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We’ve all seen it, heard about it, and experienced it first-hand: the post-COVID labor shortage. Recently, some of us from Imagine took a trip to a town as part of a new client kick-off. It’s a standard thing we do with every destination client – something I wrote about earlier called the “destination immersion”, where we spend a couple of days in town, seeing the place like the typical visitor would.

Overall, the trip was inspiring, we’re energized to do great work for this client and, as a destination, this town is truly remarkable – apart from some hiccups that plague every small town nowadays: a “now hiring” sign in the window of every single restaurant, the wait for food or lack of toilet paper in the restrooms, and the frenetic pace of wait staff to keep up with the customers. These are unignorable indicators that many restaurants are running on half as many staff as they need.

With tourism picking back up amidst a labor shortage in the service industry, how can destinations rise to the occasion to beat visitors’ expectations? Amid most crises, there are opportunities. This labor shortage is no exception.

To get the creative gears turning, here’s a thought. Think about the length of wait times for food. Customers are probably already scrolling on their phones. This is an opportunity to engage a literally captive audience with something that’s fun and interactive like online trivia about the town they’re visiting. There are tons of options for online quiz builders – or develop one on a dedicated landing page of your website (we can show you how) and place small cards on each table with a QR code to play a game. You can collect email addresses in exchange for a raffle, discount, or other incentives. This does three things:

  1. It gets visitors more acquainted with the area, giving them new ideas of places to check out,
  2. It relieves the impatience of waiting an unusually long time for food, and
  3. Helps you build your email list.

Next, let’s focus on the problems that got us here in the first place (and I’m not talking about COVID). I worked for longer than I care to remember in restaurants and hospitality and quite frankly, it sucks. It can be a stressful, thankless, and demeaning experience, even before you consider how little you get paid. There’s a good chance that anyone who was let go at the beginning of the pandemic (with what they may have seen as relative ease) will never want to don an apron, clean a hotel room or wait on a table again.

I think there needs to be a reinvention of the hospitality industry and what it means to work in these roles. I recently read a great article on this here, and I have to say that I agree. Connect with local high schools, universities, etc., and develop programs that present hospitality as a skilled trade – something more honorable than it’s become over time.

Cultivate professionals instead of simply filling labor gaps. In the UK – London, specifically – a taxi driver is a prestigious position. The exam to become a cabby (known as “The Knowledge”) is one of the most rigorous and difficult, often taking many years to complete, even in the age of GPS. As a result, cabbies are far more revered than drivers here in the States.

To be a butler, you need a degree, training at a formal academy, and you’re held to a higher standard on the job. As a result, it’s a respected position and I think we could learn something from it.

Perhaps we should stop considering hospitality workers as easy to replace, and create training programs that enable workers to build better skills. Doing so will elevate the customer experience, make the job easier for these workers, and offer them a chance at some professional prestige. The pay won’t do it alone – we see how hard it is to attract workers by simply upping the wages. It’s not working.

This labor shortage isn’t going to end anytime soon. I think we’re going to need some time to reinvent the industry from the ground up before it becomes something attractive to jobseekers again. In the meantime, we need to look at the inconveniences our visitors experience as opportunities to improve the visitor experience.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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