Numbers – the good ones – are climbing steadily, and the outlook for Pinellas County’s hospitality industry is positive, according to the participants on Tuesday’s St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce virtual Hospitality Forum.
Of course, it could be better.
Chamber president Chris Steinocher moderated the hour-long session, which included status reports, questions, suggestions and commentary from representatives of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber, Pinellas Independent Hospitality Forum, Amplify Clearwater and others.
The conversation focused on the past and present effects of the pandemic, and what the chambers – liaisons between local government and the business community – are dealing with now, and should expect in the immediate future.
Steve Hayes, President and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, introduced data on hotel occupancy between 2019 and today. Compared to the nosedive of March and April of 2020, he explained, the current occupancy rate is impressive, and growing.
“As I look into the crystal ball and we look forward,” he said, “we’re going to see numbers that may not be as high as 2019, but they’re definitely going to be way over 2020.”
Amplify Clearwater CEO Amanda Payne echoed Hayes. “Clearwater Beach is full,” she announced. “Our visitors are back; we’re excited to have them. And excited to see our market begin to return.
“I was just talking to a restauranteur today, and they are $100,000 in revenue ahead from where they were in March of 2019.”
Still, she added, communication exercises like the quarterly hospitality forums are important. “Part of your challenge is knowing what your neighbor is facing, because you’re going to face it as well if you haven’t,” Payne offered. “And if they’ve faced it, you can learn from it.”
Pinellas Independent Hospitality Forum co-chair Roger Curlin laid out the six biggest challenges, or “headwinds,” facing the restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality centers in the county.
They included a pronounced skill set gap, changing consumer behaviors, delays in inspections, permitting and coding from an overworked local government, and overbuild.
“Two hundred and eighty-seven new restaurants opened in Pinellas County during the last year,” Curlin said. “And with a population growth of about one percent, that number should be more like 22. So we’re continuing to put more on top of the stack.”
The issue most pressing for hospitality employers right now, he stressed, is staffing shortages. The employees just aren’t coming back.
The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber has held seven job fairs recently, said President and CEO Robin Miller, with “dismal turnout.” The hospitality industry, she added, needs to re-evaluate and somehow re-tool not only its hiring practices, but the post-pandemic message it sends out to prospective employees.
“We can talk about unemployment, we can talk about single parents that may not be able to get out of the house to apply or go to work, we can talk about the mid-wage earners to higher wage earners being sucked out of the hospitality industry to a different job position,” Miller told attendees.
“But all in all, what I truly have learned in the last two to three weeks is that our hospitality industry needs to take a step and look at their business model and approach it like they’re starting their business from scratch. We can no longer operate in the manner in which we did prior to the pandemic.”
Curlin added that staying in touch, and sharing data, is key for the bay area hospitality industry. “We are not going to come out of these challenges alone,” he concluded. “No one of us can do it alone. No one group can do it alone. So it’s going to take all of us together, with these conversations, communications and collaborations, to get it done.”