Tourists are beginning to return in droves to Whistler as public health restrictions lift and life gets closer to normal, but the same can’t yet be said for workers.
“Finding the staff that we need to run our businesses is a very challenging right now,” said Alta Bistro owner and Restaurant Association Whistler president Eric Griffith. “And it won’t let up anytime soon … it’s going to take us all summer and through the fall to really staff this resort properly for winter.”
Griffith estimates the Alta Bistro team lost approximately 20 to 30 per cent of its staff when Whistler Blackcomb was ordered to close and indoor dining was restricted in March. “That second shutdown, that was like the breaking point for some people. They just couldn’t be on EI anymore, they had to go do something else,” he said. “We lost some people to tree planting and [other] seasonal jobs, but I’m hoping that we’ll start to see people returning to town.”
Added Griffith, “We’re just going to keep working through it, but we’re going to have to make compromises.”
For many local businesses, those compromises include reducing capacity and shortening hours, to avoid staff burnout and lower operating expenses while ensuring service levels remain high. Griffith’s Alta Bistro is currently only open five days per week, while Upper Village ski shop and taproom RMU announced in an Instagram post this week that it is reducing its hours due to a lack of kitchen staff.
For other businesses, that might mean owners or office staff stepping into customer-facing positions, explained Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Melissa Pace.
“I’ve talked to the governments about this; we need staffing,” she said. “We have such a limited timeframe, being in a resort. We have weeks and only a few weekends to make up the loss of revenue [suffered during the pandemic.]”
Staffing issues aren’t unique to Whistler, but are posing similar challenges to tourism operators and businesses across the province, confirmed Ginger Brunner, a senior HR specialist with go2HR, B.C.’s tourism and hospitality human resource association.
Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association, backed this up, recently estimating that the province’s restaurant industry has lost about 45,000 of its approximately 190,000 staff during the pandemic—right in line with Griffith’s estimated loss.
The ongoing shortage is motivating many employers to get increasingly creative with their recruitment efforts, Brunner said. Whistler’s Araxi, for instance, took out a full-page ad in Pique’s employment opportunities section last week, offering potential workers 50 per cent off the cost of staff housing this summer.
“We’re seeing those signing bonuses out there; the housing, flexibility in some of the scheduling and shifts that are being offered, adjustments in compensation … and what employers or employers are providing employees as incentives,” Brunner explained.
“It’s not just end-of-season incentives anymore, but it’s referrals for hires, where if staff can refer others that are hired, then they’ll receive a bonus themselves.”
Several factors are contributing to the ongoing shortage, Brunner added, from the pandemic prompting some workers to pivot into other industries to a drop in international workers.
Despite these shortages, the provincial government this week reported that B.C. has surpassed pre-pandemic employment levels, effectively recovering more than 100 per cent of the jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation acknowledged that the province’s accommodation and food services sector—a significant component of its tourism industry—“saw the biggest job growth among all B.C. sectors in June, with 19,200 jobs gained throughout the province.” B.C. also leads all provinces in job recovery in accommodation and food services since the start of the pandemic, with about 88 per cent of jobs recovered, the statement added.
While Whistler hotels haven’t historically faced the same struggles as other local businesses when it comes to finding labour, Hotel Association of Whistler president Saad Hasan said this summer is different.
“You may have pockets of some hotels that have a little bit better staffing than the others, but it is the standard, from what I’m hearing, that staff shortages are affecting our openings,” he said.
“Hotels have staff-to-guest ratios, and we are very careful about that. It’s difficult if you don’t have enough staff, because then if you open it to guests then you will find that the experience is not the same.”
Generally hotels in Whistler have a core foundation of long-term staff, and top up their roster with seasonal workers as needed, Hasan explained. But with much of that foundation comprised of international staff, a significant portion was lost when the pandemic prompted employees to return to their home countries. Now, “what you’re trying to do is build up from absolute ground zero”—without the same international workforce that Whistler once drew, Hasan said.
That said, hotel staff aren’t yet being pushed to their limits by high-occupancy rates, despite the bustling weekend crowds that appear to have returned to Whistler. “What you’re seeing in the village is largely day visitors, because it’s not reflected as strongly in hotel accommodations,“ noted Hasan.
But in terms of B.C.’s reopening, “it’s just early days,” he added.
“[The Hotel Association] accepted what came our way in March of 2020. The drive to get revenues is not at the forefront at the moment for any members. At the moment, the drive is to open as safely as possible [and] give our guests the best experience possible,” Hasan said.
—With files from Jane Seyd, North Shore News