic leader for PSIA (Professional Snowsports Instructors of America), followed by assistant Ski School Director and then Director at various ski schools around the USA. During his 42-year seasonaire stint, he has ski bummed in Canada, Europe, New Zealand and South America. The ski bug bit him at university: “I studied education and got my Bachelors’ at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. My friend Greg Nelson from school brought me up to Birch Park in Wisconsin way back for some night skiing - I think we rode the school bus up there. I was mesmerized by the big hill all lit up, he taught me a Stem Christie using a rope tow, and I was off and running.” Skiing changed his life from that moment on, breeding a permanent passion for powder. What has kept him in the instruction field has been the ability to help others. “I think the most significant thing is how I have helped change other people’s lives. Sure, I have had fun, and I love to ski the deep powder still, especially with my wife, but it’s the profound differences I have made in people young and old. That is what skiing has done for me.”

April Thomas Whitney with husband Cory at Brundage Mountain
Media In The Mountains
Ski bummed for a season...Still here 13 years later,” says former TV news presenter, April Thomas Whitney.  In her 20s she took a hiatus from her fast-paced career in television news in Idaho “to do the ski bum thing”, she told me. “I worked one winter at Timberline on Mount Hood as a ski instructor, then came to McCall, Idaho to put in ‘an easy year’ doing the same at Brundage Mountain.” Here she was recruited into snow reporting: “After spending ‘a bad snow season’ at a mountain where I was regularly finding untracked powder two days after a storm, I was hooked.” 

Exploring the slopes, improving her skiing prowess, she slowly scraped her way to full-time employment at Brundage, partly by convincing management they needed to take photos of the daily ski experience, with email follow-ups to guests when there was fresh snow. “Then came Facebook etc,” she says. “Fast forward a decade, and I am making a decent living - enough to own a home and a car that was built this decade - and I spent a few more runs on the beginner slope last winter, introducing my then 18-month-old daughter to skiing.” Now Communication Director for Brundage Mountain, April is also Marketing Chair for the local Chamber of Commerce. 

Sienna learning to ski at 18 months
A dedicated ski bum at heart, the 44-year-old and husband, Cory - who she fell in love with at Brundage – have a two-year daughter, Sienna who they are bringing up Brundage-style: “We got Sienna on skis last season when she was 18 months old. She was mostly between my husband’s legs, but we were stoked to see how much she loved the chairlift and the whole ‘go skiing!’ experience. She even liked to tailgate in the lower parking lot, which is ‘a thing’ at Brundage Mountain. This year, she’ll be almost 2 ½ when our season starts, so we’re thinking she’ll be able to ski the bunny hill in a hula hoop or alongside us instead of between Cory’s legs. When she’s 3 ½, we plan to put her in the Brundage Kid’s Program several days a week.” 

April in Brundage pow
So, how does she explain the lure of the mountains especially when she was on such a charismatic career path in TV. “The mountains really pulled me out of a rat-race rut. As my career in TV news got more demanding, I began to crave more time on the mountain - at that time, Mt. Hood. I love the contrasts of skiing. How it activates all your senses at once and puts you in a state of excitement and calm at the same time.” The magic of the mountains, coupled with Cory, confirmed April in her unanticipated choice and she also fell in love with the ambiance of small town life. “That was unexpected,” she agrees. “But, I found I really enjoy the friendly familiarity and the built-in accountability of living in a place with a maximum of two degrees of separation. So, I’ve got a lifestyle I love, a family I’m crazy about and a town that truly feels like home.”

Not only an ardent advocate of wintersports, April is also a professional at communicating this. Her role requires her to be at the forefront of social media marketing. “The timing of my entrance into the ski world and the rise of technology and social media seemed like fate,” she recounts. “My first year as a snow reporter, I remember hearing our managers saying ‘when it doesn’t snow in Boise, people assume it’s not snowing here and they don’t come.’ Brundage is 100 miles away. So, I suggested we send them emails whenever it snowed and set up Powder Alerts the next season.” Her next ploy was to convince them to use daily photos posted on the resort website or embedded in emails. “It seems so basic now, but we were already generating ‘content’ when Facebook came on the scene and were well positioned to incorporate video (we have a popular feature we call BTV – BrundageTV) and jump on Instagram,” she says. In the end, none of her media background was wasted – it actually facilitated her skill with new technologies. “And my ability to pump out content quickly helped us keep our loyal skiers and riders engaged and up to date, even though they might be experiencing different weather than we were,” she adds.

Tracey Delfs in the trees at Lake Louise
Massage your way into the Mountains
Not all mountain careers are ski industry-based. Tracey Delfs left corporate Calgary to move to Banff in 1995, determined to integrate skiing into her everyday lifestyle. “I thought about what career I could do in the mountains and decided to go into massage therapy school. Best decision ever - being a massage therapist brought me the best opportunities ever for free skiing,” she says. Tracey went straight to the top of the tree, working for Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), Canada’s biggest and oldest heli-skiing operation. “I did massage therapy up at CMH part time for 14 years,” Tracey says. “When there was space in the helicopter, staff got to go skiing. Best powder days ever - for free!” She based her massage therapy practice from a Sports Injuries Clinic in Banff, which catered to Canadian Winter Olympic athletes, leading to travel in Europe and the US with the National Alpine Ski team. 

Tracey Delfs at Lake Louise
She also massaged her way around the World Cup Circuit in Europe with the National Biathlon team. During the four years she did this, she stayed at a variety of alpine resorts: “And I could ski for free on the World Cup biathlon courses - best skate skiing trails ever. I also got to go to the Salt Lake and VancouverOlympics with the athletes and got more skiing in.” The savvy skier created a powder-preferential appointments schedule, only taking patients from 1pm six days a week, so that she could hit six out of seven mornings on the mountain and a full day on her day off. Now 49, she returned to Calgary five years ago. “I still get my ski fixes now, but have to pay for them,” she says. “Every time I have to pay almost $100 for a ticket it makes me even more grateful for my many years of free skiing.” As part of her work as a mindfulness teacher, retreat leader and life coach, she runs programs from Chateau Lake Louise where she still wangles some free skiing. And with mindful wintersports an upcoming trend, she could be bagging more downhill days as her retreats take off.

Pete Cross
Dishwasher To Director
Pete Cross started out as a dishwasher at the Hotel Edelweiss in Les Deux Alpes in 1984, skiing on borrowed skis. He’d left school in Northern Ireland with one A Level, declining a rugby scholarship offer to study Sport Science at Warwick University, and going to play at a London Irish rugby club. “Rugby wasn’t professional at this point. I had no career plan,” he says. However, an ankle break and six-month recuperation, led to his doctor to suggest a ski trip, as it would satisfy his zest for sport and the ski boot would protect his ankle. “That was the beginning! I discovered the world of mountains - that I already loved, a fantastic new sport that wasn’t rugby, an opportunity to travel and even an industry to work in - sport tourism and hospitality,” says Pete.  He combined summers in France and winter seasons around the Alps for the next 15 years, working for UK tour operators including Bladon Lines and PGL Adventure. “Without a conscious career plan I moved up the ladder, always looking for a challenge and not wanting to become the ‘big fish in the small pond’, I moved resorts, travelling all over the Alps as an operations manager and lived/worked in Les Deux Alpes, Alped’Huez, Val d’IsèreVerbier, Chamonix, Méribel.” (I actually met Pete back in the 80s in Verbier, next in Méribel in the 90s and again more recently when he rediscovered my husband and I through a book we wrote and we reconnected in Canada.) 

Pete Cross in his first ski job in Les Deux Alpes, France
He filled gaps between season start dates traveling down under and working at ski shows and other Earl’s Court London events. “The highlight of this period was working for CBS TV as their Transport Manager on the Albertville 92 and Lillehammer 94 Winter Olympic Games, a fantastic experience which was the culmination of my operations/logistics/customer service skills learnt in the ski industry,” he says. Albertville was also the time he met his French wife-to-be, Valérie. After the Games, he moved into managing bars, restaurants and hotels for a UK group – his first full-time job but still in a ski resort, of course. “Next step was to have a family and we agreed we didn’t want to be in a ski resort, however we wanted to be near one,” Pete explains. “As Valérie was a sailor, we drew of a list of places that combined mountains and sea. They were: Biarritz, Christchurch and Vancouver. We started applying for emigration to Canada. "Then out of the blue my employer asked me to set up a company in Switzerland and we realised that a skiing and sailing (on Lake Geneva) option was actually on our doorstep! We moved here at the end of 1997 and our first child was born in May 1998.” From there on, Pete’s career evolved into teaching event and sport tourism management at the Glion Institute of Higher Education before becoming a senior educational manager – pretty good going for someone with one A Level!! Morph to now and Pete describes his life: “Fifteen years later: a second child, a house 15 minutes from the ski lift, 20 minutes from the lake, 45 minutes from Verbier, 60 minutes from Chamonix, and a cellar full of old skis and a 19-year-old daughter starting her first season as a ski instructor in Whistler. I don’t where she got that from…..”

James Nathan with family
From Bum to Bucket List
Strategic Partnerships Manager for Crystal Ski UK sounds like a bucket-list lifestyle. It involves travelling extensively to ski resorts all over the world, skiing with all kinds of partners, press, suppliers and competitors at different destinations throughout the winter including France, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Canada, USA, Sweden and Andorra. “And I when I’m not skiing as the lifts have stopped turning, I get to talk about skiing throughout the year so when people are lying on a beach, sipping cocktails, I’m discussing snow making and resorts and already planning for the following winter,” says 41-year-old James Nathan. 

Alpe d'Huez, France - advanced ski area
But he wasn’t always such a high roller. Leaving school at 16 with 8GCSEs he started out working in sales, progressing into the recruitment business. That is until he was bitten on the ski bum. “In 2015, I went out to do a season without a clue as to what I would do or how I would support myself,” he recalls. “I had some saving graces: I had a bit of money put away from working hard, I had already booked an apartment for the season and had advertised a sublet on seasonaire websites which halved my outgoing cost and gave me a little more in the bank.” His somewhat affluent ski bum lifestyle in Alpe D’Huez revolved around waking up around 10am, buying bread and cheese for breakfast/lunch and then hitting the mountain with ski pals. “My compatriots who were working for operators or who had ‘real’ jobs in resort were up much earlier and already on the mountain by 10am as they had more work in the afternoon/evening. Us ski bums could ride all through the afternoon and end up in an après bar,” he says. Earning cash-in-hand for odd jobs around the resort, he realized that snowboarding was a genuine passion. “It made me wonder how some people seem to be ‘lucky’ and have jobs in something they love, so I decided that I would look at ways of making snow sports my career,” he explains. “Now, being from and living in Leeds didn’t expose me to any ski industry businesses who are mostly based in London or the South East, but my experience in recruitment gave me a head start as I knew how to source specific jobs for my candidates so, without hesitation, I applied that approach to my own search.” 

Terrain Park at Alpe d'Huez, France
Using key word searches online, on job boards and on seasonaire chat boards, he scoured the mountain market for any roles that had ‘winter’, ‘ski’, or ‘snow’ in them. “Of course, there were a lot of non-starters, but there were also a lot of interesting roles that were emailed to me daily,” he says. “I waited until I found something just right for my background and my skills and applied. It was down in London so it would mean me relocating from Leeds and effectively starting again with my career, but my consideration was that nothing that you want is easy so If I really wanted this, I had to commit. I got the job and worked out the best time frame for me to move down to London and start my career in the commercial side of the ski industry.” It was all part of his plan to make skiing part of every day, he says: “Really incorporate it into my lifestyle, build my career on its shoulders”. Eleven years later he still talks about his first season in Alpe D’Huez: “I speak about it with rose tinted glasses, I’m sure. To me, it’s one of the best resorts in France and has fantastic skiing, accommodation, restaurants and nightlife. I’m biased, but thousands of UK skiers each year can’t be wrong so I’ll bet that my memory of that resort 11 years ago is still valid as the best ski resort in France!” Although he is living the downhill dream, he still has a couple of ambitions: “Before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I MUST ski the powder fields of the Japanese ski resorts - not one, but several – oh, and I’ve still to tick heli-boarding off my list too.”

Tiggy Underwood and kids, Miska and Maija
Verbier Vision
Combining her love for skiing and windsurfing, Tiggy Underwood managed to season hop with various travel companies, including Mark Warner, for eight years after doing a B-Tech in business studies. Loving the laid-back lifestyle, she decided to do a Masters’ in leisure and tourism in order to get back to the Alps on a more lucrative footing. She worked a winter as manager for a luxury ski company and graduated to year-round employment for a Verbier entrepreneur. And in 1998 she met ski-crazy Kari, who later became her husband. 

Me racing in Verbier in the 80s!
They met through an ex-boyfriend who used to film Kari skiing (he was one of the fearless Finns of the 1980s who my husband and I used to follow into remote powder caches when we worked in Verbier). Only in Verbier on a part-time basis, Kari returned to Helsinki to work as an acupuncturist. But by 2001 he moved his business to Verbier and was back for good this time. “I then started lecturing - mainly financial accounting but other subjects originally linked to my MA in leisure and tourism - 15 years ago and I am still doing it,” says Tiggy. They lived in Verbier until 2012, until moving to the base of the hill in Vollèges, just five minutes from the lift station. For Tiggy, Verbier was all about “village life, outdoor adventure shared during day and very, very social evenings”. She and Kari taught their two kids, Miska and Maija, to ski there around age 3, often going to Champex Lac, a very quiet, tiny resort nearby where they took turns to telemark and baby-mind.

Arizona Snowbowl picked up 14” of fresh snow yesterday, leading the USA in new snow in past 24 hours

Lynda Fleischer
Ticket Seller To Restauranteur

Selling lift tickets was not necessarily an obvious career move when Lynda Fleischer first went to Arizona Snowbowl in 1979. She was earning money and getting in some free skiing while at journalism college nearby. Studying public relations, she graduated in 1982 with hopes of working in the marketing or business sector. Her ambition took her to a job at the golf resort which then, coincidentally, purchased Arizona Snowbowl. This got her back there taking guests to the ski area for the day and for special events such as racing and social gatherings.  By 1988 she was Director of Marketing at the area, responsible for developing promotions such as Snowbowl School Days, Ski Free on your Birthday, Ski and Golf Competitions as well as countless races and events including Jose Cuervo days with volleyball on the snow. Like so many others one of the clinchers was meeting her husband at the Snowbowl. “He was working as the Food and Beverage Director, and we were married at the top of the mountain, 11,500 feet,” she explains. However, four days later the newlyweds – and hubby’s two young children - moved to Guam. 

Shot Ski at Altitudes Bar and Grill Flagstaff
The call of the mountains was irrepressible, though, and they were back two years later with a new baby in tow. “Upon return to Flagstaff I started running the local youth ski team which I did for 14 seasons and began teaching skiing which I have now done for 17 seasons and I am now a level two alpine cert with a specialization in children and adaptive skiing,” says Lynda who is now 58. Her tight-knit community has many worker reunions for Arizona Snowbowl. “I have been to several reunions and have planned as many in my years on the mountain,” says Lynda. “I remain a devoted employee and enjoy my time at the area, spreading the passion that I have for the sport.” With her husband, she opened a ski themed restaurant, Altitudes, in downtown Flagstaff that supports the culture and social aspect of the sport. The couple continue to run it 14 years later. Although Arizona Snowbowl was her first love, Lynda skis anywhere she can, subsidized by discounts offered through membership with PSIA, and her “magic mountain” is Telluride

Locals and Seasonaires have a huge impact on communicating the essence of a ski resort or town both to visitors at the destination and via social media. A study done by Ferguson and Bourke in 2013 (Ferguson S. and Bourke A. ‘Living the brand’. The evangelical experiences of snowsport workers. In: McCabe S (ed) Handbook of Tourism Marketing. London UK: Routledge, pp. 435-446) examined the role played by workers in a ski resort setting, in particular how employees represent and co-create brand experiences with and for consumers. They found that seasonal workers are “evangelical brand ambassadors” who create a sense of unique customer experience within the destination that actually contributes to the meaning of the destination brand itself. Perhaps they should be paid more!

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