Due to the tourism slowdown at the height of the pandemic, many airlines, hotels, restaurants and attractions cut back operations, laid off employees or closed altogether. Now, as travel has begun to rebound, many of those businesses find themselves short of staff and resources. Travelers are feeling the pinch — both in the pocketbook and in the planning process — with lower inventory for accommodations (sometimes due to a shortage of housekeeping staff), longer wait times for services, limited opening hours at restaurants and higher prices in many popular destinations.
It’s even resulted in at least some flight cancellations: Southwest grounded one-third of its planes on Oct. 10, with 1,900 canceled throughout that weekend. Airline officials cited staffing challenges as one reason for the chaos.
We talked to experts about the situation and what travelers should consider when planning trips, especially to busy places that might be hardest hit by the worker shortage.
Book early — and check opening times
Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, says, “Businesses here and across the country, especially in the hospitality industry, are feeling the effects of a shortage of employees as demand for travel ramps up. As the industry gets back to work, it’s more important than ever for travelers to book far in advance.”
During a midday check-in at Napa’s Embassy Suites hotel in the heart of California's wine country on a recent trip, the desk clerk suggests making dinner reservations “like, right this minute, if you’re thinking of going anywhere in town for dinner. Normally you wouldn’t have to, but everyone’s short staffed, so it’s tough to get a seat.” Circe Sher, owner of Hotel Healdsburg in neighboring Sonoma County, says, “Many wineries who made the switch from walk-in to reservations only stayed that way due to staffing shortages. I suggest checking days and times restaurants are open. If you are returning to a place, the restaurant you remember being open seven days a week may only be open five to accommodate reduced staff.”
That’s true across the country, including on Cape Cod in Massachusetts: The Mews Restaurant in Provincetown is one of many in this tourist town closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, even at the height of the season this past summer. Others, such as Barnstable Tuscan Cuisine, have eliminated lunch service. Steve Tait, co-owner of Aerie House, a seven-room B&B, said one issue has been that the resort area’s summer worker population is usually boosted by young people who come from Europe on J-1 student visas, mostly unavailable this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. For Aerie House, that’s meant eliminating daily housekeeping services. “It’s been pretty rough,” Tait says.
Expect to pay more
Michael Jacobson, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, told local CBS news, “We are still facing staffing challenges both in frontline, hourly positions as well as management. It has resulted in some hotels reporting they have to limit room sales, because they do not have enough staff to accommodate 100 percent occupancy.”
With hotels booked, many travelers are turning to Airbnb and other short-term rentals — but increased demand is driving higher prices there as well. Vered Schwarz, chief operating officer of property management platform Guesty, says, “This Christmas is to be the most expensive holiday this year in the U.S. Travelers are currently booking at prices 53 percent higher than 2020 and 80 percent higher than pre-COVID 2019. Reservation volume across the U.S. is up 469 percent compared to 2020, and even 157 percent higher than 2019.”
The opening of U.S. borders to foreign tourists, expected to begin in early November, is not going to make things better for American travelers. Joshua Bush, CEO of AvenueTwo Travel agency, says, “While the news of the U.S. easing entry restrictions is great for the economy and overall travel industry, it does have a downside. With hotels running at limited capacity, this may shut out Americans who have not planned ahead. For the upcoming holiday season, my worry is that some Americans wanting to go to warm U.S. destinations may be left out in the cold.”
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California’s Beteta suggests looking at alternative destinations or timing: “Seasonal demand is an important factor for staffing shortages. Consider traveling during a destination’s shoulder or off-season when regions are less congested.” Booking a ski resort town in fall, for example, or a cool-weather coastal trip in winter will help with pricing and availability, she notes.
Be patient and kind
With travel delays, longer waits and limited service — all at higher prices — it’s understandable that some travelers are getting frustrated. But travel industry professionals are pleading with people to be patient with the beleaguered workers on the front lines of travel, from gate agents to front desk clerks and restaurant servers.
“I would recommend being compassionate and empathetic to the hospitality staff taking care of you. Many are just reentering employment in public-facing jobs after a year. Going from zero to 60 can be a lot for some staff,” says Healdsburg’s Circe Sher. “This, coupled with COVID not being entirely resolved, can [make for] a stressful and emotional situation.”
Alicia Barr, a Lake Tahoe-based restaurant owner and former mayor of Truckee, California, says the limited staff in the area are getting “exhausted and burnt out.” She wrote an op-ed to visitors saying, “Here is our collective plea: Please be kind. Please be patient. Hospitality needs to work both ways. All of us in the service industry are passionate about what we do. We truly enjoy inviting you into our establishments and breaking bread with you. But we also ask you, as a guest in our home-away-from-home, to be courteous, gracious, and respectful.”
In July, Apt Cape Cod, a restaurant in Brewster, Massachusetts, closed for “a day of kindness” after a rude customer berated a young employee when told it was too early to order breakfast. The owner wrote on Facebook: “As many of our guests and patrons treat us with kindness and understanding, there have been an astronomical influx daily of those that do not, swearing at us, threatening to sue, arguing and yelling at my staff, making team members cry. This is an unacceptable way to treat any human.”
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.