Tourists flock to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, but service workers don’t
An APR news article
Healthy tourism numbers for July 4 could mean a good summer season for the Gulf Coast of Alabama. The Alabama Triple-A predicted that 47 million Americans would hit the road during the Independence Day vacation. The state’s beaches were expected to be very busy. Despite all the optimistic forecasts, beach businesses continue to keep their fingers crossed.
Alabama’s brisk July 4 still leaves questions. Businesses that rely on summer dollars are wondering how the state’s tourism industry has rebounded after months of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the concerns is staffing issues in bars, restaurants and hotels.
âYou know, our industry has been hit the hardest. He was devastated, âsaid David Clark.
He is the executive director of Visit Mobile, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.
“This is the bad news,” he said. âThe good news is it’s thawing. It comes back, it comes back very strongly to that fact, it bounces a lot more like a V curve than a U curve. So thank goodness for that.
Tourism officials across the country predicted it would take nearly four years for occupancy numbers to return to healthy 2019 levels. Clark and Visit Mobile wanted a better picture of what to expect locally. They hired the analysis company Tourism Economics to study the trends. The final report says the mobile zone is actually performing better than expected.
âFor the month of May, throughout the hotel and the city, we recorded just over 70% occupancy. So that’s great. We’re not running above 70 percent for several months, âClark said.
In Gulf Shores, fun-seekers are returning in droves and city officials are optimistic about the future. They say the number of visitors started to rebound as early as last summer and even set records. It was during Governor Ivey’s Safer at Home command. The year-old mandate required masks in public spaces. But in the wake of this summer recovery, Hurricane Sandy hit beaches in southern Baldwin County on September 16. The storm brought winds of 110 miles per hour and nearly 30 inches of rain between Fort Morgan and Orange Beach. In Gulf Shores, 40% of hotel rooms and rental apartments remained serviceable due to storm damage. In the spring of 2021, that number had dropped back to 80%, and customers came running.
Grant Brown is the Director of Recreation and Cultural Affairs for the City of Gulf Shores.
âWe just had a fantastic spring that turned into a busy summer very early on, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon,â he said.
He said the occupancy rate was close to 100 percent for July 4. The city is answered by road works to facilitate future visits. A third lane is added to State Highway 59 leading to Gulf Shores. And offers are now being accepted to build a new bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway, adding a much-needed artery to Pleasure Island.
âWe are feeling it, the residents here are feeling it and we know we are late, but we are making good progress in addressing some of these issues,â Brown said. âSo you will see a lot of things happening in the next couple of years. “
Outdoor activities were paramount for families during the pandemic. Some cities have chosen to close their parks for safety reasons. The City of Mobile Parks and Recreation Department has taken a different path. They kept their green spaces open.
âCOVID actually pivoted us around, but we actually looked at things a little more creatively,â said Shonnda Smith, who heads the Mobile Parks and Rec department. âWhere we took a different point of view that it was very important for the health as well physically, but also the mental health to be able to go out. And so we actually encouraged people to go to the parks and be active in the parks and social distancing. “
Mobile Parks and Rec oversees over 70 sites across the port city. Smith said there was a very handy indicator that attendance was on the rise in city parks during the height of the pandemic.
âWe realized that we had to go to some of these facilities two and three times a week to pick up the garbage because of the active park stakes,â Smith said.
Open parks didn’t mean the indoor recreation center remained open. People who wanted to shoot hoops, play cards, or do yoga were usually out of luck. COVID-19 has also prompted Mobile to press the pause button on some larger city-wide initiatives that were due to start last year. These included âsip and paintâ events for adults and live concerts and markets for families. The July 4th fireworks were not the only thing happening at Cooper Riverside Park in Mobile. The same well-maintained space hosted Saturdays at the Coop the day before. The free mixed media celebration that will continue through September.
Tourism industry insiders have said enthusiastic crowds and more and more fun things to do are great indicators of a recovery for the tourism industry. Yet businesses need people to keep up with demand. It’s a problem in southern Alabama and across the country. There are many reasons for the current labor shortage. The list includes low, uncompetitive entry-level salaries. Another concern is pandemic assistance for the unemployed made available through the American Rescue Plan Act. In Gulf Shores, this shortage means fewer waiters and cooks. It also means less warehouse and delivery staff along the supply chain.
âThe supply of merchandise seems to fluctuate, and on certain days you will have the opportunity to prepare all of your products to be sold,â Brown said. âOther days you wait for delivery vehicles and that product doesn’t come. So you can’t sell items you don’t have. So it’s a bit frustrating. But the end result is that the business is great, the demand is high, and the people are there. And now it’s just a matter of sort of catching up with the supply line and the employee situation to be able to meet the demand.
At Visit Mobile, the labor shortage is seen as something that will undoubtedly have a negative impact on two key parameters of tourism. It’s about customer / guest satisfaction and whether those tourists plan to return and recommend the Gulf Coast of Alabama. David Clark says there is already a plan underway to fix the problem.
âWe are joining our hosting folks right now. We started six weeks ago developing an app and website focused on promoting and connecting hospitality and tourism as a career. We’re investing a lot of resources, and hopefully in two or three weeks it’s going to launch, it’s an easy app that starts with hosting first, âsaid Clark.
This application is called Work in Mobile. It is designed to connect potential employees to a range of hospitality jobs, from dishwashers and housekeepers to bartenders, waiters and sales managers. Potential candidates can enter their information through the digital interface. Clark said the system then went directly to human resources departments at hotels in the area.
âAnother thing about hospitality is you meet so many nice people. I’ve been in this business for 34 years and some of my best friends and great wisdom people are the people I’ve met where I’ve worked and uh u know you meet a lot of nice people one of the diverse people, and you’re actually developing as an individual because you’re exposed to so many different people, from different backgrounds. So, you know, it’s very gratifying that sense, a sense of cultural diversity to be in our company, âsaid Clark.