Hotel staff shortage: Cap on room numbers due to lack of housekeeping, hospitality staff

State borders are open and travel confidence is rising, so it makes sense that it's harder to get into some hotels or resorts, right?

But there is another less obvious reason why you may be unable to stay in the hotel of your lockdown dreams.

A severe shortage of hospitality and, more crucially, housekeeping staff, has meant many hotels and resorts cannot open to capacity.

"No city hotels would be operating at true full capacity at the moment," said Dean Long, chief executive of the Accommodation Association of Australia. He says that when a hotel says it's fully occupied, it's stating the truth. But hotels may have been forced to artificially lower capacity in order to ensure rooms are serviced adequately. Hotels need a certain number of housekeeping staff to adhere to health and safety regulations - so keeping rooms open with greatly reduced cleaning staff is not an option.

The situation is so dire that some well-known resorts and hotels are operating with 40 per cent fewer rooms occupied than in pre-pandemic times, said Long. This forced cap on rooms could eventually force up prices.

"You can't just open up rooms with no cleaners. Hotels and resorts everywhere just cannot meet the demand."

And it's no wonder. The pandemic has decimated Australia's once 113,000-strong full-time accommodation hospitality workforce, with job numbers dropping to as low as 30,000. Even now they are only approaching 47,000.

Many "lost" workers found alternate employment in areas such as retail after being denied JobKeeper. Another vital percentage were foreign nationals or students who returned overseas or who are stuck in limbo here with their visas dictating limited work hours.

The situation led the hotel industry to make submissions to the Inquiry Into Australia's Skilled Migration Program for visa changes to enable international students, for example, to work longer hours in hospitality, in the same way tweaks were made to fruit-picker visas.

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IHG Hotels & Resorts managing director Leanne Harwood said: "At a time when they need business more than ever, some of our regional hotels and resorts have had to limit the number of rooms available."

Hotels are not the only ones suffering. Tour company AAT Kings chief executive Matt Fuller says staff shortages have caused tours to be re-routed or replaced because of room availability, just when people have become confident about travelling.

"Demand is at bursting point and we always work out a way to get through this, but operating this business has never been so complex," Mr Fuller said.

He said immediate changes to the visas of foreign nationals already in the country would help ease the situation.

Leanne Harwood says COVID-19 has led to an exodus of great talent: "We need great people to come and work in hotels and we need them now."

But incentives such as airfares, accommodation or meal packages and higher pay have failed to make much of a dent in the shortfall, especially in remote areas – even though these places are on many bucket lists.

Dean Long says the shortage is complex.

"Australians just aren't used to thinking of themselves working in housekeeping or hospitality long-term," he said.

And Mr Long is not sure the Australian-New Zealand bubble will help. While some Australians might be recruited to New Zealand ski resorts, he doubts there will be much reciprocal uptake in hospitality jobs here, even if wages are higher.

"Unlike the US, where people move for college or work, Australians and New Zealanders tend to stay close to where their families and social networks are. They are unlikely to move for long periods unless it's for six figures," he said.

Former long-haul flight attendant Steven Watkins, 44, hopes this is not the case. His employer, Daintree Ecolodge in Far North Queensland, has just advertised in New Zealand for staff.

Watkins, who left Virgin Australia last year after 12 years in the industry, was working in another Queensland resort when he was pursued by his current employer, who needed staff with his skill set. His "all rounder" role includes staff recruitment and training, front of house, food and beverage and housekeeping.

"I wasn't overly interested but Rena [general manager] broadened the role, we negotiated, and I ended up saying yes," Mr Watkins said.

He even persuaded two former airline colleagues to join him, but staffing is still a problem.

"We are lucky that the team we have really cover for each other and our reviews are very good considering our lean crew," he said. "Some of the bigger resorts up here are really struggling."

He says airline crews' interpersonal and problem-solving skills are a perfect fit for resorts and hotels.

"I have trained the new housekeeping team to check and cross-check the rooms before finishing - just like the plane," he joked.

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