Kalpesh Vakil had to close large swaths of the 317-room Wyndham Lancaster Resort over the summer because he was unable to find enough staff to operate the entire East Lampeter Township hotel.
Vakil, co-owner of Lancaster County’s second largest hotel, had hoped to add 40 employees to his 60-person workforce. However, he managed to find just 12, including a handful of students, despite nearly doubling the hourly pay for certain positions.
As a result, he said he had to turn down more than 1,000 room-nights of bookings at the Lincoln Highway East hotel, losing the chance to generate an estimated revenue of more than $250,000.
But Vakil said he believes the situation “will be resolved by itself” because demand for rooms is weaker in the fall, and the recent end of the extra $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit will hopefully motivate people to seek work at his hotel.
Despite what one tourism official said will be a continuation of a strong summer into the fall, lodging and restaurant operators said the issue over the summer wasn’t finding customers, it was meeting the demand with enough labor.
Before the pandemic, some managers might be saying goodbye to seasonal employees with fall approaching and setting schedules for full-timers for the new season. Not this year, according to Al Duncan, CEO at Thomas E. Strauss Inc., which owns and operates Miller’s Smorgasbord, Amish Inn & Suites and other tourist-friendly destinations.
Duncan said he largely skipped hiring seasonal or part-time employees this summer and chose to shorten operations at restaurants like Miller’s Smorgasbord to five days a week. That’s meant sacrificing about a third of the revenue Strauss restaurants could generate if they were fully staffed, he said.
“We’ll have the number of seats open, on the days that we’re open, where we can provide the level of service that we can be proud of,” Duncan said.
He said he believes the pool of service workers is just not growing fast enough, and pointed to a decline in immigration over recent years.
“There's just not enough people, and that's not going to change in the near-term,” Duncan said.
About 90% of his employees are full-time, Duncan said, a higher share than before the pandemic.
“The best of our best people are still with us,” he said.
‘Looking at the situation week to week’
Edward Harris, president and CEO at Discover Lancaster, said hotel operators just saw their best summer since 2018. And some of those good times should continue into the fall, thanks to the county's bevy of outdoor autumnal activities for families.
“When I speak with (hotel operators) about fall – at least on paper at the moment – they feel good about bookings on weekends,” Harris said. “Weekdays, on the other hand, they’re not as bullish.”
The county has a formidable lineup of fall attractions that include music and harvest festivals, and the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and Harris said Discover Lancaster is promoting the area to New Yorkers and Philadelphians as a fall oasis for activities like leaf-peeping and apple-picking.
The options for a weekend getaway here come at a time when the COVID-19 delta variant has increased concerns of transmission in indoor spaces.
“We’re fortunate that we do have a range of things to do outside this fall, and I think that’s why we're seeing some of the momentum likely to continue, especially on weekends,” Harris said.
Of course, in the pandemic age, circumstances can change quickly.
“There's a lot of things to look forward to” in the fall, Harris said. “But at the same time, we're listening and looking at the situation week to week, like we have been throughout the pandemic.”
Dutch Wonderland will move to a weekends-only schedule in the fall, per usual, said Jeff Eisenberg, director of marketing.
The company has raised starting wages by $3 for school-age and adult workers to $12 and $12.50, respectively, but a major help to keeping the gates open has been an increase in scheduling flexibility for staff, Eisenberg said.
If a student only has three hours after school or on a Saturday to provide support for other staff, Eisenberg’s company will make use of that, he said.
“We've had team members who have said ‘I can be available 12 to 3,’ specifically just to come in to assist with breaks,” Eisenberg said.
‘I just am left scratching my head a little bit’
Geoff Cardell, owner of Pepper Lane Fudge & Sweets at Kitchen Kettle, said he’s spent the last three months trying to hire a third full-time employee, and becoming increasingly frustrated when the applicants he gets don’t show up for scheduled interviews.
“They’re taking the time to apply on these job boards, but they’re not following up with interviews, and I don’t know why,” he said. “I just am left scratching my head a little bit.”
At Tanger Outlets, 36 stores are still looking for employees, representing more than half the retailers in the East Lampeter Township shopping center.
“The stores, especially now, are still looking to hire seasonal and holiday help since the college kids went back to work,” said Monica Trego, Tanger’s general manager.
Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse is hosting two job fairs in September to boost staffing levels, and make up for high school and college kids going back to school. But job applicants remain below the 2019 level, said Lisa Horn, a manager at the center.
Meanwhile, other businesses are fighting to keep the people they have.
“We have been understaffed even before Labor Day, and with the kids going back to school, it’s only amplifying it,” said Phil Weaver, co-president and CEO of Shady Maple.
Between its East Earl Township smorgasbord and grocery store, Shady Maple has had 700 employees, but is now managing with around 650, Weaver said. It’s been especially hard to hire – and keep – cooks for the smorgasbord, even though starting wages have been increased to nearly $15 an hour, he said.
“Employees are unbelievably finicky. I can have an employee here for one month and if they get a job somewhere else for another dollar (an hour), they go,” Weaver said. “We’re all sort of stealing employees from each other right now.”
Weaver said business typically slows down for a couple weeks after Labor Day, but will return to near summer levels in October, by which time he hopes he hopes he can have enough staff to meet the demand.
“Thank God we are closed on a Sunday -- and will always be closed on a Sunday. And for us that is a big help in recruiting people because that is at least one full day you don’t have to work,” he said.
Staff writers Chad Umble and Tim Mekeel contributed to this story.