Getting, keeping staff still a small business headache 

Hotels in great shape, retailers so-so

“I don’t know what to do differently." Birks manager Ginalyn MacDonald has been without a full staff for a year. Photo by Vivian Moreau
  • “I don’t know what to do differently." Birks manager Ginalyn MacDonald
    has been without a full staff for a year. Photo by Vivian Moreau

By Vivian Moreau

While Whistler hotels have all the staff they need for the winter season, retailers and small businesses are still struggling to fill positions.

Marriott Residence Inn, Westin Resort and Spa, Four Seasons and Pan Pacific have only a handful of employees left to hire, after a concerted recruiting drive this fall.

“I was actually overwhelmed by the interest we had in coming to the hotel,” said Ian Lowe, Marriott general manager. Lowe said the 186-room hotel received about 200 resumes in November for 16 full- and part-time positions in housekeeping, maintenance, front desk and the bar.

“As of Thursday we signed the last one, so assuming staff don’t leave or injure themselves we’re good,” Lowe said.

Marriott does not have staff housing but does offer a 15-day ski pass as a staff perk. Lowe said they received many resumes from overseas applicants prior to their arriving here and concluded the well-known Marriott name prompted those submissions.

Both the Four Seasons and Westin went beyond Canada looking for staff, with stops in Chile for both hotels and Peru and Brazil on the Four Seasons’ itinerary. Four Seasons hired 240 staff for this season and provided housing for 188 by renting 21 units at Whistler Creek Lodge to supplement their 15 on-site units. They have only 10 positions left to fill, said human resources head Reena Verma.

Westin hired 80 staff and still have half a dozen positions left to fill, according to the hotel’s human resources head.

Pan Pacific Village Centre’s general manager says Whistler’s fall recruiting drive produced results.

“It created a lot of interest such that people went ‘Oh, let’s go work in Whistler for the winter.’ How cool is that?” said Jim Douglas. Pan Pacific hired 50 staff in the past four weeks and have only three positions left to fill, Douglas said. The 240-room two-property hotel provides housing for about 20 staff.

But while hotels fared well in acquiring staff, smaller businesses and retailers are having a tough time attracting and keeping employees.

“I’m having a nightmare,” said Sarah Brown, owner of Good Hair Day in Function Junction. The hair salon is looking for three to four staff: one or two stylists, an esthetician and one full-time or two part-time receptionists.

“I had two receptionists that were scooped by hotels for more money and a ski pass,” Brown said.

Although the business owner provides a salary and graduated commission for staff, Brown said she can’t compete with hotels that offer higher wages and extra perks.

Ginalyn MacDonald has been manager of Birks in the village for two and a half years and says she’s been running without a full complement of staff for a year.

“It’s really hard,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know what to do differently. I don’t know if it’s about the money,” she said, adding that she would like to have the store open two evenings a week as well as the seven days it already is, but can’t without more staff. Birks has a 126-year history in Canada and the Whistler store is looking for long-term staff who will be paid a commission as well as wage.

Sally Curtis has worked at the Body Shop on Village Stroll for 10 years. The store has hired two full-time and two part-time staff for the winter and received more than enough resumes. But Curtis said she saw a disturbing trend this year: potential employees who decided not to stay because they couldn’t find accommodation.

“We had probably four or five people that had interviews and came back to say they couldn’t find anywhere to live,” Curtis said.

Douglas, who took up his position as Pan Pacific’s general manager in July, said he doesn’t understand why Whistler’s long-standing staff housing issue hasn’t been solved.

“I don’t want to look like the new guy saying ‘how stupid can you guys be?’ but considering how old this issue is in Whistler I’m surprised that there isn’t more of an organized (solution) like a 400-unit apartment building run on a breakeven standpoint by the village,” Douglas said.

The Whistler Chamber of Commerce’s recruiting specialist doesn’t like that idea.

“How much is this land worth and who’s going to put up the funds to build it and do you really want to build tenements in Whistler?” asked Randall Butler. “What you want to do is you want to build community. You want these people to be engaged in the community.”

Whistler’s mayor says the municipality is already fulfilling its obligations, providing housing for 75 per cent of the work force. “We’re taking very deliberate steps to try and address the issue,” said Ken Melamed. “…and beyond that there is some responsibility on the part of business owners to secure housing for the employees that they want to live here, and after that it’s going to have to be taken up in the marketplace in Pemberton and Squamish.”


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