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Wooing the workers

Short-staffed hoteliers check out new strategies for enticing staff to Whistler

Whistler's major hotels are rethinking hiring strategies after mixed success in garnering staff this winter.

"We still have about 30 vacant positions," said Scott Taber, Four Seasons Resort Whistler general manager. The 273-room hotel normally hires about 200 winter staff.

Taber says there were 65 per cent fewer participants at the hotel's three fall job fairs this year. The drop in numbers could be attributed to a number of factors, he said, such as a shrinking work force, the cost of housing in Whistler, and opportunities elsewhere, but he said last year's seven-week snow drought didn't help.

"We are suffering from last year's bad PR," Taber said. "Some people must have thought that if there wasn't good skiing, maybe Whistler's not a good place to work."

He said Four Seasons is still looking for unskilled employees, primarily in housekeeping.

Across the village, the Hilton Whistler filled its quota for unskilled labourers but says it still has room for skilled staff.

"We had no problem filling entry-level positions," said Tina Trebilco, Hilton Whistler's human resources manager. The newly-renovated 289-room hotel easily found the 100-plus employees it needs, Trebilco said, adding that the extensive renovations probably helped attract staff.

"People like to see what's been done and what we have to offer."

But Trebilco noted that middle management positions were not so easy to fill.

"Front office managers are extremely hard to come by."

The hotel filled two of three available front office manager positions.

Staff housing was the key to attracting staff to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, said Charmaine Tener, director of human resources. Fairmont hired all of the 200 staff it required.

"We're able to house everyone," Teber said of the 550-room hotel.

Although the Westin Resort and Spa hired close to 150 staff, Karen Wilhelm, director of human resources, said the hotel is still about 10 people short in housekeeping. Wilhelm said the 419-suite Westin held its job fair later, in the first week of November, than in previous years, in the hopes of hiring staff committed to staying for the season. "And the quality of candidates has proven to be better," she said.

Statistics Canada released a report this week stating that Western Canada hoteliers are having difficulty attracting both skilled and unskilled labour this year. The study polled 1,300 businesses across Canada in October and found that one in three hotels in Western Canada has concerns about attracting staff, citing low unemployment rates as a possible factor.

Whistler's Employment Resource Centre (WERC) had close to 100 job openings posted this week, said Jodi Annett, the centre's co-ordinator.

"That's not unusual for this time of year," said Annett. "Although the large hotels hired early, many smaller ones are waiting until now to hire."

Although WERC doesn't keep statistics on how many people find work through their centre, Annett said 1,900 job seekers came through in October.

There are a wide variety of positions posted, ranging from snowmobile operator to administrative and teaching positions, although most are in the seven main hospitality sectors, like food and beverage, housekeeping, and front desk positions.

Four Seasons' Taber said Whistler's labour shortage is worrisome.

"When there's a shortage service will suffer. And we want to be a platform for the world with 2010 coming up."

Taber said if employees can't be found within Canada, other measures, like extending work visas from one to two years, should be considered for bulking up the hospitality work force.

"I've had kids crying in my office because they didn't want to leave Whistler but had to because their one-year work visa was up."

Extending work visas would provide continuity with staff that could work through the traditionally lean summer months, he said.

Taber also said overseas immigrants should be encouraged to consider Canada.

"If there are people in Canada to work in the industry, great, but perhaps we should look elsewhere also."

Whistler's Chamber of Commerce president said that is already happening.

Bernie Lalor-Morton met with a media delegation from France last week, who were on a tour of Western Canadian resort towns. Hosted by the Canadian embassy in Paris, Lalor-Morton said the tour was to introduce the towns as destination points to the seven journalists representing France's major papers, including L'Express, Le Monde, and Le Figaro.

Wilhelm, who met with the delegation, said she was surprised to learn that Canada issuess 7,000 work visas annually to France, while only 1,000 to Australia.

"Where are those 7,000 people – perhaps in Quebec? We need to learn how to tap into that pool."

Hilton's Trebilco said the current shortage needs to be addressed in order to plan for the Olympics.

"Not as many people were arriving this year," she said, "and as we move closer to the Olympics hiring middle level managers will be a concern."

Although eight B.C. colleges offer hospitality management programs, Trebilco says it takes time for graduates to make an impact.

"It takes a year or two for them to come out of the woodwork."

Fairmont's Tener thinks there won't be any problems finding staff for 2010.

"The Olympics will compel people to come. The bigger challenge is branding Whistler so people want to come here in the meantime," she said. "And the weather. It's out of our control, but everything depends on the weather."