After COVID-19 struck two years ago, most of us were in quarantine. People left their houses only in the event of dire emergency, while they shopped, sought medical advice, attended hybrid meetings, and became educated from the comfort of home. One thing the general public did not do was travel. Vacations weren’t taken, not even weekend getaways. Lodgings, restaurants, and attractions soon sat empty, or nearly so, as much of their workforce was furloughed.
When travel finally resumed, it was in the form of a trickle, not a surge. Young adults were the first to appear. In most instances, they visited friends or relatives living nearby. Next came trips to outdoor settings. It would be months before the vast majority of people considered staying overnight in commercial lodgings, dining out, and attending events with large crowds. Air travel took even longer.
The impact upon New Hampshire’s travel industry, which fared better than most states, was unfavorable. Visitor spending in the state during July 2020 was at least forty percent lower than the previous July, despite assurances that were offered to the traveling public. These included taking temperatures, requiring social distancing and face masks, and providing outdoor dining facilities.
Looking at COVID-19’s’s impact on the travel industry, the picture still is not pretty. While domestic travel has reached 2019 levels, business travel remains less than half its 2019 rate. The U.S. Travel Association tells us that travel supported one of every ten workers during 2019. Now, more than two years later, seven in ten leisure and hospitality (L&H) jobs lost during the pandemic remain unfilled, despite the fact that hourly earnings for L&H workers are eighteen percent above 2019 figures. Resignation rates have been substantial. Most troubling, seventy-eight percent of those who left L&H jobs are presently employed, but working within permanent positions outside of the travel industry.
Some argue that what L&H has experienced is simply part of a larger trend. After all, four in ten full-time employed Americans experienced an employment shift during the pandemic. However, it is clear that those who previously worked in travel before changing jobs have switched to a different industry at a disproportionately high scale. The U.S. Travel Association tells us that, as of February 2022, L&H is nine percent below pre-pandemic employment levels, with the accommodation sector faring the worst, at twenty-one percent below pre-pandemic employment levels.
Employment in the travel industry always has been desirable, owing to its reputation for accessibility, opportunity for upward mobility, diverse work experiences, flexible schedules, and acceptance of various cultural groups. There is great concern about this situation, because job openings in the industry far exceed the number of unemployed Americans remaining within the labor force. Why does this matter? With travel businesses not able to hire the necessary workers to properly serve their clients, one of the country’s largest economic sectors remains vulnerable. We will look at the potential cures for this crisis in a later NH Travel Guru column.
Mark Okrant’s NH Travel Guru column returns to InDepthNH.org following a three-year hiatus. Mark is professor emeritus of tourism management & policy at Plymouth State University, having spent more than four decades as a tourism educator and twenty-five years as research coordinator for the state’s division of travel and tourism development. He is a past president of the prestigious international Travel and Tourism Research Association, and the author of fifteen books. The innovative Kary Turnell Mystery Tour is centered around his nine New Hampshire-based whodunits.