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The outdoor activity that's helping local tourism during pandemic, staffing shortages
The vacancies hotels are having trouble filling? Jobs
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RVs fill the campground at Lake Lanier Islands Tuesday, July 13, 2021, with almost every spot filled with an RV or camper. The campground has done quite well amid the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. - photo by Scott Rogers

The desk clerk who checks you in at your hotel may also be the person who ends up cleaning your room.

With fewer workers in the tourism and hospitality industries, those who stick around or join anew are often forced to pick up the slack inherent to skeleton staffs — hotel managers by day become housekeepers by night.

In the spring of 2020, more than 300 Hall County hospitality workers were laid off, said Stacy Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau president — which amounts to more than one-tenth of the industry’s 2,700 or so workers.

And even as the pandemic abates and business picks up, many of those workers haven’t returned.

“Hospitality workers who may have been laid off during the pandemic have found other work elsewhere, and so they’re not coming back to these jobs,” Dickson said. “Every location is doing the best with what they have and aggressively seeking desk workers and housekeepers and folks to help with the continental breakfast.

“Those that suffered the worst and are having the hardest time coming back are definitely the lodging properties,” she added, commending the “Herculean job” that hotel staff have been doing to maintain high standards of customer care.

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The campground at Lake Lanier Islands is near capacity Tuesday, July 13, 2021, with almost every spot filled with an RV or camper. The campground has done quite well amid the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. - photo by Scott Rogers

“It comes down to general managers and owners who are cleaning hotel rooms and doing what they have to do to maintain that level of expectation for guests,” she said.

Muaz Choudhry, a manager at the Ramada hotel in Gainesville whose father owns the hotel, said they are short about a dozen staff members. An ideal staff, he said, would consist of between 45 and 50 people, and his hotel currently employs about 35.

That means he often finds himself cleaning the pool or doing other tasks that wouldn’t normally fall under his purview.

“I can deal with it, but it’s tough dealing with it every single day, especially when you’re short staffed,” he said. “We’re doing better now. It’s just the staffing shortage is really the main issue.”

Worse still is that such staffing shortages can be self-perpetuating.

“Whenever we get new hires, we actually don’t have a full staff, so I guess they get a little bit stressed out with the workload,” Choudhry said, adding that even pay raises after two weeks are sometimes not enough to retain new hires.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the Hall County unemployment rate has more than halved in the past year — from around 8% to around 3% — but it appears that many of the people rejoining the workforce are opting out of the hospitality industry.

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The campground at Lake Lanier Islands is near capacity Tuesday, July 13, 2021, with almost every spot filled with an RV or camper. The campground has done quite well amid the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. - photo by Scott Rogers

A recent report by Joblist, for example, found that 38% of former hospitality workers are not even considering a job in the industry, half of whom say that no increase in pay would lure them back to their former jobs.

But not all sectors of Hall County’s hospitality industry have fared as poorly.

“Over the last year, it’s been a mixed bag,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “Some aspects of tourism have done well. A lot of local destinations were busy.”

Dickson said Lake Lanier saw “record visitation” last year, with outdoor attractions providing a much-needed economic cushion.  

“One of the silver linings was camping,” she said. “If we hadn’t had that, I don’t know what the resort would have done.”

The Margaritaville RV Resort at Lake Lanier opened in late 2018 and had a full operational year in 2019. “Camping has grown like 300%,” she said. “Now I dare you to find a camping spot.”

Missy Burgess, Lanier Islands’ director of public relations and marketing, said the destination is struggling to find workers but she is nonetheless “very optimistic.”

“We’ve had a great spring and a really strong summer thanks to good weather and people really wanting to get out and come to the islands, which we’re thrilled about,” she said.

Before the pandemic struck, about 70% of Lanier Islands’ business came from corporate meetings, with the other 30% coming from leisure. Those roles have been reversed. “Now our business is 70% leisure and 30% corporate groups,” she said. She expects corporate business to ramp back up by the second or third quarter of 2022.

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce helped many businesses apply for Payment Protection Program loans, which originated as part of the CARES Act. Choudhry, for example, said PPP loans helped keep his father’s hotel afloat.

The chamber also guides businesses in other ways, such as setting up on-site vaccinations. Evans said vaccination is a crucial part of rebuilding and strengthening Hall County’s business community.

The chamber will host its Fall Job Fair & Career Expo on 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Gainesville Civic Center. The event is open to the public and will host more than 60 businesses looking for new hires.

Dickson credits adaptability and a joint effort by elected officials, community leaders, clergy members and workers in keeping Hall County’s hospitality industry afloat.

“The adaptability of our industry to kind of just keep rolling and moving forward is really the only thing that saved us,” she said. 


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