As Travel Surges, Wine Country Resorts Grapple with Labor Shortages and Limited Capacity

Outside at The Allison Inn & Spa / Photo courtesy of The Allison Inn & Spa

Thanks to the vaccines and relaxed state and federal regulations regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic, America’s wine regions have been experiencing a tourism surge this summer. And many resorts and hotels are welcoming guests back at full or partial capacity.

“Walla Walla is booming,” says Mary Besbris, general manager of the Eritage Resort in Walla Walla, Washington. “People are here and ready to spend.”

But it’s not yet blue skies and full sail ahead. Ongoing Covid-19 concerns and other issues stand in the way.

One of the biggest challenges facing hoteliers in wine country is the massive worker shortage in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Millions of service professionals have left the field, citing reasons like low pay and poor work-life balance.

Lack of staffing means reopening at full capacity isn’t possible at some resorts. The high-end The Allison Inn & Spa in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has nearly 100 unfilled positions and, as a result, the hotel’s peak occupancy is capped at 70%. The restaurant, Jory Restaurant and Bar, is limited to 50% occupancy.

For Managing Director Pierre Zreik, it’s better to operate at reduced capacity but still meet expectations.

A fire pit outside The Allison Inn & Spa
A fire pit outside The Allison Inn & Spa / Photo courtesy of The Allison Inn & Spa

“Our reputation is at stake,” Zreik says. “Customer service is very, very crucial [to us]…and we’d rather have less guests and still be able to provide the best service.”

At resorts nationwide, managers like Zreik take on additional duties, serving as valets or helping clean rooms.

“It’s all-hands-on-deck here,” says Besbris. “We have to support the staff while also giving the best experience to the guest.”

To try to entice staff to return, many resorts have introduced hiring bonuses and higher wages. Some go even further, taking this shift in the hospitality industry as an opportunity to create more mutually beneficial working relationships with their staff.

The Eritage implemented shorter workweeks from 40 to 32 hours along with a wage increase in housekeeping from $14 to $16 an hour. The goal is to give its team better work-life balance for the long haul, even if it is currently short-staffed.

“It’s really important to me to have the right people stay in,” says Besbris. “If we’re challenged in the short term, it’s worth it.”

Then, there’s the delicate balancing act of protecting staff from Covid-19 while managing guests.

“Staff can keep masks on if they want and we will back them up,” says Max Compagnon, managing director of Yountville’s Napa Valley Lodge and its parent company, Woodside Hotel Group.

Most managers report that, overall, guests have been patient, understanding and supportive, although there has occasionally been friction and “mixed feedback,” according to Besbris.

“There are people who understand that things are different now and there are challenges,” she says. “It’s the reality of traveling right now.”

Why Aren’t Bar Pros Returning to Work? A Lack of Empathy.

The size of an establishment plays a large role in how it navigates this uncertain travel era. At the four-bedroom, nine-key Inn at Stinson Vineyards in Crozet, Virginia, there is only a handful of staff. With housekeeping being done between guest stays, the chef is generally the only staff member located on-site with the guests in order to prepare meals. The rhythms of many bed and breakfasts—entry granted through keypads instead of in-person check-in, extreme attention to detail and cleanliness and guests largely left to their own devices about their choice of activities—dovetails with current safety precautions.

“2020 was our busiest year ever,” says General Manager Stephanie Campbell. “We’re in this little bubble that’s been insulated from some of the issues that may be impacting larger properties.”

All hospitality professionals are now readjusting their practices for the more transmissible Delta variant. This is a top concern heading into fall and winter. With case numbers rising in many areas, the specter of 2020’s shutdowns and business closures haunts hoteliers, with many checking daily for local updates and continuing to keep their businesses as sanitized and safe as possible.

“I’m very nervous, so we’ll see what happens,” Zreik says. “We cannot let our guard down.”

Published on August 12, 2021
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