Maine Businesses Brace for Increase in Fall Travel While Staffing Remains Down

As demand for lodging and dining out in Maine stays up, the size of staffs able to handle that influx is going down

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If you're traveling to Maine this fall, a time when "we're hiring" signs line roads and are posted in bold-type on restaurant Facebook pages, you're not alone.

A number of those businesses have full reservation logs into September and October, said Matt Lewis, the president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an industry group with more than 1,000 members like restaurants and hotels.

"Particularly in the high-traffic areas of Portland and Bar Harbor, they're expecting to have very busy falls," Lewis explained Tuesday.

Fall's imminent arrival also means college and high school students are going to back to class. If you add that on top of existing challenges for restaurants and hotels during the pandemic and a housing crisis in Maine that existed before it, the result is very limited available workers for the service industry here to tap into.

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That means, as demand for lodging and dining out in Maine stays up, the size of staffs able to handle that influx is going down.

"Everyone is struggling," Lewis said.

"We've seen popular, well-known restaurants that have had to close for a little bit related to staffing issues, they could just not get people to take their shifts," he added.

The need has been so acute that Waterville's mayor has recently offered to sub in at various businesses around the city on one-time shifts.

Lewis said that some seasonal restaurants and hotels have shut down earlier than in the past, or plan to.

"We have other industries that have come after veteran hospitality workers with attractive benefits and very flexible time off," he added, explaining that the pandemic has pushed many service workers to reconsider careers in other workplaces like banks or senior living centers in Maine.

Others have gone back to school while, at the same time, business owners have had trouble recruiting people to live in Maine because of a surge of demand for housing in the state driving up prices. In addition to that, Lewis said transportation for workers was also an obstacle.

As for what people traveling to Maine fall should expect, Lewis said that "they'll still get the friendly welcome, but travelers to Maine will probably have to wait longer to check into their hotels and certainly longer to get meals."

On top of that, he said service industry leaders are asking people who do "have to wait another 15 minute for a meal, that they not [get angry] at wait staff, which has happened."

In an anonymous letter, a customer apologized for an outburst he had at this Maine restaurant, and offered the host who dealt with it $100.

Lewis suggests visitors to restaurants and hotels in the coming months check business Facebook pages for updated hours, make reservations as early as possible and "come with some flexibility."

As for when the staff shortage might ease, Lewis said that he is not sure and is telling business owners to "plan for another summer equal to or more aggressive than this year."

He believes it is "unlikely" Maine will have another summer with tens of thousand of foreign workers in seasonal work visa programs soon.

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