Long lines, reduced amenities, higher prices: What staffing shortages mean for your summer vacation

Jun 1, 2021

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If you’ve started to travel or plan summer travel, you may have noticed that car rental prices are astronomical, your favorite restaurant is closed a few days a week, and the check-in line at your hotel seems extra long. As travel opens up in the U.S. with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) giving its blessing for all domestic travel and some international travel for vaccinated people, the hospitality industry is bursting at the seams.

After a year-plus of empty hotel rooms, forced restaurant closures and most people staying as close to home as possible, the travel and hospitality industries nearly came to a standstill in 2020. But now, things are heating up like never before — and the industry might not be able to handle the demand.

TPG and Healthline Media (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) recently published a summer travel trends study. According to the data, half of adults in the U.S. (50%) say they’ll likely take at least one summer vacation between June and September this year. That number rises to 54% among adults who are already vaccinated.

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(Photo by fstop123/Getty Images)

But while destinations are desperate to welcome back tourists and their dollars, they also acknowledge that the road might be a little bumpy.

“There is still work to be done to rebuild the vibrant travel and hospitality workforce — an industry that generates billions of dollars in state and local tax revenues,” says Caroline Beteta, president & CEO of Visit California. “But the outlook for summer travel is strong, and destinations and attractions across the Golden State are ready and excited to welcome guests.”

Hospitality companies across the country are experiencing staffing shortages and supply delays and deficiencies that are fording hotels, car rental agencies, ride-hailing companies, theme parks and other cultural attractions, and restaurants to curtail their hours, offerings, or service in other ways.

Although airlines don’t seem to be suffering from labor shortages, perhaps due to the ongoing federal aid the industry has been receiving, other segments seem to be having a hard time meeting demand. This means that travelers need to be prepared for things to perhaps not run as smoothly as they’d like during summer travel this year.

Here’s the lowdown on what to expect due to labor and supply issues in the hospitality industry.

Why are car rentals so expensive?

The line for renting a car at the airport. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

When travel came to a standstill in March 2020, many car rental agencies responded to the drop in revenue by selling off some of their fleets. According to a February 2021 press release, Avis Budget sold off 250,000 vehicles. And while companies now report that they plan to refresh their fleet, like Hertz, which recently announced it secured $4 billion to finance a new fleet, supply issues may hinder those efforts: The New York Times reported on a global supply shortage of semiconductors needed to build cars that is slowing production.

If you’ve tried to reserve a rental car in recent weeks, you may have noticed astronomical prices or completely sold-out locations. Some travelers have even resorted to renting U-Hauls or trucks from home improvement stores in a last-ditch effort to have wheels at their vacation destination.

“In response to COVID-19, many [car] rental agencies downsized their fleets and are now having a difficult time ramping back up due to shortages in the car industry and a huge uptick in demand for rental vehicles, particularly in outdoorsy spots like Wyoming, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska and Florida,” said Steve Sintra, VP NA of booking website KAYAK. “Supply and demand logistics are playing a big role and likely leading to the volatile prices we’re seeing across the U.S.”

Why are so many restaurants still closed on certain days?

Alfresco dining outside the world-renowned Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem in New York City. (Photo by rblfmr/Shutterstock)

Although full capacity has been allowed to return in most states and cities, restaurant owners across the country are still struggling to reopen fully.

NYC’s restaurants have been dealing with a host of issues that are impacting their ability to remain open. “The reopening of the economy is good news for the city’s restaurant industry, but there’s still a long road to recovery after thousands of local small businesses shuttered, countless more are teetering on the edge of survival and approximately 40 percent of industry jobs are still gone from pre-pandemic employment levels,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “Even with such high unemployment, restaurants are struggling to staff up, as so many places are all hiring at the same time from a limited pool of workers.”

Lindsey Hill owns Miss American Pie in Brooklyn. Right now, she and her husband are the only employees and work for no pay. “I have posted job descriptions on several websites, Facebook groups and even culinary school job boards with very little traction,” she says. “We have been forced to close all except for three days a week because of the staffing shortage.”

Cecilia Di Paolo, who owns Naked Dog, also in Brooklyn, has had the same experience. “It’s impossible to hire any staff right now. Usually when we used to post an ad, we used to receive about 30- to 35 responses, then we would interview and usually we were able to make a good hire,” she says. “Right now, when we post an ad we receive zero to two responses, and it’s usually from people with no experience that are looking for their first job.”

Even well-known chefs are having trouble attracting talent. Award-winning chef Dan Kluger, who owns Loring Place and Penny Bridge in NYC, reports difficulties hiring and challenges with supplies. “We have had to close meal periods due to staffing restraints. The cost of everything from F&B to supplies have all gone up, and we spent a considerable amount on upgrades and PPE. And yet, at best, we are doing 60 percent of sales, and if we wanted to get to 100 percent, we couldn’t because of the staffing issue,” he says.

And it’s not just NYC’s restaurants that are facing challenges. Jacquee Renna-Downing, co-owner of La Quinta Cliffhouse in La Quinta, California, says after she had to lay off staff when they were forced to close, she had trouble hiring them back because they wanted to remain on unemployment, feared for their safety, were tired of dealing with rude customers who refused to comply with the mask mandate and had found other jobs. She’s also dealt with supply shortages. “Given the [lack of] availability of certain products we use, we have had to shift to smaller menus. This has impacted our business with fewer guests returning as often since their choices are limited,” she adds.

Dodie Stephens, the director of communications for Explore Asheville, Asheville, North Carolina’s convention and visitors bureau, says, “It’s good for travelers to know that some restaurants are currently choosing to close for one to two days a week. In many cases, this is an effort to offer time off for existing staff. There are even examples of owners’ family members and college-age kids stepping in to help out.”

Why can’t I get a cab from the airport?

Car with an Uber sticker in the windshield in Portland, Oregon
(Photo by Hrach Hovhannisyan / Shutterstock.com)

Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are reporting driver shortages that are impacting their ability to meet demand. “As vaccination rates increase in the United States, we are observing that consumer demand for mobility is recovering faster than driver availability,” Uber reported in an April 12 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Cab drivers are one of the most at-risk groups for catching COVID-19 due to sharing an enclosed car space with dozens of strangers each shift, which is likely a factor in ride-hailing, limousine, chauffeuring and other car service companies’ employee shortages this year. Many drivers have switched over to delivery services, where they have less in-person contact. Uber’s delivery business set an all-time record in March 2021, reporting earnings of $52 billion.

Expect to have delays booking or hailing a ride, and prices might also be surging. Book ahead for airport pick-ups as far in advance as possible, leave a car at the airport, have a friend pick you up or take public transportation.

Why is the check-in line at my hotel so long and why hasn’t housekeeping cleaned my room yet?

Long lines at Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Oahu, Hawaii, March 2021. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Hotels and resorts have also reported hiring challenges upon reopening or attempting to return to full capacity. On a recent first-quarter earnings call, Hilton CEO and president Christopher Nassetta said, “[Staffing is] one of the most important issues because it is very difficult, particularly here in the U.S., to get labor, and it is constraining recovery at certain times because you just can’t get enough people to service the properties.”

Acknowledging issues like children out of school and unemployment benefits, Cassetta speculated things would improve after the summer. “I think it will be tough between now and September. By the time you get to September, mass vaccination will hopefully be behind us. Kids will be back in school and people will feel that it’s safe to go back, and they want to get back and be earning a paycheck.”

Similarly, Hyatt also pointed to employee shortages hampering a complete recovery. “We’ve experienced a pronounced need for incremental staffing coinciding with an inability to quickly fill those staffing needs, especially in markets where demand for room nights is high,” said Hyatt Hotels Corp. CFO Joan Bottarini during Hyatt’s first-quarter earnings call in May, while also adding she expects it to stabilize later in the year.

When TPG reached out to Hyatt to get a better understanding of the staffing challenges at their hotel, a spokesperson told us this: “Hyatt’s purpose of care has guided us through this crisis and is leading our approach to recovery and path forward. We remain committed to helping our employees get back to their regular work schedules as quickly as possible. With the number of fully vaccinated people growing each day, we are seeing strong demand for our hotels this summer and fall, which should provide many hours for our incredible teams. Hyatt also supports The American Hotel & Lodging Association in its efforts to pass Save Hotel Jobs Act, a new grant program that will bring back hotel jobs, pay workers, and help our economy recover.”

Another issue in terms of the hotel labor shortage is the ban on temporary worker visas that the Trump Administration implemented last year, which President Biden recently let expire. Although the ban is over, many embassies are also under-staffed. For example, the U.S. embassy in Turkey has said it won’t be able to process visas in time for the summer season. Many seasonal destinations rely on an influx of foreign workers from places like Ecuador and Turkey who come through the Summer Work Travel program. Wisconsin leads the nation in bringing international college students to work in the summer at resorts and are concerned about having enough staff to meet demand this summer.

Why are theme parks closed some days?

Photo courtesy of Morey’s Piers

Like restaurants, some theme parks and other attractions are cutting back hours due to staffing shortages. When Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, reopened for the season on May 14, guests were confronted with long lines and closed rides. The park said it was due to staffing problems and then announced it would have to close Tuesdays and Wednesdays during June. In a statement, the park said it was offering new employee incentives to hopefully attract more workers.

“We’ve added more than 300 full-time, year-round positions — with benefits — to our food and beverage team, we’ve introduced a $500 seasonal sign-on bonus for associates and we’re now increasing the 2021 seasonal and part-time wage for all positions to $20/hour, a 100% increase over 2020 wage rates,” said a statement posted to the park’s social media page.

Some destinations are using this as an opportunity to drive visitors to less-popular attractions.

“Explore Asheville anticipates continued interest in travel to the area as spring and summer bloom across the Blue Ridge Mountains. We do expect that outdoor spaces that were highly visited across the pandemic, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, will continue to be popular with travelers and locals alike,” says Stephens. “This presents an opportunity for Explore Asheville to point people to places less traveled. The aim is to share adventures and natural spaces that might not be top-of-mind and highlight interesting things to do across the region.”

Bottom line

Expect high prices, closures, long lines and other delays as you plan or embark on long-awaited vacations this spring and summer. We’re not out of the woods yet, due to major staffing shortages and supply scarcities that will likely continue through summer. Our best advice: Pack your patience and enjoy the trip!

Featured image of Florida’s Clearwater Beach by Image Source/Getty Images

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