Banff businesses face unique challenges to stay afloat

A resort town with more than three millions visitors a year seems like a perfect place to open a business. But in Banff, the housing crisis makes it brutal for companies to find and keep workers without going under.

Companies often have to find or offer housing for their workers

Jessica Girard closed her KSL sportswear shop in Banff, in part because staff was hard to find. She now operates out of a trailer. 1:04

Finding affordable housing can be difficult in many parts of Alberta. But nowhere is it more challenging than in the Bow Valley, where the vacancy rate sits at zero per cent. In the second part of a week-long series, CBC Calgary's Evelyne Asselin takes a look at the situation for employers trying to find and keep workers.

In a resort town with more than three millions visitors each year, Jessica Girard figured she couldn't go wrong opening a sportswear store in Banff.

But only 15 months after its grand opening in June 2014, KSL Sportswear had to shutter that location.

"Staff was really hard to find in the winter," said Girard. "We had to close two days a week, and sometimes in the winter we had to close three times a week."

In desperation, Girard cut the shop's hours as well, opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 4 p.m.

The KSL Sportswear shop in Banff had to close after 15 months, due in part to lack of staff because of the housing crisis. Jessica Girard now meets clients with a mobile shop. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Girard's struggles are all too common for businesses in Banff, where companies regularly struggle with high staff turnover and a shortage of employees.

The problem is caused in part by a lack of affordable housing, which forces workers to look for employment outside the Bow Valley.

The Banff-Jasper-Rocky Mountain region currently has the second-highest job vacancy rate in Canada — 5.3 per cent compared to 1.6 per cent nationwide, according to Statistics Canada.  

That's an improvement from eight per cent in 2011, but still far from ideal.

Workers' multiple jobs takes toll on companies

As a small business needing only five employees, KSL decided not to offer staff accommodation. Often their employees had to work two or three jobs to afford rent, according to Jessica Girard. (KSL Sportwear)

As a small operator, it didn't make financial sense for Girard to offer staff accommodation — but that left employees scrambling to find affordable housing in the pricey resort town.

"Staff needed to find two to three jobs to just be able to pay for rent," said Girard.

According to the town's 2014 census, nearly 19 per cent of Banff residents hold more than one job.

That's a busy workload for people who often come to Banff to enjoy the outdoors, spending time hiking or skiing, Girard says.

"It's really hard for them. So either they'll call [in] sick, they're tired. It was really hard."

Tough competition due to 30.5% jump in businesses

To make matters worse, there are more and more companies competing for staff in Banff.

The town now has 894 licensed businesses, up 30.5 per cent from 2010.

Girard now operates her store from a small trailer — only attending events and festivals.

This way, she saves on the high cost of rent and doesn't need to constantly search for staff.

"Not having to worry about the staff issue, maybe we just could focus [on sales and advertising]. But constantly, constantly training staff … it's a lot for a business," she said.

Employee housing hunt eats up company time

Janice Price, president of the Banff Centre, says finding accommodation for staff is 'almost like a division' of the post-secondary institution. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Even big employers who offer staff accommodation feel the crunch in Banff — as Janice Price learned when she moved from Toronto seven months ago to take over as president of the Banff Centre.

"I was very surprised … that recruiting and retaining staff in Banff was one of the significant human resources challenges we face," says Price.

"I thought 'Wow, we should have people clamouring to come and work here and take advantage of the lifestyle and the beauty,'" she said.

The centre has 600 full-time staff, making it one of the biggest employers in town.

A third of its staff live in accommodation provided by the arts institution. Today, the units are at 98 per cent of capacity.

The Banff Centre offers staff accommodation to its employees like many employers in Banff. About one-third of its staff live in the rooms provided by the centre. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Unlike other tourist-oriented businesses, the Banff Centre doesn't only look for seasonal employees. The post-secondary institution also recruits senior-level staff who need suitable homes for their families — not dormitory-style accommodation.

Finding suitable housing takes up a great deal of time and effort for its human resources team.

"It's almost like a division of running this organization that you wouldn't have to have in other larger organization or university settings," says Price.

The centre is now working with an architectural firm to develop a long-term housing solution.

"We don't know where that's going to land yet, but certainly in the scope of things around renovation and restoration of our buildings ... we have put on their list of things to study housing for our staff," Price said.


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