Rosem Morton for NPR
This holiday season at the Garden City Hotel on Long Island, Merle Ayers is feeling especially grateful for the Whiz.
At two feet tall and 66 pounds, the powerful robot vacuum doesn’t mind working late into the night after the parties are over. The Whiz doesn’t care that it’s the holidays. It doesn’t even need a day off.
“It just needs to be cared for. We have to change the vacuum bags periodically and keep the batteries charged,” says Ayers, the hotel’s director of banquets.
Amid ongoing staffing shortages, the two robot vacuums the hotel purchased late last year for about $30,000 each are proving their worth many times over, filling gaps in both the catering department and housekeeping.
Gabriela Bhaskar for NPR
“If we vacuum every floor with a robot, that saves one whole shift,” says Garden City Hotel managing director Grady Colin. “That’s one whole person per day that can be redeployed to do something else.”
These days, he’ll take all the help he can get.
Travel is back but hotel staff are not
Travelers have returned from the pandemic, but hotel workers have not, creating unprecedented staffing challenges for the hospitality industry. According to the Labor Department, there are 350,000 fewer people working in hotels today than there were in February 2020, before the pandemic.
It’s not for lack of trying. Hotels have raised hourly wages by 25% since early 2020, and employers are offering greater flexibility in scheduling. Still, workers are nowhere to be seen.
“I’ve been in the hotel business for a long time,” says Colin. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Colin has observed that workers now want more freedom. They don’t want to be tied down to their jobs. His longtime valet parking attendant told him he no longer wanted to work evenings, because early in the pandemic when business nearly came to a standstill, he’d gotten accustomed to having dinner with his family every night.
With employees old and new, Colin has tried to be flexible.
“We’ve even tried to fill positions by saying, let’s not make it full-time,” he says. “We’ll cobble together what would have been a 40-hour shift for one person with three or four.”
Still, it’s not enough — 15% to 20% of staff positions at the hotel remain unfilled. Projecting that 2023 will be a busy year for the Garden City Hotel, Colin is considering what else can be automated beyond the vacuuming.
“I think it’s going to be the necessity to see what other products are out there,” he says. “This was a beta test for us that worked out very well.”
Bring your child to work every day
At the Country Inn and Suites just outside Baltimore, owners Deepak and Deepa Patel have not taken a day off since March, 2020. These days, they staff the front desk, manage the free breakfast, do room inspections and laundry. Their two daughters come every day after school to help out.
Before the pandemic, the couple had 25 to 30 people staffing their 81-room midscale hotel. Now they have 14, most of them people who were with the hotel before the pandemic.
They have had zero luck hiring this year, even after raising starting wages from around $10 an hour before the pandemic to $16 now.
“Before the pandemic, we had a lot of people just walking through the door, filling out an application, but since then, we had nobody,” says Deepak Patel. “Nobody wants to work, actually. We’re still surprised.”
With just six people in housekeeping, rooms are cleaned every four days now, unless a guest requests otherwise. (Rooms are cleaned after every checkout, though sometimes not immediately if the room is not needed right away.)
Most guests are understanding, the Patels say, though they do get complaints.
To keep the employees they do have, the couple tries to accommodate staff needs, giving them shorter shifts and allowing staff to bring their children to work, which two of them now do.
“If they don’t come to work, we get jammed, so it just makes sense for everybody,” says Deepak Patel. “We can’t afford to lose the people who actually are trained and do their job very well.”
Economic and demographic trends mean competition for workers is high
Patel knows he’s got competition for workers — not just from other hotels, but from companies like Amazon, which offers higher wages, technical training and free college tuition.
Daniel Zhao, lead economist for the jobs site Glassdoor, says the hot labor market of the past two years has given workers a lot of confidence, as evidenced by the record numbers who have quit their jobs and easily found new ones. The trend has hit hotels especially hard.
“There are many people who have left the leisure and hospitality industry for something that is a better fit for them, better paying,” says Zhao. “So it’s not that these people have disappeared or that they’re at home, not working. A lot of them have just moved on to other jobs that are better for them.”
Moreover, Zhao says, there are demographic trends at work. Legal immigration was depressed in the Trump years before the pandemic and then even more so during the pandemic. The U.S. population is aging. It’s also becoming more educated.
“Which on the one hand is is a good thing, that people are seeking out more education. But it also means that the set of workers without a college degree in some cases is actually shrinking,” he says, leaving a smaller labor pool for industries like manufacturing and leisure and hospitality.
Without workers, hotels are contemplating more automation
After a couple years of fruitless recruiting, Patel is doubtful that he’ll ever see workers return in the numbers he had before. So he too is looking toward automation to fill some of his positions.
He’s leaning toward leasing a robot vacuum to ease some of the burden on his housekeeping staff.
He’s also contemplating a high-tech kiosk that would sit just inside the entrance. When a guests approaches, a live person would appear on the screen — outsourced somewhere, Patel says. That person would be able to collect payment, check in the guest, make keys, even make a room change.
Such a costly technology is not something he would have thought about before the pandemic. But now, he says, it’s starting to make sense.
“It’s quite interesting,” Patel says. “It’s very efficient. It does its job.”
Maintaining an A+ experience with a smaller staff
At the Garden City Hotel, managing director Colin says he will not cut back on daily room cleanings or nightly turndown service.
“When you’re selling a luxury hotel, people are coming in for an A-plus experience,” he says.
Still, he has to find some ways to cope with lower levels of staffing. He is planning to transition to remote registration, allowing guests to bypass the front desk and go right to their rooms. But he worries about losing the human touch.
“How do you exhibit an aura of welcome and express gratitude? I don’t think digital notes saying ‘Thank you for staying here’ create a feeling of warmth,” he says.
He’s intent on finding a balance between efficiency and the human touch.
“But we still want to keep relationships building,” he says.