As COVID-19 mandates lift, Scottsdale resorts are gradually seeing occupancy rates go up week-over-week – a trend that began in April.
But while their restaurants and pools are hosting crowds not seen since pre-pandemic times, resorts are facing quite the opposite situation behind the scenes: a shortage of staff.
Over the past few months, resorts of all sizes in recent weeks have held hiring fairs to fill vacant positions. And getting back furloughed employees hasn’t been easy.
“Beginning in March of last year, we saw a dramatic increase in cancellations and the phones essentially stopped ringing,” recalled Shane Sarlo, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa Resort manager.
“As a leadership team, we decided not to close the resort, however, we did ultimately have to place the majority of our staff on furlough.”
At one point, Sarlo said, Sanctuary went from more than 400 employees to fewer than 30.
According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Arizona hotels shed more than 25 percent of their employees last year, with job losses across local hotels totaling more than 15,000.
By the end of this year, however, AHLA estimates that the total number of hotel employees will rise a few thousand, from 43,445 people in 2020 to 46,037 – well below the 2019 total of almost 59,000 workers.
AHLA said Arizona’s 2021 projected losses in hotel workers, compared to 2019, will be the 13th highest in the nation.
“Hotels were one of the first industries affected by the pandemic after travel was forced to a virtual halt in early 2020, and it will be one of the last to recover,” AHLA’s report states.
Overall, AHLA predicts that hotels will add 200,000 direct hotel operations jobs in 2021 but will remain nearly 500,000 jobs below the industry’s pre-pandemic employment level of 2.3 million employees.
Great Wolf Lodge in Scottsdale held a hiring event in May to fill more than 120 positions. The resort had furloughed 312 employees last year.
Overall, Great Wolf Lodge hopes to rehire 2,000 new employees across its 16 U.S.-based resorts.
“We recognize the pandemic has created a number of employment challenges nationwide,” said Bryan Robinson, Chief People Officer for Great Wolf Resorts. “We’re pleased to expand our hiring efforts and offer some exciting career opportunities as more families look for the type of fun, safe getaway Great Wolf Lodge provides.”
To get prospective employees through the door, some resorts are offering incentives.
The Phoenician, for example, held a hiring event last month and offered a $500 sign-on bonus to full- and part-time new hires.
Phoenician Managing Director Mark Vinciguerra believes it impacted the turnout.
“I definitely feel that it has an impact,” Vinciguerra said. “It speaks to the investment that we’re making, that they know that we want them to be here. We’re willing to invest the time and energy to get them trained properly.”
The Phoenician had about 60 position open at the start of the hiring event, ranging from grounds and landscaping positions to culinary, housekeeping, spa positions and more.
According to Vinciguerra, the hiring event was successful. They filled about half of the full-time, part-time and seasonal positions they were hiring for.
“A lot of people showed interest in the resort so, I was encouraged by that,” Vinciguerra said.
Sanctuary, on the other hand, is back to more than 90 percent of its pre-COVID staffing levels – “which is not typical of what is being seen in the industry, overall,” Sarlo said.
He isn’t wrong.
While the industry expects to gain jobs this year, it won’t reach pre-pandemic levels until 2023, AHLA believes.
Sanctuary was initially challenged with finding line-level staff, like housekeeping and stewarding, but then reevaluated their starting pay rates in an effort to entice staff back to work.
“Many were still receiving unemployment benefits or did not feel comfortable coming back into the workplace. We also improved some of our additional benefits, including complimentary employee meals, incentives, bonuses, and more,” Sarlo said.
Phoenician managers attribute part of the difficulty of rehiring to former employees moving out of state or starting entirely different careers.
This has led the resort to shift its focus on hiring new people.
“We’ve put a lot of time and energy into that,” Vinciguerra said. “And overall, the job fair went well and met our expectations.”
Sanctuary has around 50 job openings across all divisions, but more predominately in their spa, room and food and beverage divisions.
Both resorts are confident the industry will bounce back as business and group travelers make their return to resorts.
“We believe it’ll come back in stages,” Vinciguerra said. “We have seen so much leisure travel these first four or five months of the year.
“We think the next big segment that’s going to come back – and it’s probably sometime in the fall – is group business,” Vinciguerra continued, adding that group business comprises at least half of the Phoenician’s business.
Vinciguerra said fall is critical to hotel industry recovery.
“If [group] business returns, then that would be a very good signal that we’re on our way to recovery,” he said.
But as the industry recovers, Sarlo believes that hotels and resorts will need to adjust their internal culture to provide more workforce values.
“Gone are the days when managers were expected to work a minimum of 55 hours a week. Today’s hospitality employees want richer benefits, a better work/life balance and to feel as if they have more ownership and control in their roles,” Sarlo said.
“We continue be on the forefront of changing some of the ‘old school’ mentalities about what it means to have a meaningful and fulfilling career in hospitality and strive to continue to be the best place to work in the Scottsdale area.”