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As winter travel season gets going, vacationers are in for labor pains

A new report has found a third of hospitality employees who lost their jobs at the start of COVID have no intention of returning, and a third of those still working are considering following them out the door

A sign reads "Hiring Like Crazy" in the front window of a taco restaurant in Princeton, N.J.Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

ORLANDO — “We’re outnumbered,” said the harried desk clerk at the end of the hour-and-45-minute line to check into the hotel.

Children cried. Dinner plans went out the window.

It was still weeks before the winter vacation season would deliver a tsunami of travelers to warm-weather destinations like Orlando, and to ski resorts and cities.

But the line that snaked around the lobby appeared a harbinger of things to come.

Persistent labor shortages in the hospitality and leisure industry mean rising prices for declining customer service, long delays, and other frustrations, according to early evidence and experts — not only this winter, but beyond.

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They say a vicious cycle may ensue, of even more employees quitting in the face of bigger workloads, longer hours, angry guests, falling tips, and new variations of COVID.

“The pain point in hospitality has always been on the worker — low wages, lack of security,” said Ben Ellsworth, a former chef and founder of the hiring app Gigpro. “That pain point has fallen now on the business. Next it’s going to hit the end user, the customer.”

A new study by researchers at the University of Central Florida finds that about a third of hospitality employees who lost their jobs have no intention of returning, and a third of those still working are considering following them out the door. Nearly a million left in August, twice the overall national quit rate.

By September, one in six of all the job openings in the country were in hospitality and leisure, according to the US Travel Association. At the rate they’re being filled, the association said, the industry won’t be fully staffed again until at least November 2022.

This comes just as winter travel is ramping up.

Rory Bevins, senior vice president at La Bottega, which supplies amenities to top hotel chains, said a single luxury hotel in Miami he works with had 100 openings heading into the season.

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Employees “just see more stress and longer hours,” said Robertico Croes, who coauthored the UCF study. “Having angry customers, negativity — workers can’t cope. There’s a threshold. My concern is that the level of the experience will decrease, and the service, and soon the guests aren’t getting what they were sold to expect.”

That’s already happening, survey data show.

The American Consumer Satisfaction Index for hotels is at its lowest level in a decade. The J.D. Power North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study shows declining guest satisfaction scores at almost every level, from economy to luxury. The proportion of low one-, two- and three-bubble (out of five) reviews that include the word “understaffed” has more than doubled this year, Needham-based Tripadvisor says.

“People’s patience has worn thin,” said Izzy Kharasch, a restaurant consultant. “They’re ready to get out and do things. Everybody’s heard about the labor shortage and they know what’s going on, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sitting there with your family and waiting for your dinner.”

Instead consumers will find restaurants open for fewer hours with longer waits and trimmed-down menus, or some locations closed so staff can be reassigned to others.

A “wage war” is already underway to lure workers, said Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of the restaurant Hearth and Hill in Park City, Utah, and president-elect of the ski town’s chamber of commerce. That’s helping drive up prices.

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Hotels are raising pay for their employees, too, said Rosanna Maietta, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association Foundation. The foundation plans a national campaign to attract more people to jobs in the industry, Maietta said.

Two-thirds of consumers say they’ve already seen prices go up at restaurants, the food and beverage research company Datassentials reports, and 80 percent think those prices will go higher still. A KPMG survey found that people also expect to pay more for hotels.

What they’ll get for more money may be less service, Croes said.

People on vacation care not just about the cost, but about maximizing their time, he said. And “if they’re coming to Orlando for five days and they’re spending hours standing in line, they’ll become exasperated.”

Meanwhile, scheduled renovations and updates are being pushed back, said Andrea Stokes, who leads hospitality research at J.D. Powers. “It will be some time before these players undertake all but the most basic maintenance investments,” Stokes said.

That follows other inconveniences for travelers.

“Already people are having difficulty changing flights because getting somebody on the phone to talk to you is going to take hours,” said Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “Finding rental cars is difficult.”

Much of the unhappiness among workers in the hospitality industry long predates COVID, experts said. The pandemic just exposed it.

“There is a lot of anger out there among the employees. They felt they were so quickly disposed of at the start of the pandemic,” Croes said.

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Anger over working conditions “has been an issue for quite some time, but the issue has been amplified and magnified,” said Jamie Baxter, CEO of Qwick, an on-demand staffing platform for restaurants, bars, and hotels in 12 cities that plans to expand to Boston next year.

“You read stories about service workers who are thinking: Who needs this? Especially at the bottom line. I’m making $7 an hour and now I’m not making any tips,” said Robert Sonora, associate director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Another source of help for hotels and restaurants has also been squeezed: immigration.

“A lot of these behind-the-scenes roles, like the dishwashers and the cleaners, we rely heavily on immigrant labor for that,” said Sonora.

And those kinds of services, long taken for granted by customers, are bogging down.

Ellsworth, of Gigpro, said he once worked for a chef “who used to tell us hospitality is like a swan gliding gracefully across the water. What most people don’t realize or see is that right under the waterline there’s two legs beating like crazy to pull off that grace.”

A solution for hospitality companies is to improve not only pay but working conditions, many in the business say.

“We believe that people now more than ever are wanting to work at a place where they’re treated respectfully,” said Kirchheimer, whose Park City restaurant offers health insurance and 401(k)s. “Yes, they need money to survive, but they also want to be happy where they work and they’re valuing that more than they ever have before.”

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The places most likely to survive these problems are the ones “that recognize these folks are a valuable asset. They’re going to pay them more. They’re going to treat them better,” said Bert Miller, CEO of the hospitality search and recruitment firm Protis Global.

That’s a lesson for customers, too, said Tayur, at Carnegie Mellon.

“There’s no point in being angry with the people who showed up to work,” he said. “You’re yelling at the wrong person.”

Kirchheimer recommended that travelers make reservations far ahead of time this winter. “And just be nice,” he said. “Being nice really overcomes anger and frustration.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.