The road to 1,000 winter employee beds
Big Sky Resort will open for the ski season with 791 beds, hopes to accommodate 1,000 employees by winter 2023-24
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
As Big Sky Resort prepares to open for its 49th winter of slope-sliding, they’ve added 142 beds to accommodate employees in a challenging rental market. Resort officials say that they are processing a record number of job applications for the upcoming season and are striving to provide housing for 50% of the winter workforce by early 2024.
Troy Nedved, general manager of Big Sky Resort, and Stacie Mesuda, director of public relations, spoke with EBS to discuss the recent updates and plans for resort housing.
“We’re really trying to do our part on probably the most challenging issue we have in our community,” Nedved said.
Over the summer, Big Sky Resort converted the Huntley Lodge Short Hall into employee housing units, adding 142 beds.
“We realized how important it was, and how needed it was to house more employees,” Nedved said. “For lack of a better term, we ‘sacrificed’ those guest beds and converted them to employee beds [located] right in the central part of our village. It was a pretty big move for us, but we feel it was the right one.”
Nedved said the new Huntley complex is targeted for returning staff, and for key positions that require easy access to the mountain due to early-morning or late-evening work schedules.
The Huntley Lodge conversion comes just one summer after the completion of the Mountain Lodge housing complex, a three-phase project which added another 186 beds since the winter of 2019-20.
Just five years after planning to provide 500 beds in March 2019, Big Sky Resort expects to reach 1,000 beds with the completion of the three-phase Levinsky Complex beside Lake Levinsky. Under construction now, the project aims to provide apartment-style housing for resort management and families.
“That’s our first go at real, apartment-style housing. We’ve already broken ground, and [phase one] will be complete and ready this February,” Nedved said. Phase one will add 36 beds, and Nedved expects employees to move into the Levinsky Complex mid-season.
After phases two and three are completed by the winter of 2023-24, the resort will provide more than 1,000 beds to employees, according to Nedved and Mesuda. That’s about half of their roughly 2,000 winter employees.
“This is not a new mission for us,” Mesuda said. “The resort has been building housing for close to 40 years now, acknowledging that [housing] was a challenge for the community. All these investments over time have really paid off to get us where we are, as demonstrated by how far ahead we are from other mountain communities.”
“What we have found is that we sure have a heck of lot more beds for a high percentage of our employees than our [competitor resorts],” Nedved said with regards to top ski destinations across the country.
According to the data provided by the National Ski Areas Association, 62 ski areas indicated that they plan to add an average of 48 additional beds over summer 2022. Slightly more than half of ski resorts—57%—offer employee housing, and of those that do, they offer an average of 119 beds.
“Big Sky is one of the major proponents of employee housing in the ski industry, often exceeding the national average of available beds and employees housed,” Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications with the NSAA, wrote in an email to EBS.
Nedved said that Big Sky Resort also offers employee beds in Bozeman, and Mesuda acknowledged that many employees choose to live in Bozeman for various reasons. Resort employees get a free Skyline bus pass, which contributes to an ongoing community effort to reduce commuter traffic in Gallatin Canyon.
“We really are trying to focus on our housing investments that are in [the] Big Sky community, and preferably within walking distance of the workplace,” Nedved said. “We want to have enough available housing for those who want to live in Big Sky. But some choose Bozeman, and we have that option as well.”
For prospective employees, Nedved said that housing is “rooted into the application process,” because beds are “a limiting factor” for the resort, as is true for the community. Applicants who state they need employee housing will likely face a disadvantage in the application process, by nature of limited housing supply. Once an applicant receives a job offer, they can make decisions based on the types of housing they qualify for, he said.
As for the cost to rent, Nedved said employee housing is dramatically more affordable than market value. The Big Sky Resort employee housing webpage shows the average double and triple occupancy rooms cost between $12-15 per night per renter—roughly $360-450 per month.
Ten years ago, employees would spend one or two winters in employee housing before moving on to seek rental opportunities nearby, Nedved said. Recently, the resort has been mapping out ways to add diversity to employee housing options, from dorm-style living to apartment or family-style housing. This allows employees a longer-term, more comfortable buffer before entering Big Sky’s competitive real estate market.
When long-term employees are ready to move on from Big Sky Resort’s housing, that’s when they intersect with the efforts of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust to provide a road map from entry-level work and affordable renting to middle management and property ownership.
Record number of winter applications
For the winter of 2022-23 Nedved said that virtually all of the nearly 800 housing vacancies have been filled.
“In general terms, we tend to have all our housing allocated and spoken for by the end of October,” Nedved said.
Mesuda said it’s a testament to how strong their hiring process has been this winter, especially after dealing with employee shortages over the previous two seasons since COVID-19 rippled through the industry.
“It’s the highest number of applicants we’ve ever experienced at the resort,” Nedved said. “It allows us to be more selective and make sure that we’re allocating and spending our limited beds on the right folks.”
Official snow prediction: ‘A banner season’
Mesuda said that after the recent October storm, mountain operations had a record-breaking snowmaking effort with 91 snow guns running simultaneously.
“It was our best start for snowmaking ever,” Mesuda said. “And there’s more snow in the forecast for this week. And next week. I think we’ll be in a good spot.”
Nedved made a similar prediction:
“We’ve already had a tremendous start with both natural snow, and favorable low temperatures for snowmaking. It certainly feels like we’re headed for a banner season.”