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Mobile goes "online" to find scarce tourism workers

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Tourism is on the rise along Alabama’s Gulf coast. That means lots of visitors heading to the state’s beaches, restaurants, and attractions. But, while the number of tourists is going up, the number of tourism industry workers isn’t. Many staffers in Alabama’s visitor industry left during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lot of them haven’t come back. Mobile is turning to technology to link workers with hospitality industry jobs.

Alabama’s tourism industry depends on the people who work at local restaurants, hotels, and bars. The COVID-19 pandemic helped put up a lot of “helped wanted” signs at these businesses. The catch is, there’s not a lot of takers…

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“The normal ways of reaching people are not working,” said Diana Moore. She’s general manager of the Springhill Suites in west Mobile.

“It’s very hard,” Moore observed. “So, that something that’s actually a good thing. We’ve got to get creative. We’ve got to find people that might not have thought about hospitality.

One creative way is a new website. It’s called workinmobile.com. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson recently announced the creation of the tourism worker recruitment tool.

“One thing we know is that it’s very important for our visitors to have a great experience when they get here, whether they’re at a hotel or whether they’re at a restaurant or local bar and so, because of the situation that all people in the hospitality business find themselves in now, the workforce is super important,” said the Mayor. “You just can’t do any better than having a great ambassador that’s waiting on your table or trying to make sure they’re cleaning you room or whatever it is.”

Stimpson says the website was the creation of Visit Mobile. That’s the city’s convention and visitors bureau. The agency worked with local businesses, colleges, and other schools.

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“Visit Mobile realized that because of the challenges in the workplace that they were going to create a website called Work in Mobile and it’s exclusively for our visitors, those who are serving our visitors, let me say, so they can interact with the business owners on an ongoing basis and go to the website and no matter if it’s one of the hotels or one of the restaurants, they will be able to plug in and find out all the pertinent information they need,” Stimpson said.

“We are starting with the lodging industry. We have lodging attractions and restaurants,” said David Clark, CEO of Visit Mobile. The tourism worker website is his brainchild.

“Hospitality, travel tourism accounts for 18,000 jobs in Mobile County and 3.2 million visitors and we really think that we need to support those who support us,” said Clark.

And, Clark says fewer tourism workers along the Gulf coast means fewer tourism dollars for local businesses, and fewer tourism tax dollars for the State of Alabama.

“You know, one thing that’s happened since COVID is that we really, 30 to 40 percent of the folks that worked in hospitality and tourism have not returned – 30 to 40 percent. So, our mission is to promote hospitality as a career because there are so many career paths on a fast track that you can take. A fast track that is even speedier now more than ever,” Clark contended.

Clark says the tourism employment app is a quick way to link hotels with new workers.

“It’s really easy to use. What we have is basically, log into the website, WorkinMobile.com. Answer nine quick questions. What that’s going to do then is take your information, your preferences, where you want to work in lodging in Mobile,” Clark explained. “It could be west Mobile. It could be downtown Mobile. It could be the Beltline. It could be all of it. When you get it done, you hit “send.” It’s going to go to the human resource department of those respective hotels and they’re going to contact you immediately.”

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The plans are to start with hotels and expand the website to restaurants and bars in the future. Diana Moore at Springhill Suites says they need the help.

“As business picks up, we have to have more staff. We need more people. You have to be creative. I have two hotels. I’m like, ‘hey, you want extra hours? OK, come over here. Can you do other stuff?’ Because we’re having to be creative with staffing. I have to jump on the desk and get into rooms, but that’s across the industry all over the country and all over the world,” Moore said.

“We are severely understaffed right now,” said Margo Gilbert. She’s general manager at the Battle House, a downtown Mobile landmark since 1852.

“I think I have about 50 to 60 job openings at my hotel and that will probably open up more job opportunities as we get into the summer period, but yes, it’s not been fun,” said Gilbert.

She says her hotel and others are looking for people to fill a wide variety of jobs.

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“I think it’s important to note that a lot of folks don’t know that within the hotel industry, it’s not just your front desk clerk or your housekeepers or your bartender or server. You can make a career out of finance, marketing, e-commerce, social media, sales. There’s just so many career paths,” Gilbert insisted. “Like we always say in our industry. It’s one of those things that kind of talk about is that we hire for personality, and we coach up the skill and that’s really, really key. My first job in the industry was a dishwasher.”

Diana Moore says finding the right person is often more important than finding someone with experience.

“I’m always looking for a diamond in the rough. And this gives us the opportunity to find that diamond in the rough who might not have considered this industry as a career but if they find out about it, if they come in and make something, they enjoy and they love,” she said.

Moore says they’re going to need more of those diamonds as the tourist season ramps up.

“People are having to be creative with how we take care of people, because people want to travel and people want to go places and you have an increase in travelers, but the number of people who are applying, the number of applicants you have, is not increasing,” said Moore. “So, it’s something where we have to be aggressive and find ways of thinking outside the box and finding how we can find these people so that way we can staff and take care of our guests who are coming.”

And if recent tourism numbers are any indication, Gulf coast businesses may have a lot to worry about. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Mobile’s tourism industry had its best hotel tax collections ever in 2020. Now, the coronavirus appears to be easing, the number of tourists may go even higher this year. That could mean even more demand for workers in the visitor industry and more business for the new employment website

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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