Fall’s second season in full swing – ‘absolutely at capacity’
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” – U.S. President Calvin Coolidge speaking to a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in January 1925
Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Carol Everhart keeps her finger on the pulse of Delaware Cape Region’s tourism economy. When it comes to business, tourism ranks at the top.
As far as how the fall season is shaping up economically, Everhart said the area is “absolutely at capacity – or close to – for events and their impact.” But unlike April 2020, when the coronavirus epidemic first put us all in nothing short of panic mode and there were plenty of employees but few customers, now, she said, the reverse is the case. “Most businesses have plenty of customers but not enough employees. The labor shortage – staffing – continues to be our No. 1 problem, across all categories of business. That’s in healthcare, services, restaurants, plumbers and contractors. And it’s not yet starting to resolve itself.”
Everhart said a frequently heard statement around the chamber offices in Rehoboth Beach is that there are 52 weeks in the year, and 50 of them have special activities or events attached to them. “Everyone put off their events until this fall, which for years has been our busiest time for them. Because of pandemic-related delays, this year is even busier.”
So how do the numbers stack up?
One of the most significant statistics the chamber tracks is the number of rooms in local hotels that are occupied on Saturday nights and Wednesday nights – weekend and weekday. “We track 90 percent of the hotels and motels in the 19971 ZIP code from north of Indian River Inlet bridge to Midway on Route 1. From January through Sept. 20 in 2019, there were 96,612 occupied rooms on Saturday nights. That was a very good year. In 2020, when the pandemic hit us really hard, that number dropped off to 66,853 rooms occupied for the same time period. But for this year, the number increased to 102,124 occupied rooms. Years ago, the hotels we were tracking were running in the 80-90 percent capacity range. But think about how many more hotels and rooms are available now. Throughout most of the season this year, they have been running at 98 percent capacity.”
Everhart said Wednesday night occupancy has also increased significantly this year compared to 2019. “We’re not comparing it to 2020 so much because of the pandemic. But whether because of pricing or more popularity of midweek stays, the numbers for 2021 are also up.”
Everhart is eagerly awaiting traffic counts from DelDOT for the 2021 season. “We take the traffic count, knock out 30 percent for duplication, and then take that 70 percent and multiply it by 1.2 persons per vehicle, which is conservative. Even with those adjustments, we’re still coming out with 8 million people in our area over the course of a year. I haven’t seen this year’s numbers yet, but I believe we’ve broken all the records. Route 1 has been full every day, not just weekends. I’ll be real surprised if we haven’t broken records.”
That’s all good news she said, but staffing and affordable housing for employees continue to be major problem areas. While the lack of foreign students this year due to pandemic restrictions added to employee shortages, she believes the generous government benefits for the unemployed are the largest reason for low numbers of people working.
The chamber conducted three job fairs this year. The first, early in the season, was a six-hour event at the old Rehoboth Mall. Six hours is a long time for a job fair, but even at that, there were only 140 or so people who came in to test the employment waters. “Normally there would have been thousands at an event like that. But very few jobs were filled, and we had every category of work represented including the National Guard. Our second job fair brought out only 40 people. The work force just wasn’t applying. The third event involved setting up tables in front of stores and businesses. That didn’t work either.”
Why no applicants?
“We did an independent survey of the different employers – out of the hearing of each other – who were talking to the people who did show up. We were told time after time,” said Everhart, “that not one person didn’t say they were receiving too much economic help to apply. With extra unemployment checks, rent assistance and some food assistance, and COVID in the mix causing concerns about going back to work in certain situations, it all has added up to people not applying.”
Although some of those benefits ended in September, Everhart said that hasn’t yet resulted in the increased numbers of employees hoped for.
Some businesses have taken to closing early, or closing certain days of the week like Mondays and Tuesdays. “Workers in many cases were doing double duty. Businesses had to give them a rest. And while many were already paying above minimum wage, they’ve gone even higher now, as well as paying bonuses. I think all of this has shown employers how important their employees are to their businesses, and they’re doing things to help. In the meantime, they’re making do with what they have and waiting to see if the employment picture improves. We’re told that the number of foreign workers that will be available in 2022 will be the same as it has been in previous years, but we still have to work on affordable housing.”
Everhart said there is more emphasis now than ever before on workforce development in the public schools and colleges like Sussex Tech and DelawareTech. “And service industries are showing more willingness all of the time to bring people in and train them.”
As Calvin Coolidge said, the business of America is business, and the perennial push and pull between employers and workers, government and private enterprise, continues to try to find some happy medium.
And in an area dominated by the employee-dependent and synergistic restaurant, hotel and hospitality industry, there are more than enough issues for the local chambers to concern themselves with. “We have lots of things frying in the frying pan,” said Everhart.