Ramping up at a rapid pace now that more people are booking trips and dining out, Charleston’s hospitality industry is facing a familiar problem.

It’s in dire need of workers. 

After shedding more jobs than any other sector during the pandemic, the region’s hotels and restaurants have, in recent weeks, been scrambling to fill positions to keep up with demand. 

To address the hiring crunch, tourism marketing group Explore Charleston and the Lowcountry Hospitality Association have put together a hospitality-only job fair for April 7, and they’ve added an incentive to sweeten the pot. 

The first 100 applicants to be hired will be eligible for a bonus of up to $500. 

Participating employers will get the funds for those payments from Explore Charleston and dole out the money in two installments: $250 in the first paycheck and the other half after three months. 

About 40 employers plan to be on hand to meet with job candidates at the event, which will be held outdoors at the North Charleston Coliseum. They range from new downtown hotels, such as Emeline, to the longstanding Francis Marion and food and beverage outlets like Home Team BBQ and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. Hospitality groups like Florence-based Raines, which has properties in Summerville, Mount Pleasant and West Ashley, also plan to attend. 

Explore Charleston will likely be gearing up for more hiring events soon after the employment fair, said CEO Helen Hill. 

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“Everything our research told us has come true,” said Hill, referring to the “pent-up demand” for travel that was expected to fuel spring and summer bookings. “It’s playing out the way we thought it would play out, but it still requires us to have enough staff to meet demand in key areas.”

Employers at the hiring event will consider candidates for all types of roles, but the real need right now is for frontline staff such as servers, bartenders, carriage drivers and housekeepers, Hill said. 

That was true before the pandemic. And seasonal staffing fluctuations are normal, but without the big spring events and festivals that usually signal kickoff and surge points for tourism, it was difficult to predict when and how much demand would be coming back.

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“What’s made this particularly difficult is that it’s not following the typical patterns that we’re used to,” said Michelle Woodhull, who oversees hotels and a restaurant, Circa 1886, as president of Charming Inns. “It’s surging so quickly.”

It’s also been “operationally difficult” to make schedules to meet demand, Woodhull said, since people are “making more last-minute decisions about travel than they ever have in the past.” 

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Workers in tourism-dependent jobs at hotels and restaurants were laid off in huge numbers last spring. At the sector’s low point in April, only a third of the people in those jobs were still working. The rest had been laid off or furloughed. 

Of the people who lost their hospitality jobs last year, those that have not been hired back may have accepted jobs in other sectors, such as retail or manufacturing. 

“I think that a lot of what we’re dealing with as an industry right now is the fact that we did have to shut down and we did have to lay off so many people, and now it’s going to be very difficult to find that pool of people to bring back because they moved on to other positions,” said Woodhull, who also is president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association. 

On the demand side, Woodhull said she “doesn’t see things slowing down” from here on out now that COVID-19 vaccinations are being administered and temperatures are warming.  

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March hotel numbers have shown the industry gaining momentum again.

For the week that ended March 20, occupancy in the state was 63 percent. In Charleston, it was higher, at 68 percent, up from a 29 percent rate from the same week in 2020, when the area saw some of the most acute business downturns during the early weeks of the health crisis. 

While in many ways needing to hire people is a “great problem to have” after a year of layoffs and low occupancy, Hill of Explore Charleston said the sector’s ability to staff up this season could affect it long-term. 

“The most important thing we offer as a community is great service,” Hill said. 

And delivering that service to guests, she said, just isn’t possible without enough workers.