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Service interruption

How workplace culture can help businesses withstand Whistler's staffing shortage

In 2016, the Community Foundation of Whistler launched the Vital Signs initiative to share statistics and local perspectives on our community's social and economic well-being. The most recent 2018 survey results indicate that demanding work schedules are diminishing our ability to connect with the people around us, and a major theme is the need for balance.

In a separate survey done by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce this year, employees stated that better wages, benefits, perks and training, along with more affordable housing, would go a long way to better attract and retain staff. Respondents also felt that "promoting Whistler as a caring community" would have an impact, but went on to score Whistler positively as a place to be for work-life balance, community and its mountain lifestyle.

Despite the influx of tourists and a shortage of employees, stoking mountain culture is a great first step towards recapturing the essence of why people come here. Sometimes our growing resort community loses sight of the one thing that actually hasn't changed over the years: people come here seeking a mountain experience to soak up everything Whistler has to offer. If businesses fail to provide the same opportunity for their staff to enjoy a mountain lifestyle and gain a sense of belonging in their workplace and community, how does it affect the overall success of Whistler?

Discovering an elixir that intermingles mountain culture with world-class service that plants dollars into the local economy is undoubtedly the secret sauce.

The Whistler Experience

Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, claims that Whistler actually maintains a good level of service in spite of staffing shortages, but still, improving customer service resort-wide is always on the radar. "Our community's global reputation is built on the world-class service delivered by our staff day in and day out," she says. "Investing in our employees is investing in our future while aligning us on being the No. 1 resort worldwide for service excellence."

And while strong in-roads have been made to achieve that quality service, Pace asserts that the most success has been with local businesses that take things to the next level, with innovative solutions that educate their staff on the importance of customer service.

"Granted, the challenge with educating their staff is dealing with the high turnover," Pace says. "The financial component is one concern, but even more pressing is the time factor. In other words, it's great to have access to the Chamber's service program, but businesses are challenged to ask staff to take more time to attend workshops because they're already working long hours to cover shifts." The Chamber used that feedback to create solutions of their own.

According to Pace, there is a resounding impression among locals that Whistler is losing the sense of community spirit that has been such a key part of its appeal. "What we are hearing is that we have this foundation of locals that have been here a long time and have created a culture," she relays. "On the other hand, we have locals that are detached from the fabric of that community, so how do we unify those two? Fortunately, the Whistler Chamber has a perfect platform to integrate that."

In 2014, the Chamber partnered with the University of Victoria's Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, and more specifically, professor Mark Colgate, to design a program that would enhance customer-service levels in Whistler. The result was the Whistler Experience, an award-winning service leadership program that works with local businesses to create powerful experiences for employees and consequently, for customers.

"We've been really successful in delivering a message through the Whistler Experience program and local businesses believe the content of this program is still meaningful," Pace says. "Now with a mandate to reignite local spirit and mountain culture, and connect newcomers with seasoned residents, we're bringing back Whistler Experience live events to add a dynamic relationship piece."

This means engaging businesses to take part and ultimately, setting the stage to cultivate those connections. "These events will have a wide array of our long-time locals sharing their knowledge and welcoming newcomers to our community. We will have business owners, hotel managers, (representatives from the) RMOW, Whistler Blackcomb, Gibbons Whistler and many others at these events. Mayor Jack Crompton will be onhand to welcome newcomers and Whistler Blackcomb will speak on mountain safety," Pace explains. "The idea is to not just to feed information but to have new people spend quality time with those that have been here for a period of time."

The Whistler Experience approach will still focus on the 3Rs of service values: be reliable, responsive and build relationships. "This philosophy still resonates, and while the focus will remain on this concept, it has now metamorphosed into finding a format that addresses the challenges experienced by local business, and more specifically, not putting even more pressure on their staff and time constraints," Pace says.

"The changes to that format were based on recognizing the need to spread out the workshops over the year as opposed to offering them all at one time," Pace adds. "And since staff don't have time to come to the workshops, the facilitators will go to them. It means bringing in a speaker to talk about how technology can both help with the labour shortage and enhance the customer experience."

Fostering mountain culture in the workplace

Local entrepreneur Kyle Hannay supports the Chamber's new goal to foster connection and adapt how we adjust to our changing needs. "One of the risks with Whistler's growth is that we will lose our identity in the future," he says. "Although there aren't as many people coming here to work, the quality is actually quite high and the bottom line is they come here to be a part of what Whistler is and because this is the best place in the world. We work hard to connect that authentic Whistler vibe and mountain culture to our store."

Hannay is a true champion of mountain culture. In fact, the appeal of buying McCoo's back in 2013 was due to that business's reputation as a retail store catering to outdoor enthusiasts that essentially infuses the mountain experience into everything it does. The original owners, skiers Jeff Coombs and George McConkey, were the epitome of long-time locals and when they opened the original McCoo's in 1987, their uncompromising belief was that authenticity needs to be a priority and is paramount to the success of your business.

Hannay acknowledges there are difficult challenges in town, but contends the importance of finding ways to work around them. With 24 full-time equivalent staff in the winter season and 16 in the summer, he believes McCoo's' success comes not only from accepting, but embracing staff turnover. "Turnover is 14 to 16 months on average and because burnout is so common in retail, it actually keeps things fresh," Hannay says. "Product knowledge and customer service training are costlier with that turnover, but it's worth it for renewed energy from staff coming in to live life in the mountains."

And that is the crux of it: being dialed into what type of person is coming here and building an environment that hones into the excitement that these young people bring into the community. Hannay claims that harnessing the desire to be a part of Whistler's mountain culture is a piece of the formula that he and his team have created.

"We unapologetically work hard to have mountain culture in our stores—almost to a fault," says Hannay, who has lived in Whistler since 1996. "What that means is, although we do well according to the Chamber's mystery-shopper results, we miss on some standard things, like uniforms or appearance. But we hire people because they are authentic, so instead of telling them to go home and shave, we encourage them to be who they want to be. And as the season goes along, they appreciate that and feel a sense of belonging in their workplace."

McCoo's' promise is to create a fun environment win which workers feels connected to their employer, the people they work with and to mountain culture. Hannay shares that his company pulls out the stops to commit to the people who commit to his business. "It's all about relationships on every spectrum," he says. "Whether simply accepting them as authentic individuals, offering incentives for high customer-service scores, ensuring full-time hours or organizing staff outings twice a month, we work hard to generate goodwill and do everything we can for these locals."

Undeniably, McCoo's managers play a pivotal role in driving that culture and ensuring all staff is well trained. "It really is their energy, enthusiasm and leadership that makes this work for us," Hannay says. "But again, it comes back to their purpose too. They live and breathe Whistler and it's amazing that season after season, especially with the turnover, they never fail to energize our frontline staff through their commitment and belief in our philosophy of fun in the mountains and at work." 

Passion with a purpose

During her career in hospitality and tourism leadership roles, Caroline Bagnall has witnessed the impact that top-notch training has on guest satisfaction. However, she has noticed a gap in many businesses' training methodologies. In 2014, she launched Connect Hospitality Strategies to close that gap and essentially help hospitality organizations develop workforce education.

"My mandate is to help companies better manage their key resources: time, money and people," Bagnall says. "This was motivated from seeing middle managers and frontline staff needing better training, and I wanted to offer customized training that deals with their pain points, their people and the specific issues they deal with every day."

Bagnall saw that while most businesses have a mission, vision and values, it largely stopped there. "My process delves deeper and leads them through developing a purpose statement," she notes. "This involves leading a team through creating a purpose that connects the employee's heart to their source of income—why they get up and go to work every day."

Research supports Bagnall's theory. In fact, O.C. Tanner, a global leader on workplace culture, released their extensive 2018 Global Culture Report asserting that, "when your purpose is harmonized with your employee value proposition, customer value proposition, and tied to social good, research shows there is a 935% increase in the odds that an employee will have a sense of purpose, 288% increase in the odds that an employee will have a sense of opportunity and 858% increase in the odds that an employee will be engaged."

Just to be clear: profit is not a purpose; purpose is a result. Simon Sinek, author of The New York Times bestseller, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, defines having purpose as doing things of real value to others. "Purpose-driven companies attract the best minds, have the most passionate customers, achieve wild success and change the world," he asserts. "When purpose and passion are combined, the impact is powerful not only for individuals, but also on the public they serve to help create a brighter future for everyone."

Although this certainly encourages creating a culture of employee engagement, it isn't easy when local businesses constantly face hurdles imposed by staff turnover. Bagnall acknowledges that the retention piece is challenging with a turnover ratio that can reach 100 per cent even for the best employers.

However, Bagnall opines that no one goes to work every day to do a bad job. "The reality is they aren't in their job long so there are two factors to them dealing well with customer service challenges: first, people are being hired into roles where their values don't align with their employer's values and secondly, they aren't being trained and given tools to do the job to the best of their ability," she says.

Bagnall also echoes Hannay's point of view that people come here for the mountain experience. She feels Whistler businesses sometimes lose sight of that motivation while juggling staff shortages and turnover. But she believes that you hire for values and train for skills, because when organizational values align with those of your team, your staff will make the right decision on behalf of the customer.

Bagnall acknowledges that creating a culture that aligns with the values and purpose of your employees takes a lot of work, but in the end, those that manage to do so reap the benefits. She uses her client, Infinity Enterprises Group, as an example.

With a background in the cruise-ship industry, local entrepreneur Pepe Barajas is no stranger to delivering exceptional service to discerning customers. When he came to Whistler, by way of Mexico, he eventually launched and built Infinity into a business that now includes multiple restaurants, a commissary kitchen, a cleaning company and about 160 staff.

As president and CEO, Barajas has become a well-respected entrepreneur in the community with a long list of awards that recognize that success. His accolades include the Whistler Chamber's 2014 Rising Star of the Year, Small Business BC's 2015 Business of the Year and Business in Vancouver's Forty Under 40 in 2017, to name a few.

Infinity GM Sarah Coghlan confesses that Barajas is one of the smartest entrepreneurs she has ever known, with a relentless commitment to create memorable experiences for guests.

Unlike Hannay's philosophy that employee turnover is something that actually works for McCoo's, Infinity's business model benefits from staff longevity as it decreases their cost of doing business and the headache of constantly having to find new seasonal accommodation.

Of course, Whistler's growth in tourism coupled with socioeconomic changes of the customer base have definitely challenged local companies to cater to a new type of guest, particularly in the winter season. Many factors come into play: wealthy guests with high expectations; those seeking a picturesque mountain experience without skiing a multitude of Black-Diamond runs, and, of course, the impact of being a society focused on social media and creating Instagram-worthy memories.

With increased pressure to consistently deliver quality service to Whistler's changing customer landscape, Infinity has delved into providing what its staff needs to succeed. Although training has always been integral to its business model, the company has invested considerable time and resources to equip staff with product knowledge and service strategies.

Its comprehensive benefits and perks run the gamut from medical and dental benefits, wellness passes and educational opportunities. "We go above and beyond to give employees the chance to better themselves and ultimately to take care of themselves and their families," Coghlan says. "Whether taking courses in Vancouver, unlimited access to the Whistler Experience program or taking Spanish lessons, we see huge value in enabling people to grow and learn."

And, of course, the topic on everyone's mind is the lack of available employee housing. Although it's an ongoing challenge, Barajas does his part by continually renting accommodation for staff.

While Coghlan admits that housing continues to be a hurdle, it comes full circle back to culture. She acknowledges that although mountain culture is, and should always be the underlying belief system that reverberates through Whistler, Infinity also strives to nurture a sense of family in the workplace.

"We always have to remember Whistler is a lifestyle choice and people come here for the lifestyle that living in the mountains offers them," Coghlan says. "But as employers, we have to recognize that resort living comes with unique challenges and that we have a responsibility to give our employees balance to live this mountain lifestyle. That means coming up with creative solutions and offering incentives so they love where they work."

She believes one of her roles as GM is to understand employees and show empathy to the unique challenges of working a seasonal job in a resort. That means sharing local knowledge of what's available to support them—whether that's connecting them to social services or help with housing and personal issues.

Coghlan sees Whistler's renewed focus to connect newcomers with long-time locals as a vital step to creating a sense of belonging in the community for all our residents. But, she theorizes, it can also be a winning formula for businesses. "Infinity is an example of that success and it starts from the top down with a commitment to create a culture that (acknowledges) whatever makes an employee's life run easier, will come right back and make the restaurant run well," says Coghlan. "Because if you and your family are taken care of, you bring that positive vibe back to your place of employment."

All these local entrepreneurs may be onto something, and ironically, it seems to reaffirm what we've always known. People—whether guest or employee—come to Whistler because it's a special place that they have a deep desire to connect with. They not only want to create memories that matter, but also to feel a part of the community.

Although the mission remains the same, there has been a significant shift in the local tourism and labour landscapes, and therefore, organizations have to create workplace cultures resilient enough to withstand those changes. Successful companies recognize that culture sits at the heart and soul of their organization, and both inside and outside forces will always force it to adapt.

O.C. Tanner's 2018 Global Culture Report shared the concept that culture is a social operating system that influences what is valued, how people work, and how organizations interact with its customers and extended community. The report's authors ascertain that organizational culture continually influences and is being influenced by the shared values and behaviours of its people.

The common thread woven through the success stories of these local businesses is that of culture and community. Mountain culture. Family culture. And the lesson learned is that culture isn't stagnant. It is alive and needs to be constantly nurtured.

Cathy Goddard has lived in Whistler for over 30 years and is the Founder of Lighthouse Visionary Strategies and Lighthouse Mentor Network.