It was supposed to be summer, Maine tourism is back to normal. Instead, “this year has been the hardest.”
You hear that a lot lately, thanks to our current crazy quilt economy, where not much makes sense on paper right now.
At the restaurant, the car parks seem less full, yet the waiting times for the tables are longer. Visitors are more likely to book at the last minute and are less numerous the further north you go. Hotels are doing well, but restaurants are struggling to find workers and are cutting their hours to cope.
“We have hotels in one part of the state telling us they are having amazing summers, and restaurants in that same area saying they can’t get staff together to stay open,” Matthew Lewis said. , Managing Director of the Hospitality business group. Maine. “And sometimes those calls come in the same day.”
So this summer has been a weird and wild ride. In the first five months of 2022, Maine experienced the most robust tourism recovery in the nation, according to data from the US Travel Association, and spending in June was 6.9% above 2019 levels. Yet Lewis hears every day from tourism-related businesses struggling, hard.
Maine has its mainstays: lobster rolls, rugged coves, prismatic sunsets. A dose of nostalgia and the feeling that things here never really change. But this year, something is different. Summer is busy, but also destabilizing. Hospitality businesses have struggled with high gas prices, soaring food prices and labor shortages powered by unique demographic woes of the state. Recession fears worry both tourists and those who welcome them. And there’s a feeling, some say, that the past few years may have changed Maine permanently.
“There is no normality, there is no turning back,” Lewis said. “It will never look like it did before the pandemic.”
Before COVID, Vacationland was booming. 2019 was Maine’s best year for tourism. Then came 2020 – a wipeout – and 2021, when the Mainers were just happy to welcome visitors “from afar” again, as businesses got back on their feet.
2022 was supposed to be the summer when things were “normal” again.
But they are not. And no one seems to be happy about it.
Industry insiders know to prepare for “Angry August,” a month when large crowds and high expectations can mean short fuses. This year, the frustration seems more pronounced. Earlier this year, 14% of visitors told the Maine Office of Tourism that customer service had failed to meet their expectations, a significant jump from pre-COVID days. Some fear that the long lines and lack of staff will leave even more people less eager to return.
Still, people are coming. The Maine Turnpike is reporting traffic at pre-COVID levels for July and August. Tony Cameron, who heads the Maine Tourism Association, predicts a new revenue record. But those numbers, he said, are misleading.
“That doesn’t mean the bottom line for companies is much bigger,” he said. “In some cases, those thin margins are even narrower.”
Just ask Kylie Raymond, co-owner of the Pilot House and Spirit of Massachusetts floating restaurant in Kennebunkport.
“This year has been the toughest year,” she said during a brief break from one of the double shifts she worked six days a week. The Pilot House only has three kitchen workers to handle 800 seats a day, so her parents, who retired after owning both places for three decades, are now back to work in the kitchen. Raymond used to stay open late at night for all locals working in industry; now it is forced to close at 9 p.m.
“I feel bad for people coming into town and not being able to eat after 9 a.m. outside of Domino’s,” she said, and worries that might keep people from coming back next year. “It’s like, hopefully, we don’t lose people, you know?”
Along the coast, it’s a similar story: Dining in Portland? Book two weeks. It’s a two hour wait for a table in Wells. Traffic won’t stop at Ogunquit and Bar Harbor is overrun. The toll highway can’t find enough workers for its rest areas, while many restaurants are cutting days and hours for lack of staff.
Or close completely. After 29 years in business, Kerry Altiero decided to close his Rockland mainstay, Cafe Miranda, this summer when he couldn’t find staff to open more than three days a week. Before COVID, the cafe was open seven days a week for a decade; now he — and the Maine hospitality industry — are at a breaking point.
“There will be buckets of my colleagues’ keys on bankers’ desks in the fall,” he lamented.
There are many factors, but the staff is the most important, largely due to Maine’s demographics. The state has always had a large seasonal workforce. But Maine is also the oldest state in the country, which means there aren’t enough young people to meet seasonal demand.
Right now, there are two job openings for every unemployed job seeker, said Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Jessica Picard. And securing visas for foreign workers, long a source of labor for tourism industries, has been a challenge.
Then there is the housing crisis.
During the pandemic, foreigners flocked to Maine to work remotely, picking up second homes and rental units. In 2021, the Maine Association of Realtors saw more sales than any year since record keeping began in 1998, and the median sale price jumped 17%.
“Maine has quickly become a suburb of Boston, New York and New Jersey,” said Dana Curtis, a real estate agent who sold 60 homes last year to people looking for a Maine getaway. .
This means that seasonal workers have less housing. Rents have jumped 20 to 30 percent over the past two years, Curtis said. Lewis said he’s witnessed many situations where people have moved to Maine to take up hospitality jobs, only to “go back to their boss and say, ‘I can’t find a suitable place to live and I’m going back from’ where I come from.’ ”
All of these factors make it difficult for hospitality workers such as 26-year-old Emma Couture, who recently returned to Maine after two years in Pittsburgh. At that time, rents in Portland had skyrocketed — she was paying $675 for a room, now rates start at $1,000 — so she spent eight months living in her parents’ basement while looking for an apartment. She found work as a nanny, but lost her parents’ health insurance at age 26 and became so frustrated with her housing search that she applied for SNAP benefits and considered living in her car.
“It all turned into Airbnbs and vacation rentals,” she said. “And apartments that were affordable have been gobbled up by millionaires who don’t live here.”
Couture finally found an apartment, but it’s 40 minutes from Portland. And although she is an enthusiastic young worker, she avoids seasonal work because she wants a full-time job in the service industry. So she applied for dishwasher and back-bar gigs, but even those have been hard to come by, as she struggles to catch the attention of overwhelmed managers.
“I feel like I’m going to be broke soon,” she said.
In the meantime, the tourists are there and some also admit to feeling a little aggrieved.
Kate Shields has been visiting Maine for years, but this summer found higher prices and spotty service.
“It’s $33.95 for a box of lobster rolls,” Shields said. “Definitely worth every blessed penny, but a noticeable increase.” And the queue to get it, she added, “was noticeably longer.”
Shields plans to continue returning to Maine each summer. But she offered advice for people who might be making their first post-COVID visit. “You may be very happy to be back,” she said, “but you better temper your expectations.”