To ski or not to ski, that is the question!
Why would anyone want to work a ski season? Surely working whilst everyone else is hitting the slopes is the last thing a keen skier would let themselves in for? Well, consider this: you get to ski or board at least every other day, you have the experience of living and working overseas, starting a career or being involved in the travel industry, or working and living with fellow winter sport enthusiasts who all have your passion! Often people find that having worked and completed one successful season, another one is close at hand, be it another winter or a rolling summer season. Indeed, when I was interviewed for my first season, I was told by my boss-to-be that ‘there’s no such thing as working just one season’. At the time, I found this contradictory to my own views, yet two years later I find myself counting the days until my next season begins in November!
Once you’ve made the decision to pursue winter season work there are many things to consider: which roles to aim for, where you would like to work, the best companies to apply to, and their recruitment processes.
There is a plethora of roles to chose from once you have decided to go for it, ranging from walk-in roles with no experience to those that will require direct industry experience, but they all have the important factor of working as part of the fun-loving, hardworking resort team; a well oiled machine that keeps the guests happy and the cash flowing. The majority of roles within the industry tend to fall into the Resort Representative, Chalet Host and Nanny categories, but there is a whole host of other roles to be considered such as drivers, handy man/person, hotel staff, operations staff, and even masseuses! If you are considering applying for a job in Europe, most of these roles will be with UK tour operators or operators within each resort such as chalet and bar owners. In the North America program it is also possible to be employed directly by the resort in roles such as Lift Operator (Lifty) or Restaurant staff on one of the mountainside eateries. However, the latter will also require a visa and there will be more on this later in the article. Roles such as a Ski or Snowboard Instructor require you to have Instructor qualifications before even being considered for the position, so if this is your main interest you should try and spend one season getting the necessary qualifications before teaching the following season.
Ideally, you should have some idea of the country you would like to work in; an outstanding performance at the interview stage could secure you a position in a more prestigious resort or program normally reserved for returning or experienced staff, so have some ideas lined up. Your experience of winter season work will vary greatly depending on location: in Bulgaria you may encounter many late-night booze-fuelled après ski sessions, whilst in Norway the scenery may be stunning but a drink in a bar will cost you a week’s wages! In France you may share some very cosy staff living quarters with six others and enjoy a great après ski program, whilst in the USA clients may be more demanding but they will be loving the ‘champagne powder’* too much to really care! One thing that is practically guaranteed is that the monthly wage will be just enough to live on and survive hand to mouth, so unless you hustle hard don’t expect to live a lavish lifestyle. To compensate for this, you usually get accommodation for the season (standards tend to vary!), a lift pass, free equipment hire and transport to and from resort, although this will depend on your employer. Most people agree that it is more about the lifestyle than the money, and the lack of fresh bank notes is compensated by carving fresh tracks on a powder day down your favourite run with your new pals close at hand! It is possible to earn a few extra sheckles in the role of Chalet Host through tips from guests and Resort Reps normally earn commission on ski pack sales (lift passes, rental equipment and so on) paid at the end of season.
Some companies may require a relevant language skill but this is not always applicable; obviously, if you can boast a command of a foreign tongue then this will enhance your chances of employment or securing a position in your desired resort. Customer service or sales experience will score points towards a Resort Representative role and catering or hospitality experience will be relevant for a Chalet Host role. Having said this, it is also possible to bag these roles with no experience whatsoever.
The recruitment campaign is likely to involve a presentation, some kind of catering exercise if it’s for a Chalet based role, some group work and also a one to one interview. There is plenty of information available to support you with these and most people who have been through the mill are more than happy to share their experiences. People who have successfully completed a season always like to talk about it and the Internet has many specialist websites dedicated to seasonal work, making it a great resource to tap for information. Some websites contain details of all the companies and the roles they may be recruiting for, and it’s also worth checking out individual companies on their own sites.
If you’re lucky enough to bag a position in the USA then your employer may supply and fund the required H2B visa that allows you to work there; you will be required to fill in reams of paperwork and visit the US embassy before entry is granted. Should you want to work in Canada then you will need a BUNAC visa that allows you to work in the country for one year (these are normally arranged by you whereas US visas are arranged by the employing company). These are hard to come by and only a certain amount are issued each year; should this be your preferred choice then it is advisable to apply for the visa well in advance; as early as January for working the following November. Some companies may also require you to pay a deposit that will be refunded upon successful completion of a season; this is normally to cover uniform and transport to resort. There are always some people who call from the RyanAir desk to say they’re leaving in the middle of the season and understandably employers have to protect themselves against such cowardliness.
European placements normally have a central training course held in a big resort at the start of the season; these can be great fun, messy times and a good chance to meet some like-minded colleagues. However, be aware that your every move is being watched and while everyone likes a party animal you are there to get a job done so you have to be able to appear smart and with it the next morning! Transport to your resort can be via coach from the UK or sometimes flights; at this point you should be getting fairly excited and wondering when your first day on the mountain will come!
Any job you take will normally involve a six day working week and your day off usually means one of two things: either a huge night out beforehand that then results in half the following day off being used to nurse the uber-savage altitude hangover, or a full day out on the slopes, catching the first lift with your fellow powder-hound colleagues and carving what you will come to consider as ‘your’ mountain. Experienced and well organized seasonnaires will tell you that a season is not complete without racking up 100 ski days; this is a tall order but with careful planning, hard work, and a sprinkling of dedication it is by no means unachievable. It’s also worth remembering that at altitude any alcohol tends to have a more potent effect, which makes nights out great value for money and turns most people into novice lightweights again. Just remember to take care on the ice as the worst way to end a season prematurely is to pull a 360 crippler resulting in a broken ankle on the stumble home!
You will find that resort life is very close-knit and especially in Europe Remember; loose lips sink ships, so don’t go bitching about the hire shop staff with the barman across town, because they could be best buddies and you’ll find yourself saddled with dud gear for the rest of the season.
If it is your first season it may take a couple of weeks to get used to how things are run, living with some new pals and learning how to deal with guests; there will be people who have done it before and so you’ll find your colleagues happy to help and lend support when needed. For the more experienced, seasonal working means getting back to the mountains and this normally brings with it adrenaline goosebumps when filling the lungs with crisp mountain air. Mountain time is the holy grail of the winter season worker and some will strive to make sure every possible minute is spent on the snow rather than bogged down with work; there’s no better feeling than waking up on your day off and seeing a fresh dump of powder ready to be ridden and played in.
Maximising your time out of the office or chalet is simply a matter of being organized. There really aren’t any specific working hours, it’s all up to you and your team, so job satisfaction can be really high as you get out what you put in. Obviously there will always be a guest or two you cannot satisfy and snow drifts, broken cookers, bad weather and so on sometimes seem to conspire to make your life a misery, but this is all made naught by the great times on skis, après ski, and the great people you’ll meet and pals you’ll make!
*Champagne Powder is a term used to describe the light powdery snow fall in the states, the snow there is a drier more powdery snow.