Georgia tourism springs back to life, businesses struggle to regain staffing

By: - June 11, 2021 3:00 am

Georgians ready for some outdoor fun after more than a year of the pandemic are flocking to attractions like the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in big numbers, but owners of many tourism-related businesses say they are getting fewer applicants than ever before. Photo courtesy of Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds

School’s out, the sun’s up, and people everywhere are flocking to Georgia’s beaches and mountains, but tourists could be in for longer check-in times in the hotel lobby or shorter hours at the tiki bar as some business owners say they can’t find enough staff to meet demand.

Just over a third of Georgians are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, lower than in most states, but still high enough for Gov. Brian Kemp to roll back nearly all of the state’s restrictions last month ahead of the summer vacation season.

For businesses like the Grey Owl Inn, a popular spot near the beach on St. Simon’s Island, that means welcoming more guests than ever before. Owner Bill Gussman said he’s got people calling to book trips from across Georgia and all over the country.

“This year has taken off like gangbusters,” he said. “As far as the occupancy, it’s well over 80% for the last couple of months. June is looking similar, and July is rapidly booking up. We’ve even got people booking wedding events next March, and they’re having to fight with each other to get a booking because two ladies wanted the same weekend, so one of them was very disappointed.”

About a mile away, Sarah Callaway, owner of Sandy Bottom Bagels, is keeping busy slinging bagels to all the visiting beachgoers.

“I think the summer started earlier than normal, and it’s probably been our busiest season yet, and we’ll be open six years tomorrow,” she said. “We used to have lulls in between the holidays, but we’re staying at like July 4th numbers pretty much constantly right now.”

Vacationers are heading to the mountains as well, says Hilda Thomason, general manager of the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Towns County.

“We’ve got 199 campsites, and we have hardly any open for the whole summer, everything’s already booked up,” she said. “I’ve had three concerts in the music hall already this year, and they’ve been sold out crowds. The building seats 2,900, and every concert’s been sold out.”

Unlike in big cities, where the tourism industry relies on conventions and large events, tourist attractions in beach and mountain communities weathered the first year of the pandemic relatively well, said Jennifer Grimmer, President and CEO of the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce.

“The communities that did the best during COVID were the beach and the mountains,” she said. “What I think happened up here was that, because we’re 95% rental cabins, we have very few hotels, if any, everyone escaped the city and came up here in the mountains and rented a cabin.”

As restrictions are lifted and children are out of school, even more people are chasing rest and relaxation in Georgia’s mountains. Half of the people staying in Gilmer County over Memorial Day weekend were visitors from elsewhere, Grimmer said.

That’s great news for business owners who rely on tourists’ dollars to keep the doors open, but many say they are struggling to hire enough people to keep their customers happy.

“It’s really desperate up here, because we’re half an hour from any apartment complexes or anything like that, at the minimum, and it costs a lot to live in the mountains,” she said. “So you’ve got more wealthy people buying up all the cabins and putting them on Airbnb, that means that no one’s actually here to work, and they can’t afford to buy a home here because you can’t work at McDonald’s or the local bar and make enough to buy a home up here, so we are having a very big problem with the workforce.”

Last month, the chamber announced the popular Taste of Ellijay event would be canceled, not because of COVID-19, but because only a quarter of the regular restaurants said they had enough staff to participate.

Businesses have gotten creative to try to get more applications, Grimmer said. Some are recruiting among retirees that want to work part-time. The owner of the local Dairy Queen is even offering a signing bonus, something unheard of in fast food before the pandemic.

The chamber is doing all it can as well, Grimmer said.

“We just decided to buy coasters for every single restaurant in town that say thank you for coming, welcome to Ellijay, but please be patient. Our restaurants are in a workforce shortage. We just ordered thousands of coasters to put in every single restaurant so that when people come and sit down, maybe they’ll read that message, and they’ll understand that they need to be a little bit more patient than normal.”

Thomason at the fairgrounds said she’s having the same problem. She’s got plenty of people working in the office, but when it comes to maintenance and cleaning, there just are not enough applicants.

“I think the reason I’m not getting applications is because they’re staying home drawing money and making more money doing that then they would be if they were out on the job working,” she said. “I’m having to pay overtime just because you don’t have anybody to work. Everybody you see that has any type of business has help wanted signs, they’re advertising for help and paying good wages, they just can’t get them to come to work.”

The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes businesses like restaurants, hotels, theme parks and others that cater to tourists, was among the first to be affected by layoffs as COVID shut down gatherings in Georgia last year, and the sector has been the slowest to recover.

Georgia employed 508,000 leisure and hospitality workers before the pandemic, but only 423,000 are back to work as of April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler have pinned the blame on extended $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits, which the state plans to end June 26, three months ahead of schedule, in an effort to spur people back into the workforce.

Critics, including one of Butler’s announced rivals in next year’s election, state Rep. William Boddie, an East Point Democrat, argue that employers should pay better wages if they want workers to come back.

Not that all businesses in tourist-friendly areas are reporting difficulties hiring.

Back at Sandy Bottom, Callaway said she counts herself lucky to have a full staff while others on the island are struggling. She credits much of that to the fact that she runs a small operation and does not need as many workers as bigger restaurants, but being flexible and listening to your staff always helps, she added.

“We try to have fun. It’s just a bagel, it’s not that serious,” she said. “We work with everyone’s schedule, so I know that over the summer, kids don’t want to work six days a week, they want to still have time to hang out with their friends and go to the beach, so I try to schedule people around their vacations and work with them. If I have a high school student who wants to work three days a week, that’s great. That means I just get two of them, and then they’re happy.”

Josh Luke, general manager at Nacoochee Adventures, a north Georgia outdoor activity center in White County specializing in zip lines, rope swings and obstacle courses, said business is booming, and not only does he have a full staff, he’s also got a list of more than a dozen people to call when a spot opens up.

Many of the people who want to work there say they are looking to get out of the low-paid, unsatisfying work they did before the pandemic.

“Things are shifting, people value their time more than they did before the pandemic, so they’ve got to either have fun doing it, or get paid really well, or both,” he said. “Life is scary, so don’t waste your time doing something that’s not fun.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.