For the first time in more than a decade, the Sun Valley Resort picked up a new leader last year. Pete Sonntag stepped into the top job over the all-season resort surrounding Ketchum last May, taking over for longtime chief Tim Silva.
Sonntag stepped in a year into the coronavirus pandemic and ahead of two busy seasons – summer of 2021 and the winter season that’s just winding down. All the while, navigating new relationships, employment challenges, and a housing crisis in the area that continues to challenge leaders and citizens.
Building bonds in new role
In his new role, Sonntag says he will first focus on building bonds.
“For me, it’s really taking a methodical approach and starting by building relationships,” he said during a taping of the BoiseDev podcast. “We are building the foundation before we go and do crazy stuff – which we’re not going to do anyway, but it’s an approach that’s worked for me in the past and I feel like it’s been very well received here.”
Sonntag’s experience is extensive. Most recently, he spent two years as SVP and COO of the western region for Vail Resorts. Before the short stint at the corporate level, he held top roles at Whistler Blackcomb, Heavenly, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, and Copper Mountain. He said he decided the corporate role wasn’t for him, and the Sun Valley job came open at the right time.
His career started on the ground floor – or ground crew – working maintenance at Beaver Creek Golf Course, before catching the ski school bug and leading teams across the west.
At Sun Valley, he acknowledges any change is often viewed with questioning glances from locals and even longtime employees.
“When you come in as the new leader, people are naturally going to be skeptical,” Sonntag told BoiseDev during a taping of our podcast last week. “‘What’s his agenda, what’s he going to try and prove to everybody? What’s his ulterior motive,’ things like that.”
He said the community has ultimately been welcoming, and he wants to build on what makes Sun Valley, Sun Valley.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful ski resort. Yes, I’ve lived in other beautiful ski resorts… but they’re not the same. It would be easy to make assumptions about what makes his place tick, and I won’t do that.”
Housing a top challenge
As in many resort communities – and many communities of all types in Idaho – housing is a major issue.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Sonntag said candidly. “I won’t sugar coat it. It’s been a huge challenge for us as it has for every other employer around here. It’s the single biggest challenge that we are facing, without question.”
He said the Sun Valley Company’s decision to open a new employee housing complex as part of a number of updates and changes to the resort that opened in 2018 has made a big difference. Nearly 30% of all employees live in company-provided housing, more than 500 in all.
“That’s a number that – sure we wish it were higher, but it’s far better than almost any other ski resort that I’m aware of,” he said. “It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a good start.”
He said more places for folks to live could be in the plans, but noted that’s a long-term project.
“The development is always a slower process than what you would want in terms of bringing a concept to life. It’s a long timeline and we don’t have that luxury right now of time. We do everything we can to secure leases and find other options in town.”
Sonntag said other solutions could include community partnerships. A number of developments throughout the Wood River Valley are in various phases, including a 51-unit project on the former city hall site in Ketchum, several projects in Hailey, and more. He said it’s something his leadership team talks about every week.
“This stretches well beyond Ketchum and Hailey and Bellevue. That carry-over effect goes all the way down towards Twin Falls of course. We do see employees coming from farther distances to come work here, so it’s really for us about how do we differentiate ourselves as an employer if you’ve got an opportunity to drive to Twin Falls, why would you work at Sun Valley? We have to focus on the things that make us unique and stay true to who we are of course. Really be a great employer.”
Finding and retaining employees
While finding a place for employees to rest each night is a big challenge – just finding enough talent to fill roles is another big test.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, former President Donald Trump put a temporary stop to several work visa programs. Many ski communities rely on a flow of international workers to help supplement local talent pools. Sun Valley is known for its international flavor, dating back to the resort’s early days in the 1930s.
Initially, travel demand slumped, but began to surge as 2020 went along, and 2021 saw strong results.
“It was a big challenge for us when I came into this role last summer because we had a very small number of visa employees, and we had none the previous winter,” he said. “A lot of our outlets were cut back. We weren’t hosting a lot of people inside a year ago. That was different this year. We were very largely back to normal this winter.”
In the fall, with employment shortages continuing, the resort “charged ahead” with applications for the J1 visa program for students and teaching professionals.
“That paid off in a big way for us. We couldn’t — we would struggle to fully staff the resort, even in the best circumstances, with (domestic employees). So the visa programs really allow us to get that little added bit of staff that makes the difference between a good experience and a great experience for our customers.”
He expects to continue to bring people in on J1 visas, but also the H2B program for temporary workers.
“I think a lot of our guests have come to expect and enjoy the international flavor that they get when they see the young people from Argentina and Peru and places like that who are so enthusiastic to be here and to work and to get that experience in America. It has a lot of benefits that go just beyond the labor force.”
Responding to inflation
With inflation, and many employers pushing up wages, Sun Valley has responded too. But Sonntag says they hope to lead, instead of following.
“We’re trying to be too reactive and trying to be proactive as much as possible. It’s hard to do right now because in certain areas… there’s more stability. Food and beverage would be an example of an area that’s extremely volatile right now and you’re just seeing some crazy stuff (with wages).”
He said the company made a “pretty significant” investment in wage increases last year. It also paid out a mid-season bonus.
“We knew last summer that we were busy, and the people who were here were working extremely hard. And you can only say ‘thank you’ so many times – and that is appreciated – but we felt like we needed to do something beyond saying ‘thanks for (working hard) right now.’”
He said they’ve put an increasing focus on employee culture and recognition. An Instagram account for employees features a steady stream of events, shouts out, giveaways and contests.
“It’s things like (the bonus), giveaways and little perks… and recognition. You can’t isolate and say it’s one thing – it’s all those things to have people feel like ‘i love working here and it’s my spot.’ That’s our goal.”
‘Not selling the company’
The family of Earl and Carol Holding has owned the resort since the 1970s. Holding purchased the assets for about $12 million, after rumored interest from the Walt Disney Company caught the couple’s eye in the paper.
Locals expressed initial skepticism about the Holdings, who built their wealth through a chain of hotels under the Little America, and later Grand America brands — as well as through majority ownership of the Sinclair Oil company.
But much of the skepticism fell away in the decades of ownership. Robert Holding died in 2013 at age 86. Carol and the couple’s children continue to own the resort and other hotels in the Grand America chain.
Last year, the family sold the majority of its Sinclair businesses to HollyFrontier, which launched a new publicly-traded company called HF Sinclair. The spin-off was completed in recent weeks, leaving the hospitality assets as the Holdings’ primary business.
Locals and others have openly speculated about possible ownership changes. Sonntag said it was a top question for him while interviewing – including with Carol Holding.