Cape Cod’s Wequassett Resort and Golf Club will be open this Christmas for the first time in its nearly 100 years in business, and it’s channeling a lot of pent-up holiday spirit.
There will be visits from Santa, a pajama brunch with Mrs. Claus, an inaugural tree lighting, fireworks, cookie-decorating, holiday high teas, and gift-wrapping, among other events.
But while Santa and Mrs. Claus may be accustomed to working during the holidays, the high-end hotel is also going all out for its employees who will also have to do it this year.
It’s giving paid days off to those who work any three of four winter holidays — Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s — a holiday dinner and gingerbread party for employee families, a prize raffle, and deep discounts on rooms, spa services, and events.
In hospitality, “our jobs come with the expectation that we’ll have to work on holidays,” said Alton Chun, the Wequassett’s managing director. “It’s our responsibility to come to work. This is our way of thanking our employees and their families for doing that.”
Holiday perks like these are becoming more common as labor in the hospitality industry remains hard to hire and hang onto, and people reconsider their work priorities.
Millions of Americans have to work on holidays, including first responders and hospital staff. An estimated one-quarter of the population works on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or all three, a poll by Allstate found.
Among them are many of the 16.6 million people in the hospitality and travel industries, including hotel, restaurant, ski resort, theme park, and airline employees.
“If you’re traveling on Christmas, there’s a pilot and crew working,” said James Griffin, a professor of food and beverage management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. “You land and there’s an Uber driver working. You go to a hotel and there’s someone at the desk to check you in. And you go out for a meal and there’s chefs and servers. There’s a whole massive economy that exists opposite of what most people typically think of as work hours.”
Many of those businesses are already short of workers. There are more than 1.1 million job openings in leisure and hospitality, the US Travel Association reports. That’s more than one in 10 of all US job vacancies.
Wages and benefits have already increased sharply. Hotel workers earn more than $23 an hour, on average, up 23 percent since the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now hospitality companies are throwing in more flexibility and benefits to keep employees showing up and smiling through the holidays.
“The first fundamental is we pay better,” Griffin said. “But the context of how we engage our employees has also shifted broadly.” Labor shortages “have required a dramatic shift in not only how we compensate people but in how we treat people generally.”
Some restaurants that didn’t previously offer free meals to servers are doing that now, for instance, and inviting their families to come and eat with them, said Robert Kelley, who teaches management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“For the people who would rather not work [on holidays], you have to give them some offsetting compensation, whether it be more pay, more time off,” or other benefits, Kelley said.
So employers are offering a growing number of perks to motivate employees who will be working holiday shifts, away from their families.
“It’s getting more and more difficult but we’re also getting more and more creative to accommodate our team members. Because if they’re not happy, forget it about it,” said Skylar Siminovsky, general manager of the Balfour Hotel in Miami Beach.
The Balfour gives staff members vouchers to buy turkeys, encourages them to dress in festive attire while on duty, provides free meals and comp time for working Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, and lets employees pick which holidays they work, depending on seniority.
“You don’t know what holiday is most important to your team. You might think Christmas is the most important, but to your housekeeping supervisor, she’s been working Christmas for 30 years and she doesn’t care about Christmas. She wants New Year’s off,” said Siminovsky, who, like many hospitality managers, comes to work himself on Christmas.
Competition for labor is intense, especially in places like South Florida in the winter, he said.
“You have all these travelers coming for the holidays and bars and restaurants that also need to be open,” Siminovsky said. “It’s a huge network of people who are working.”
But while before the pandemic it would take a day or two to fill an open job, he said, “today it could take two weeks, a month. Every property is competing against each other. You have to be very careful about how you manage this, and make your people feel important, feel cared for.”
In addition to extra pay, the Hotel Washington in Washington, D.C., serves employees working on the holidays free themed meals and offers breakfast with Santa to those with kids, discounted tickets to Wizards games, and raffles for hotel stays and other prizes.
Employees of the Hilton New York Times Square get a holiday party with a catered dinner, a DJ, and gifts selected and wrapped by the executive team. At the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock in Arizona, the general manager and his wife deliver gifts to employees who have to work on Christmas. Executives of the Boston Park Plaza serve holiday meals to workers. The Hilton Boston Logan Airport celebrates the holidays with a party in January, after the rush.
Delta Air Lines provides turkeys on holidays for break rooms, and employees bring side dishes, according to a spokesman; holiday assignments are based on seniority, and those who have to work sometimes cash in their “buddy passes” to bring family members with them. Company executives at American Airlines serve meals on holidays to front-line employees working at airports, reservation offices, and other facilities on Christmas Day, a spokesman said.
At Sugarbush ski resort, employees who have to work over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays typically get two free lift tickets for friends and families, according to a spokesperson for parent company Alterra.
Theme parks are also at their busiest during the holidays, requiring their highest staffing levels. “Cast members” at Disney theme parks during this time of the year get free snack and drink coupons, dining, and merchandise discounts, plus discounts on hotel stays, the company says. They already get free admission for their dependents, based on availability.
“Because our cast often work while others play, for decades we have offered holiday celebration opportunities in our parks for our cast to share that Disney magic with their loved ones,” said Tami Garcia, executive vice president for human resources.
The need to do these kinds of things has gotten more pronounced, Griffin, at Johnson & Wales, said.
“The labor issue is persistent, ongoing, long term,” he said. “It’s harder on an order of magnitude” to hire now. In restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses, “not only are we short of people — we’ve never seen demand like this.”
Kelley, in his research, said he’s found one other important thing about hospitality employees who have to work on the holidays.
“What has surprised me is the number of staff who say they like it,” he said. “Maybe they don’t have families or working on the holidays means they can take time off when everybody else in the world isn’t traveling.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.