GREEN BAY – Wisconsin’s $22 billion tourism industry is hurting for help after thousands of its workers found other jobs when the coronavirus pandemic shut down leisure and business travel.
Hotels, recreation centers, resorts, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses have put the ‘help wanted’ signs out for housekeepers, chefs, wait staff, front desk clerks, office managers and sales staff more people prepare to travel as the coronavirus vaccines roll out.
Without enough workers, tourism-related businesses could have to turn down bookings and reservations, stunting their recovery.
“It’s been brutal,” said Bill Elliott, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel & Lodging Association. “It’s literally putting hotels in a position of having to cut sales off because they can’t clean all the rooms they need to the following day. It’s really a weird time.”
Hotels, recreation centers, resorts, restaurants, entertainment venues and other hospitality businesses bore the brunt of the pandemic last year. Air travel ground to a halt, restaurant sales plummeted, conventions canceled and hotels saw occupancy fall off a cliff.
“A lot of times, people will say ‘You’re probably making up for losses you experienced,” said Brad Toll, president and CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Really, there isn’t any making it up. What’s lost in February and March is lost. All we can do is hope May and June are better.”
Leisure travel is already reviving, but Wisconsin’s hotels and hospitality businesses find themselves missing thousands of workers who used to cook, clean, serve, and guide the 113 million tourists and business travelers who visited Wisconsin in 2019. Employment in Wisconsin’s accommodation and food service business is down an estimated 36,000 employees since March 2020, about 15% of the sector’s pre-pandemic workforce, according to Department of Workforce Development labor market data.
Industry leaders suggested that people might not be interested in available jobs because of the extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, but DWD and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the unemployment rate in February and March was 3.8%, only slightly higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 3.2%, a difference of less than 20,000 people who are unemployed compared to March 2020.
Wisconsin tourism and hospitality businesses cut hours and staff to survive the downturn. Now, as hotel occupancy and average daily room rates begin to rise again, it’s clear those workers won’t be coming back, said Bill Elliott, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel & Lodging Association.
“As other industries picked up and opened, we lost some of our workers to those jobs,” Elliott said. “They wanted to be working. It’s been a struggle. We’ve never really seen this before.”
Hotels, restaurants, event spaces, tourist attractions and industry groups are planning a flurry of efforts to find staff however they can. Hotels and attractions tend to fill up with leisure travelers on weekends, though the slow return of business travel means weekdays are still light. That makes it difficult to offer workers full-time hours, Toll said.
“It’s pretty dire,” Toll said. “I’ve not really talked to anyone in the tourism and hospitality industry that has not had challenges with staffing. Hotels, attractions, restaurants, it’s a pretty big challenge to find people for all positions.”
The search is on for workers
In response, regional and state tourism promoters are organizing hospitality job fairs hoping to recruit high school students for summer, connecting with colleges that offer hospitality programs. Businesses have also raised starting wages. Toll said the old perception that hospitality jobs pay minimum wage is wrong. Among more than 100 Green Bay area job listings for housekeepers on Indeed.com, most have starting wages listed between $11 and $16 per hour.
“A lot of times, the tourism industry does have positions that are entry-level for the workforce, but anyone paying workers minimum wage now does not have anyone working at their hotel,” Toll said.
Businesses also are closely watching the status of the J1 visa program, a longtime source of foreign employees for tourism meccas such as Wisconsin Dells and Door County that could be less effective with foreign embassies closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many areas of the state rely on (the J1 visa program) for staffing,” Elliott said. “We’re happy the State Department has lifted the temporary ban on visas, but so many foreign embassies remained closed, it makes it difficult for them to come over.”
Jewel Peterson Ouradnik, whose family has owned and managed Rowleys Bay Resort in northern Door County for more than 50 years, said she raised workers’ pay scale this year to attract more local workers amid the uncertainty about the visa program, which she’s historically used to hire kitchen staff and housekeepers for jobs locals did not take.
But Ouradnik also bought a house last year near the resort, which has 70 rooms and five cottages, as an added enticement for seasonal workers. She said seasonal workers with families can find it especially difficult to find housing in the county for the summer.
“It’s another challenge (for workers): Finding places for families to live in our area,” she said. “People want to live somewhere decent when they’re summering in Door County.”
Toll said the Green Bay tourism bureau hopes to organize a couple of hospitality job fairs this year. One this month would be aimed at high schoolers looking for summer work, and another to be held in fall. He also said the bureau is working with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to help rebuild the hospitality workforce, as well.
Worker shortage affects services offered
The hiring blitz has already started across the state, but in the meantime, hoteliers have also started to prepare for the unthinkable: Turning business away rather than risk not having enough staff to deliver the level of service visitors are used to.
Elliott, with the state lodging association, said some hotels have adjusted check-in/check-out times or will not make rooms available because there’s no staff to clean them. Often, he said, front desk staff and supervisors have been tapped to help clean rooms before the next guest arrives. He said he expects the industry will have a rough time for years, as projections show business travel won’t return to pre-pandemic levels for as many as three more years.
“We’re very happy that leisure travel is taking off and helping some hotels survive in the state, but there’s still a very long road ahead of us to keep the doors open,” Elliott said. “It’s a scary situation a lot of (businesses) are facing right now.”
The Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel and Conference Center in Oshkosh is gearing up for patio season right now, setting up tables outside along the Fox River. But Dan Schetter, the hotel’s general manager, said he’s not sure if he’ll be able to put out all the normal tables and chairs.
“I don’t know that we’ll get to the point where we can open the patio 100%,” Schetter said. “It might only be 50 to 75% capacity because we won’t have the wait staff to handle the business. Now people do want to go out and eat and we can’t accommodate them.”
Ouradnik closed Rowleys Bay Resort’s event space during the pandemic and said this year it will only be open for parties of 30 or more. Rowley’s Pub, the on-site restaurant, will offer some basic bar food, too, but the weekend fish boils have to wait until next year.
She also said housekeepers will no longer provide daily cleaning service; instead, rooms will be cleaned after guests check out. She said the resort sends an email to guests ahead of theirs stay so they know.
“Right now, we just want to manage what we’ve committed to responsibly,” Ouradnik said. “We want to take good care of the guests, but it may mean we have to limit some of the things we have available to you.”
Kenny Didier, general manager of the Hotel Northland in downtown Green Bay, said an early recruiting effort and a bump to the hotel’s wage scale helped the historic hotel find enough staff to keep the hotel and its two restaurants functioning as usual. And as at many other hotels and motels in the state, he said, managers and supervisors can step in to help with housekeeping or front desk operations when needed.
But Didier said he hopes guests recognize the circumstances the industry faces right now.
“It’s not that we don’t want to spend the money on staff, it’s just there’s not enough people to work,” Didier said. “People have to understand it’s not a training issue or a dollars issue.”
Jobs offer potential for growth
Didier said the industry does have a lot to offer to people who want a career with opportunities for promotion and travel. He said most jobs available in a hotel, whether in housekeeping, sales or front desk service, have supervisory roles for those looking to build themselves a career.
“There are so many different roles in a hotel and so much growth potential,” Didier said. “Even if I take an entry-level gig, I have the chance to perform well and see opportunities for growth.”
Elliott said everyone in the state potentially has the major, key skill needed for a job in hospitality and tourism: their smile.
“The heart of hospitality is making sure people have a great experience,” he said. “The most universal thing for someone wanting to get into the hospitality industry is to have a smile on their face. From there, we can train people in different jobs that can help them climb the ladder.”
That may sound a bit cliche, but Schetter said the love of serving guests, making their special days memorable ones, is part of why he’s managed hotels for more than 20 years now.
“The sad part for operators at my sister hotels, and anybody in hospitality whether it’s restaurants or hotels, is that we’re in business to make people happy, to create a great experience for them,” Schetter said. “It’s disheartening when you’re challenged to provide that experience simply because you can’t get enough team members to provide that experience.”