Several new doors have opened in the Tahoe area the past five years, but few are as grand as those at the $300 million Ritz-Carlton at Northstar. Visitors began filling the luxury hotel rooms in December, but it was the hundreds of new jobs that really got the town talking.
The hotel funneled nearly 3,000 applications to fill 300 positions, a testament to the demand for work in the recreation and tourism-driven enclave that has been battered by the recession.
Truckee, Tahoe Vista, Kings Beach and Sunnyside — the four largest communities in North Lake Tahoe — have a combined labor force of about 13,000 and an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent. Still, minimum wage jobs, such as those provided by the Ritz, are hardly sustainable in a region where the average single-family home carries a price tag between $300,000 and $500,000, according to the Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors.
“We are a resort area. It’s the basic ski and hotel jobs that are available, but people want jobs that pay more than that. Unfortunately, because of the economy, people making $24 an hour are getting laid off, and employers are hiring people for lower wages,” says Ramona Mills, manager of Truckee’s Work Force Services Office. “I know at least 10 people personally who have moved to the Reno area and commute because they couldn’t afford to live here, and they wanted to keep their jobs. There are lots of roommates up here.”
Still, employee retention can be difficult. Ritz wages are commensurate with the industry average, about $8 an hour for tipped employees. Because of that, the hotel experiences turnover rates in the back of the house similar to what is experienced elsewhere. North Tahoe also sees a heavy migration of seasonal workers who flock to the ski resorts from South America and other regions of the States. The ebb and flow of snowfall means the size of the employment pool and the demand for positions is seasonal.
“A lot of our seasonal workers repeat and come back year after year,” says Ritz President Simon Cooper. “It’s not easy, but you also can’t afford to have everyone working full time. You can’t have people sitting around twiddling their thumbs.”
Revenue generated by the hotel’s transient occupancy tax should also bolster Placer County’s budget. Projections made by the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association prior to the recession pinned TOT revenue at $1.5 million to $2 million annually.
Most Ritz properties hire Ritz employees — the hotel in Charlotte, N.C., for example, is 95 percent staffed by employees who transferred from other properties within the family. It’s different for resort communities, though, says Cooper.
Truckee and North Tahoe can be a difficult place to live with its harsh winters, transient population and inconvenient transportation with bad weather and heavy crowds. So at the Northstar location, locals filled nearly 80 percent of nonleadership positions and 30 percent of leadership of positions.
Typically, 50 to 75 percent of employees hired have some experience in luxury hotel or restaurant service, but that can’t always be the case in locations as remote as Tahoe. At the Northstar Ritz, only a small portion of service staff have luxury hotel experience.
To buffer the experience gap, nearly 60 trainers from Ritz-Carlton properties around the world flew in to train staff. More than 200 hours is spent on training each employee at a cost of $10,000 to $12,000 per head, according to Public Relations Director Steven Holt.
“We don’t want to be spitting out people,” Cooper says. “We want to retain people, so we spend a lot of money on finding the right employees.”
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