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As visitation ramps up, Whistler’s labour shortage intensifies

Resort stakeholders eye immigration changes ahead of winter
n-biz and labour 28.32
As visitation to Whistler ramps up (evidenced by the pre-pandemic tradition of being stuck in traffic on Highway 99), local stakeholders are hoping changes to federal immigration policies can help ease an ‘intense’ labour shortage.

With B.C.’s reopening plan in full swing, long lines of traffic stretching from Highway 99 south of Whistler Village to Creekside—a pre-pandemic staple referred to by some locals as the “Creekside crawl”—have returned.

But as visitors eager to explore the resort drive up in droves, who’s staffing Whistler’s businesses?

“It’s been really busy for businesses, no doubt. We’re seeing lineups out the doors, we’re seeing restaurants full, or as full as they can be,” said Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.

“But the issue is still with labour, and being able to manage the demand of the visitation.”

With that in mind, labour is at the forefront of the Chamber’s advocacy efforts, Pace said.

But as is always the case, there are no quick answers, and no silver bullet to solve the problem, added Chamber board chair and local owner of Zog's and Moguls, Diana Chan.

“We want to hire Canadians first, but when 40 per cent of the tourism hospitality workforce has left, through COVID—they’ve left the tourism workforce and found other industries—we’re all working together now to say, ‘Well what is the long-term solution?’ from educators through to immigration to quality of employment.”

With a federal election looming, the labour issue will continue to be a key topic of conversation as candidates hit the campaign trail.

“The broader question if we look at the election year, is that tourism hasn’t recovered, and we don’t know what the winter is going to be like,” Chan said.

“We don’t know what international confidence is going to be like, [or] what the border situation is going to be like, so that’s still top of mind for our community as well as the tourist industry across Canada.”

In the meantime, Whistler businesses are looking for ways to get creative with the staff they do have, either by shortening operating hours or finding other efficiencies.

“For my own businesses, we’ve gone back to, ‘OK, how do we become more efficient again, but still stay safe and create a comfortable customer experience?’” Chan said.

“So that, I think, has taken some learning for sure.”

While there are still myriad questions concerning the fourth wave of COVID-19, there remains optimism among local business owners as well.

“Optimistic, yes, do I think it’s clear sailing? No … the Plexiglas is being stored in short-term storage, not long-term storage,” Chan said, adding that the biggest message for visitors right now is to be kind and patient.

“The mental health of our workforce is top of mind for me,” she said.

“People are working hard. They’re good people, and we’re all just doing our best with what we’ve got.”

BOOKINGS, INTEREST RAMPING UP AHEAD OF WINTER

While the traffic suggests a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, Tourism Whistler is anticipating combined July and August occupancy will come in somewhere around 65 per cent, said president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

“Last year, in July and August we came in around 52 per cent occupancy for those two months,” she said.

“But if you compare to 2019 … for the July/August period we came in closer to 82, 83-per-cent occupancy.”

The resort is seeing busier weekends this summer, “but the good news is we are also seeing strength in mid week,” Fisher added, noting that this year Tourism Whistler put a focus in its summer campaign on staying longer, and making trips to Whistler a vacation rather than a weekend getaway.

“Weekends are super busy, but if we can kind of shift some of that business to grow our mid week, then that is definitely a more sustainable way to balance our visitor volumes from an environmental but also from an economic and a social perspective,” she said.

With the U.S. border reopening this month to visitors and the federal government targeting early September for the reopening of certain international markets, bookings and interest from abroad are beginning to ramp up for the winter—“but we still have a lot of hurdles there when it comes to the testing requirements, and the entry requirements,” Fisher said.

Visitors coming into Canada from the U.S. need to pass a diagnostic lab test for COVID-19, and returning to the U.S. they require a rapid antigen test, Fisher said, adding that the expectation is that the requirements for visitors from other countries will be similar.

“In general, that should be relatively streamlined, but it still is a convenience and access issue to go and get that testing, making sure you’ve got the results 72 hours before your flight, and we of course are only looking at double-vaccinated visitors, which puts yet another filter on the volume,” she said.

“So at this point in time, we are anticipating the volumes to be relatively small, but our hope is that by winter time it’s more streamlined and that we have the ability to attract our Washington, California and national U.S. skier markets back.”

So far summer has been good to Whistler’s hotel operators, “but very clearly, it has been the regional market, which is short-lead bookings … people who call at very short notice,” said Saad Hasan, chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.

“Whereas for destination guests, you have people calling months ahead of time planning their vacation.”

The lack of predictability has made it difficult for operators to plan ahead, or ensure they have the proper staff available, Hasan said, noting that the staff shortage in town has led to some operators keeping hotel rooms out of service, with some hotels showing inventory losses up to 40 per cent.

“From a guest perspective it’s completely seamless—they don’t notice that, because they are getting the service that hotels are renowned to provide,” he said.

“But at the same time, with what you are doing at the back end, you’ve got an asset that you can’t monetize.”

One initiative Tourism Whistler is working on to help ease the labour crunch is a recruiting video highlighting the benefits of living, working and playing in Whistler, Fisher said.

”That’s not typically an area that Tourism Whistler has historically focused on … [but] we need to have a great employee experience in order to welcome a positive visitor experience,” she said, adding that the video will be shared with the Chamber and local businesses later this month.

IMMIGRATION CRITERIA A MAJOR STICKING POINT

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved through 2020 and 2021, the federal government made several changes to immigration policies, including to working holiday visa requirements (requiring applicants to have a job offer before arriving in Canada) and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“One of the biggest sticking points is that the restart plan perhaps is, at the moment, outpacing changes in immigration regulations and policies,” said Brooke Finlay, partner and managing director at Whistler Immigration.

“Some of the policies that were put in place or measures that were implemented during the pandemic are now creating road blocks for employers to adequately staff their organizations.”

A blanket restriction on “lower wage occupations”—anything under $25/hr—has been especially difficult for local employers.

One recommendation Whistler stakeholders are making to government is to return to pre-pandemic qualifications, and region-specific labour market data, Finlay said.

“That’s definitely something that is an immediate change that could be made that would bring a lot of relief to employers,” she said.

“They still have to jump through all the hoops of applying through the program, but right now there is no access.”

HR professional Joel Chevalier, owner of Culinary Recruitment International, has been working with the hotel association to lobby the government on specific changes to current immigration policies.

The current situation in Whistler is no different than the rest of Canada (particularly in the hospitality industry), but “what’s different about this time around is just the intensity,” Chevalier said.

“The hospitality/tourism industry has traditionally always been in a labour shortage, but managed to get by—this time the intensity is quite dramatic.”

Specific asks in a letter recently sent to the feds include (but are not limited to): expediting the approval and duration of working holiday visas; accurate unemployment data for Whistler; an expedited and simplified pathway for permanent resident status; and a Sea to Sky corridor-specific Municipal Nominee Program.

“I don’t think [the government] will be receptive to all of them, and of course it’s a race right now between having them get some movement on it and them calling the next election,” Chevalier said.

Whistler employers have worked hard in recent years to increase the number of Canadians they hire, to the point where, pre-pandemic, the majority of the Whistler workforce was Canadian, Chevalier added.

“The pandemic was tough on hospitality and tourism workers. [There were] lots of unknowns, and I think some of them did migrate away from the industry, and getting them to come back will be a challenge,” he said.

While Chevalier remains optimistic government officials will act on the recommendations it can in a timely manner, the labour woes aren’t likely to recede before the snow flies.

“The good news is that Whistler businesses are used to grappling through a labour shortage,” he said.

“The bad news is that they’re going to have to do it again this winter, and I think it’s going to be more pronounced, and so I think it’s going to be a difficult winter.”