Stories from the trenches: Vail Valley service workers talk shop | SummitDaily.com

Stories from the trenches: Vail Valley service workers talk shop

Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily

It's high season in Vail: Hotels are full, restaurants have multi-hour waits, and the slopes are slammed. While this is a welcome occurrence (after all, locals' livelihoods are made during these busy days), it's the people on the front lines who are in the thick of the fray.

From front desk staff to bartenders to shop owners, there are hundreds of people who make a vacationer's stay memorable each day — and they do it with a smile.

Four people, in four different areas of service, shared their stories about what it's really like to be front and center in the Vail Valley.

Kevin Lawrence

Managing partner, Vail Fine Wines

Tenure: 5 1/2 years

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Located on Bridge Street in the heart of Vail Village, Vail Fine Wines is not just a wine store (though there's plenty of that, too). From craft beer to tobacco products, spirits to accessories, Vail Fine Wines helps guests and locals find just the right bottle.

"The door opens at 11 a.m., and you have to have the behind-the-scenes stuff done because after the store is open, it's hard to do anything else," Lawrence said. "We stay busy from open to close, which is unique for a store like this. We're as much of a convenience store that happens to sell alcohol as anything else."

But wine is still the focus. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into building an inventory for what Lawrence said is one of the most dynamic wine shops in the country: You never know who is going to walk in to the shop.

"You could sell a $10 bottle of Riesling to someone from Omaha, then behind that person you have the CEO of a major international corporation who is outfitting a wine cellar for his house … and he spends $200,000," Lawrence said. "It's unique — it's just really, really unique."

The best part of the job, to Lawrence, is something that is priceless: It's when the customer ends up with the perfect product. Wine, spirits or beer, when a person comes back to tell Lawrence that he made his or her day, that's what he likes best.

"It's fun selling big-ticket items, don't get me wrong, but 99 times out of 100, that person … probably isn't going to come back and talk about that specific thing," he said. "But that gal that's going to a dinner party with friends and her bottle is the hit of the night and she spent $22, when she comes back and tells me that, it lights me up. It's the simple things in life that make us happy."

Jason Schweitzer

Front office manager, Sonnenalp Hotel

Tenure: Almost 10 years

The iconic European-styled Sonnenalp Hotel has been welcoming guests for decades in Vail. For Jason Schweitzer, front office manager at the hotel for almost 10 years, there is no such thing as a typical day. Managing six different front-of-the-house departments at the hotel, Schweitzer never knows if he'll end up working with the bell stand, the concierge, front desk or valet.

No matter which department he's focusing on, though, he's a familiar face for the guests.

"If it's a particularly difficult guest, I'm brought in to handle the situation, but the luxury of the position I'm in is I get to build relationships with the guests," Schweitzer said. "I get to mingle with the guests and act as a liaison, talk to them and see how everything is going. Daily, I'm in the trenches, whether it's checking someone in, valeting a car or setting up a restaurant reservation."

Though the front-line jobs of the hotel seem to be the most straightforward, they're almost more like an iceberg: What you don't see is the bulk of the work.

"What people don't know about those jobs as a whole is how much behind-the-scenes work goes into putting out what's out front," Schweitzer said. "Prepping for a day, preparing for who's coming in to a room, getting situated so that when the day gets started, we're ready. It's not an on-the-fly process."

Though providing an exceptional experience can be tough work, Schweitzer said he thrives on the relationships he's been able to build with returning guests.

"I have guests that I've seen for five or six years; they know about me and my family and vice versa," he said. "It is not all work based. It's very much that personal relationship."

Personal relationships like helping to arrange an engagement on a recent guided snowshoe tour. One of Schweitzer's departments is activities, and his activities coordinator was on hand for the occasion, taking pictures and making it an even more special experience for both the couple and the staff.

"You can't teach a genuine passion for making other people happy," Schweitzer said. "But that's what it boils down to. You have to have a passion for making other people happy."

Margaret Ritz

Bartender, Minturn Saloon

Tenure: 11 winters

Head to Minturn on any given powder day, and you'll see skis and snowboards lining the outside of the Minturn Saloon. This historic building is a beacon for folks completing the Minturn Mile — one of Vail's most famous out-of-bounds runs. Bartender Margaret Ritz has been working at the Saloon for more than a decade, welcoming locals and tourists alike.

"It's a great mix of people," Ritz said. "For locals, it's how they end their day. Some people stop in because they've heard of it and want to get their picture taken. On a powder day, it's jamming. It's fun because it's laid back and people love it."

Though the Saloon is home to a mostly relaxed crowd of folks wanting a beer or a margarita or perhaps some dinner, Ritz's job comes with its share of downs along with the ups.

"Everything happens," she said. "I've had people threaten to kill me because I cut them off. But everyone has your back. (When that happened), all these guys stepped up behind me; they were there for me. It's nice to have."

The Mile is one of her highpoints, though.

"I take people down the Mile all the time," said Ritz, who is also a ski instructor. "People who are coming in the Saloon 20 years but haven't gone down it, I say 'I'll go with you, I'll take you down.' It makes people's vacations. They want to go and do it, but they want someone to guide them. … Afterward, all they could talk about is their adventures on the Mile. It made their vacation."

Ski guide, concierge and listening ear, Ritz has a lot of different aspects to her job at the Minturn Saloon. But it's the no-nonsense, laid-back vibe of the place that she really enjoys.

"We don't make fancy drinks. If John Wayne didn't drink it, we don't make it," she said. "I get to ski right into work. That's why I wear a cowboy hat."

Rhome Bumpas

Guest services/bellman, Park Hyatt Beaver Creek

Tenure: 27 years

Rhome Bumpas has seen a lot at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek. He's been working at the resort since it opened in 1989.

"It's a funny job," Bumpas said. "It's kind of like a bartending job, but in the daytime. We get tips, but I don't have to stay until 2 a.m."

Like bartending, Bumpas said 90 percent of what he does is more of a concierge-style service. When guests exit the hotel, he asks where they're going or what they're doing. He provides directions, suggestions and insider tips. He also delivers papers and drives guests around, when needed.

But, as expected, the bags are a big part of the job.

"The amount of bags that comes in and out of this hotel is pretty huge," Bumpas said.

Packing for a ski trip takes a lot of luggage — heavy luggage. Park Hyatt Beaver Creek has more than 100 rooms; sometimes it seems as if every room is checking out on the same day. Bumpas said he and the other bellman help approximately 60 percent to 70 percent of the guests. Each cart might have between six and 10 bags loaded onto it; the number of times that the carts roll through the lobby is difficult to estimate.

Bumpas enjoys his job — and his hotel.

"We don't work in a convention center hotel where it's unhappy people doing a job, having to sit in meetings," Bumpas said. "We're here to service guests that are here to ski with their families. They come back so often that we know them by name and they know us — it makes for a nice day."

From fine wine to front desk, bellman to bartender, these are just some of the people who are front and center in the Vail Valley. From check in to check out and all of the activities in between, there are hundreds of people who are quietly making our resort area a better place to visit. So give them a smile and say "hi" — they're looking forward to seeing you.

A few shining moments

Every job comes with its share of stories, from funny to strange to just plain inexplicable. Here are some anecdotes from the front lines of Vail.

• Bar/hotel? Margaret Ritz has plenty of stories from 11 winters bartending at the Minturn Saloon, some which have occurred more than once. She said there have been multiple times that either closing up or opening in the morning she’ll find someone sleeping on the benches in the dining room. “Scares the crap out of you,” she said.

• Ultimate impulse buy: Right before Christmas, a woman went to Vail Fine Wines to purchase some gift bags for wine bottles. Her total was about $20, said Kevin Lawrence Vail Fine Wines managing partner. There’s a bottle of wine by the register that she sees, picks up and then asks how many are in stock. The addition of the wine brings her total to $5,000. “The impulse things that happen, they boggle the mind,” Lawrence said. “But those are fun. There’s nothing negative about that.”

• Equal service for everyone: Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel once visited the Saloon and were trying to stay hidden in the dining room, which was closed at the time. The cook didn’t know who they were and told them that they had two options: Leave through the exit or go eat in the main bar area. They went into the main bar area and stayed.

• An extra tip: The new laws in Colorado have contributed to some additional tips for hotel staff, said Rhome Bumpas, guest services representative at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek. Guests make certain purchases and, perhaps, overestimate what they might consume before returning home. “Typically, people can’t take this stuff on the plane,” Bumpas said. “I think it’s funny how much of this is stuff is offered before they walk out — to housekeeping, to the front desk, to the bellman.”

• This is not Avis: “My car was stolen from the bar on New Year’s Eve one year,” Ritz said. She had started it to warm up the engine and, apparently, someone needed a ride home. They took her car that night; they parked it back in Minturn three days later. “I got it back, but it took me a while to find it,” Ritz said.