One Year Later: Local Tourism Industry Faces New Challenge of Finding Staff

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The hotel industry in Williamsburg continues to suffer as tourists remain hesitant to travel. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
The hotel industry in the Historic Triangle faces a new issue of trying to find workers, a challenge the restaurant industry has had for months. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

HISTORIC TRIANGLE — Last summer, when COVID-19 put a damper on many travel plans and adventures, the Historic Triangle experienced what was probably the quietest summer in decades. 

Last year, WYDaily spoke with several leaders in the local tourism industry about the impacts of the pandemic on business. 

RELATED STORY: Area restaurants, hotels are hardest hit by the pandemic. With Busch Gardens shuttered, things remain grim

One year later, this is where business is going. 

According to Debi Schaefer, executive director of the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association (WARA), many members of the association have had the best sales in the last few months.

I had one restaurant owner tell me that they had better sells than they did in 2019, even with less staff and shorter hours,” Schaefer said. “Their best month every was in June.”

But it’s not local residents that are overwhelming restaurants. 

Say goodbye to peaceful traffic. The tourists are back.

“People are just tired of being at home, and they’re traveling,” Schaefer said. 

And the data shows it, too. According to the latest episode of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association’s podcast, occupancy was up 64 percent for the month of June. In June 2019, occupancy was 65%.

Last year, occupancy was down by 67% , with revenue down by 83% compared to June 2019.

“We’re very close to being back to where we were,” said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association. 

While the tourists have returned for the summer, the tourism industry is not out of the woods yet. Similar to what restaurants are facing, hotels and motels are also struggling to find staff for entry level positions, such as housekeeping, front desk clerks, and maintenance.

Kirkland attributed the labor shortage to the extended unemployment benefits, a sentiment Schaefer also shared with WYDaily back in May.

RELATED STORY: “Can’t do it, can’t find the staff.” Local restaurants struggle to stay afloat during hiring drought

The result as been fewer rooms being rented out and a change in how often rooms are cleaned.

The hotels are staying open full time, but what’s happening is that management people are stepping in to help fill more gaps,” Kirkland said. “We’ve gone from automatically servicing a room, to asking guests to put in cleaning requests, sometimes at least 24 hours in advance.”

Kirkland added that the lack of staff has not affected the quality of service.

As for restaurants, Schaefer said WARA members have been doing the best they can in order to support each other, whether that’s through providing to-go containers or fixing logistical issues.

But the pandemic has changed how some places will operate from now on.

Schaefer said more restaurants are considering operating with fewer hours, especially if they continue to be short staffed.

“Many places are finding that they make the same amount of money with fewer hours, and they save on payroll, too,” she said.

She added some places have been forced to reduce hours or remove take-out options. One restaurant had to close their bar for one night because they didn’t have a bartender.

All 112 WARA restaurant members managed to stay in business throughout the pandemic; a feat Schaefer said was miraculous compared to other areas in Hampton Roads. 

“It goes to show you the strength and passion of restaurant owners,” Schaefer said. “We have an incredible group of restaurants.”

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