DAYTONA BEACH — Jennifer Pickett was all smiles as she emerged from an interview at an open-house job fair this past week at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort.
Pickett, 45, who left her job as an assistant manager at a senior assisted living facility in Palm Coast in the wake of COVID-related stresses of 2020, was excited about the prospects of a hospitality career.
“I really think this whole area, Daytona Beach, is hopping again,” she said, following an interview that she hoped would lead to a job in reservations or customer service. “I think the Hilton is a classy, sophisticated hotel, with a great feel to it. I think it would be a great hotel to work for.
“There should be hundreds of people here,” she said. “I don’t know why there aren’t.”
Indeed, business is booming at Volusia County hotels this summer, with occupancy and tourism bed-tax collections topping the destination’s performance for pre-COVID 2019.
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Yet many hotels are still struggling to hire employees to bolster workforces downsized by pandemic-related staff reductions a year ago.Only a trickle of applicants — a dozen or so — arrived over the first two hours of the Hilton’s job fair, a five-hour window for interviews about a wide range of jobs that included bartenders, cooks, front-deck supervisors, security officers, reservationists and other roles at the 744-room hotel, the largest in Daytona Beach.
“It’s really the whole gamut,” said Jordan White, the hotel’s Human Resources director. “Food and beverage, reservations, people support; it’s almost the whole hotel.”
To entice potential employees, the Hilton offered a perk to job fair applicants, a drawing to win a two-night stay at the hotel. Even so, the hallway outside the interview rooms in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom was quiet.
In greeting applicants, White also touted the hotel’s famed worldwide brand, its competitive wages and employee recognition programs and its standing as one of the marquee hotels on the World’s Most Famous Beach.
“More important is the people and the relationships that we build here,” she said.
‘It has to be better’: Job satisfaction low in hospitality industry
Despite all that, the Hilton is among the area hotels scrambling to fill open positions, a reflection of a national labor crisis that has hit the hotel and restaurant industry hard even as customers return in big numbers following the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.
The reasons are tied to a variety of factors that include low wages, the availability of federal unemployment benefits and displaced workers who have moved on to other careers after losing jobs during the pandemic.
The impact of the latter is evident by the results of a newly released survey of more than 13,000 former hospitality workers by online employment-search firm Joblist. It shows that more than half of those workers did not want to return to the industry and more than one-third would not consider going back even with pay increases or other incentives.
More than half of the respondents, 52%, wanted a work environment with less-strenuous physical demands; 45% wanted higher pay; 29% wanted better benefits; 19% wanted more schedule flexibility; and 16% wanted to work remotely.
“That kind of put a knife in my heart,” said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County, a veteran of the area’s tourism industry for more than 50 years. “It has to be better than that.”
Wages often dominate discussions of the industry’s labor woes, but that’s not the only issue, Davis said.
“We have to change our way of thinking; the industry has to grow up,” he said, pointing to the need to offer more paths for career advancement, education and job satisfaction. “I don’t call it a job; I call it a career path. We need to let people know that you can be anything you want. I started out as a dishwasher. You can work your way up.”
The Hilton has raised the wages offered for several jobs open at the hotel’s job fair, White said, while not offering specific pay rates.
“Compensation varies by role, by experience of candidates, by shifts and by departments,” Jim Berkley, the hotel’s general manager said by email. “Our hotel evaluates wage rates monthly and adjusts to ensure we are offering premium compensation to all applicants.”
Job stress, not necessarily pay, affecting hotel employment
As the Joblist survey indicates, however, higher pay alone often isn’t enough to motivate workers to return to hotel jobs, said Scott Smith, a hospitality professor and director of graduate studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
“The thinking has always been that if you pay a higher salary, people will beat down the door to come work for you, but we’re not seeing that,” said Smith, who worked as director of convention services in the early 1990s at the Daytona Marriott, the hotel that is now the 744-room Hilton.
“Some places have gone to $18 an hour and they are struggling just as much as folks paying $15 to get people to come work for them,” he said. “I think the pandemic has given people a chance to reflect on what’s going on and realize that money’s not everything.”
Other factors that have cooled interest in hotel jobs involve work hours that can be demanding and what Smith calls a “coarsening” of society that has made dealing with unhappy guests much more stressful, he said.
“If you’re working as a front-line position, you’re going to have a lot more encounters with rude people,” Smith said. “Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you had a once-a-week encounter with someone rude or demanding, but now that might be a daily occurrence. So, at some point, you might look at your job and say, ‘There’s not enough money in the world for me to put up with this.’”
Rob Burnetti, general manager of the 212-room Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores, also points to increasing job stresses as a factor that is hurting applicant interest in the industry.
“It’s not a huge issue, but it’s definitely playing a role,” Burnetti said. “More than ever, we’ve seen guests being a little tougher in how they act toward our employees when we’re just trying to keep up. People just get mean and I’m sure some people (workers) decided that it’s not worth putting up with it.”
The Shores is still is struggling to hire needed workers, even after the reinstatement of the unemployment benefit job search requirement aimed at motivating more job seekers.
“We haven’t really seen a big change,” he said. “We’ve also had people scheduling interviews and not showing up.”
The Shores has stopped doing job fairs, for now, after several were poorly attended, Burnetti said.
“We’ve decided it’s not worth the time you put into it,” he said. “We’re focusing on hanging on to the loyal people we have who want to work. I think, more than ever, you have to focus on having a great place to work, so when you do hire someone they want to stick around.”
Finding and keeping high quality workers is the industry’s most critical challenge, said Smith, the hospitality professor.
“The product is not a hotel room, the product is the service experience,” he said. “If guests think they are going to have terrible experience with you, they will go to alternatives. This, to me, is the biggest crisis in the hotel and restaurant industries right now and it can’t be solved with pay.
“It’s going to take leadership in terms of treating employees right and going above and beyond,” he said. “Serving them the way you want them to serve the guests. The companies that figure it out will come out of this OK.”