The Annual Hunt for Seasonal Employees: Challenge remains top priority for many resorts

New Leaf Desk AttendantEvery summer, Northern Michigan’s parks, lakes, festivals and more draw upward of a million visitors from around the state and beyond. It’s when the region’s year-round hospitality industry most needs to step up its game.

And every summer, it seems as if a shortage of seasonal workers will test the industry’s ability to do just that.

With warm-weather tourism in full swing, how’s this year’s labor situation working out?

“It seems to be getting worse,” said Adriene Kokowicz, vice president of sales and marketing at Glen Arbor’s The Homestead Resort, which she said last month was pushing toward ambitious hiring goals.

“Our staffing levels needed for summer are three to four times what our full-time, year-round needs are,” Kokowicz said by email in early June. “We still have positions available in food and beverage (servers and cooks), groundskeeping, front desk/reservations and massage therapists.”

But this year, it’s not the same story everywhere.

At Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, which doubles its staffing from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Director of Human Resources Ami Woodworth said filling those full-time seasonal jobs hasn’t been a problem.

“We are comfortable with our current staffing levels and have been able to hire for our summer positions,” she said.

Crystal Mountain finds summer candidates through career fairs, newspaper ads, school recruiting and online career sites.

“This year we went to several local area high schools and career tech centers to help spread the word,” Woodworth said. “We seek a diverse group depending on the department and duties.”

At Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, Human Resources Director Scott Van Huis pointed to supply and demand.

“It is always difficult to staff for the summer resort season with so many employers in the area doing the same,” he said.

Of course, winter at Boyne is bigger yet, Van Huis said (although summer staffing does ramp up by about 25 percent from a spring lull). Likewise, Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire has 400-plus employees during the summer and more than 500 in winter skiing season, said Chris Hale, vice president of sales and marketing.

Searching near – and far

Accommodation and food services is the No. 1 employment sector in Traverse City, accounting for nearly 17 percent of the job market, according to Hospitality is big business in Northern Michigan no matter how you slice it, but seasonal peaks and valleys complicate the employment picture.

That’s where some all-season resorts, such as Shanty Creek, see an advantage. With a full winter and summer season, “we can provide longer terms of employment throughout the year,” Hale said.

Unemployment here is relatively low — 3.5 percent in Traverse City in 2015. With too few local applicants and too few outsiders willing to step in for a three-month job, resorts have to appeal to niches in the job market.

“We seek to hire folks who are service-oriented with a strong work ethic and a willingness to provide exceptional customer service,” said The Homestead’s Kokowicz. “If that comes to us in a high school or college student, that is great. If they are ‘stay-at-home’ moms looking for some part-time work, that is great. If they are teachers looking for some extra summer income, great. And if they are retirees looking to stay busy and meet new people, great.”

Some resorts — not all — look farther afield.

Boyne Mountain and The Homestead hire guest workers from overseas through the U.S. government’s J-1 Visa program that allows for summer work travel.

“It benefits us by helping staff our resort, and it helps the students by providing them with jobs and the opportunity to visit the United States and learn about our culture,” said Boyne’s Van Huis.

“Public perception is usually positive in this regard. Most people understand that we cannot fully meet our staffing needs with just the local job market at this time. International students fill only positions that we are unable to fill otherwise.”

Still, guest workers can be controversial, drawing reactions like this one from Randy Smith of Ypsilanti in response to a recent Detroit News story: “If you can’t find employees, then you’re not offering enough money.”

Not so simple, say resort officials.

“We offer extremely competitive wages — sometimes over market rate to attract the right folks,” said Kokowicz.

“Because many positions are competing with other regional hospitality employers, … we maintain comparable wages, a health and savings benefits for eligible staff, and several resort perks” at Shanty Creek, said Hale.

At Boyne Mountain, “our pay is competitive with similar positions in the area,” said Van Huis.
“We feel our advantage is in the perks we can offer our team members, such as free golf and skiing/snowboarding, free access to Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark, 40 percent discount on food and beverage, affordable on-site child care and much more.”

Perks are part of the draw at Crystal Mountain, too, where positions start at $8.50 an hour.

“We offer access to resort amenities to all seasonal employees: free golf, free fitness, alpine slide, free pool and adventure center,” said Woolworth.

Resorts are getting creative in other ways, too.

The Homestead offers tuition assistance for full-time, year-round employees, and scholarship opportunities for students from the local Glen Lake school district.

Boyne pays referral awards to team members who refer new employees. Year-round employees — full or part time — get tuition assistance.

“At this time we do not offer special incentives or bonuses to new summer team members but are investigating such options,” Van Huis said.

Crystal Mountain, meanwhile, has flirted with the idea of a “stay bonus” to prevent attrition, Woodworth said.

And Shanty Creek works with the nonprofit Grand Traverse Industries to employ people with disabilities.
But as resorts themselves report, the challenge of finding a seasonal workforce remains.

Some in the community say affordable housing could accomplish what decent pay, perks and employer creativity can’t seem to do.

Even though the overall cost of living is lower in Traverse City than nationally (indexed at 84.4 in March 2016 compared with the U.S. average of 100), rents and housing values are comparatively high.

In 2013, when the statewide median rent was $766, in Traverse City it was $801.

Also in 2013, median household income in the city was $44,675, below the statewide median of $48,273, while median city house and condo values of $165,287 were well above the statewide median of $117,500.

Meanwhile, an effort to bring affordable housing downtown — in the form of the nine-story River West mixed-use development at Front and Pine streets — continues to raise hackles. Some object to its hundred-foot height, but others oppose rents that could start in the mid-$500s.

Commented one Ticker reader after a report in May 2015: “Someone please show me a study from anywhere that shows bringing poor people into a downtown is a good idea.”

Responded another: “No one is ‘bringing poor people’ downtown. They’re already there. They make your coffee, serve your dinner, make your lunch, and clean your office amongst other things.”

A judge sent the project back to the city commission for review at the end of March.

For resorts, there’s no single answer to the perennial search for seasonal labor.

“We continue to brainstorm on ideas that may provide a solution,” said The Homestead’s Kokowicz.

At Boyne and Crystal Mountain, there’s a focus on cultivating worker loyalty.

“Our focus is on retaining our great staff throughout the year, so we have fewer staffing needs come summer,” said Van Huis.

“Our reputation is a benefit to us as far as recruiting is concerned,” said Woodworth. “We get a large numbers of employees that return for the season, as well as word of mouth bringing new employees in.”

For Hale at Shanty Creek, it’s just a matter of common decency.

“Treat people with dignity and respect,” he said. “Most people simply want to be acknowledged for doing a good job.”

Michigan journalist Jeff Johnston writes, edits and designs from the Grand Rapids area. He can be reached at