If you can’t find hotel manager Scott Marn in his office at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, look in the laundry room. Or try the restaurant, where Marn be might be setting tables with the waitstaff. If all else fails, you might get lucky and catch him in the hallway running towels to guests. 

At the Westin, it’s all hands on deck during a labor shortage that’s left the hotel 12 workers short of a full staff. And now, with summer travel in full swing and rooms booking up, the job is harder than ever. 

“This is absolutely the most challenging time I have ever experienced in my career,” said Marn, who’s been in the hotel industry for 36 years and worked in 17 states. “But what’s amazing for a veteran like myself is to see how the staff that you do have is willing to pitch in and do anything and everything to take care of the guests.”

According to Marn, during peak hours, the entire Westin staff, including the management team, helps with laundry and restaurant operations. And on Fridays and Saturdays, Marn cleans rooms with the cleaning staff. 

The Westin is hardly the only hotel struggling.

Today, the hotel industry, which was one of the first industries to face the economic toll of the pandemic, is turning out to be one of the last on the road to recovery.

According to a new national report conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, though hotels are projected to add about 200,000 new jobs by 2022, over one in five hotel jobs lost during the pandemic – about 500,000 in total – will not return by the year’s end. 

In all, the pandemic has wiped out 10 years of job growth in the hotel industry, the report says.

Though jobs have rebounded since the lowest point in June 2021, Maine’s hotel industry is projected to end the year still shy 2,489 jobs, a 20.8 percent drop compared to 2019 employment numbers. Those numbers are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023.

Returning to hotels for the first time in over a year, guests may notice a few differences – this time unrelated to COVID restrictions. Many hotels in Portland don’t have the staff to offer housekeeping services or room service. And if you want a fresh towel, you’ll probably have to head down to the front desk to get it yourself.

Assistant general manager Stewart Bramble at the Best Western Merry Manor Inn in South Portland said that though their operations have been affected by the labor shortage, guests are understanding of the challenges they are facing. 

“There are always some guests who don’t know exactly what our staff might go through on a daily basis,” Bramble said. “But I’d say most of our guests are pretty understanding and empathetic to the plight of the service industry.”

Bramble said their labor shortage is largely due to the lack of international workers in the country. In a normal year, Best Western hires seven to 10 international workers on “J-1” student exchange visas and “H-2B” temporary work visas.

This year, due to travel restrictions, delayed visa procedures and closed embassies, they have no international workers. 

“A lot of the news so far this week is daunting,” said Matt Lewis, president and CEO of MaineHospitality, referring to the uptick in COVID cases and return of certain restrictions. “We are just not getting the numbers of visas approved that hotels need to sustain their normal staff numbers. And as long as that continues, we’re going to be having this conversation every year.” 

The good news, says Lewis, is that Maine will likely stay busy into the fall. But with that comes the challenge of maintaining staff numbers as seasonal student workers go back to school and international workers remain overseas.

Patrick Becker, a student at Endicott College, has been at the Portland Regency Hotel & Spa for two months. When on the job, he works the front desk, maintenance, cleaning, and helps out with accounting.

But when September rolls around, Becker, along with the scores of other high school and college students, will head back to class. 

“There is certainly going to be an extra pinch come fall,” Lewis said.

For hotels now struggling to keep up with the demand, and worried about the fall season, the only real solution is to find more workers. But with the lights now turning on after a dark year and a half, workers across the country are rethinking their previous occupations and moving to new sectors of the economy. 

“Everyone from cannabis companies to senior living companies are now going after hospitality workers, so there is a lot of competition,” Lewis said. “But I certainly think that hotels and restaurants in Maine have really rolled out the red carpet to attract new talent.”

The Westin is taking what Marn calls a “grassroots approach” toward recruiting, putting up flyers wherever they can, offering onboard bonuses of up to $1,000, and implementing higher seasonal wages. 

Marn believes that once enhanced federal unemployment programs expire on Sept. 4, labor will return to the hotel.

Lewis is skeptical, however, about the true effect of the unemployment benefits on the current labor shortage.

“We’ll see what the end result is when the program ends in September,” Lewis said. “But I have a hard time personally believing that that’s a huge prohibitor in people moving forward, mainly because of the wages and benefits that hotels and restaurants are offering.” 

In the years to come, the challenges for hotels go far beyond the labor shortage that’s struck almost every business in Maine.

Most concerning in the coming years is the slow return of business and group travel, the largest source of revenue for hotels. According to the AHLA report, business travel is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.

But after a year and a half without business trips, and the newly realized convenience of Zoom meetings, companies may rethink their entire approach to travel.

“Companies that used to take six to nine trips a year to hotels will re-evaluate and realize they can get by with going maybe three to five times,” Lewis said. “Imagine that conversation happening in company after company. It’s dramatically going to change business travel.”

In the meantime, small and dedicated hotel staffs are enduring the labor shortage as best they can.

“We’re all wearing multiple hats, and we’re all working long hours,” Bramble said. “Our staff has been amazing, up there with any other as far as how hard they work. But I won’t lie, it wears on you.”

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