You hear it a lot lately, thanks to our crazy quilt economy where little makes sense on paper right now.
At the restaurants, the parking lots don’t seem as crowded, however the wait time for tables is longer. Visitors are more likely to book at the last minute and are fewer in number the further north you go. Hotels are doing well, but restaurants are scrambling to find workers and cutting hours to make ends meet.
“We have hotels in one part of the state telling us they’re having incredible banner wines, and restaurants in the same area saying they can’t get a staff to stay open,” said Matthew Lewis, the group’s chief executive. Hospitality merchant. Maine. “And sometimes those calls come in the same day.”
So this summer has been a strange, wild ride. Through the first five months of 2022, Maine had the strongest tourism recovery in the country, according to data from the US Travel Association, and spending in June was 6.9 percent ahead of 2019 levels. However, Lewis listens to every days from tourism-related businesses that are struggling, struggling.
Maine has its mainstays: lobster rolls, jagged coves, prismatic sunsets. A dose of nostalgia and a feeling that things here never change. But this year, something is different. Summer is busy, but also stressful. Hospitality businesses have had to contend with high gas prices, rising food costs and labor shortages nourished by the unique demographic problems of the state. The fear of recession has both tourists and those who care for them. And there’s a sense, some say, that the past few years may have changed Maine forever.
“There’s no normal, there’s no going back,” Lewis said. “It will never look like it did before the pandemic.”
Pre-COVID, the vacation spot was riding high. 2019 was Maine’s best tourism year ever. Then came 2020 — a wipeout — and 2021, when Mainers were happy to welcome visitors “from afar” 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 happy about it.
Industry insiders know to brace for “Angry August,” a month when big crowds and high expectations can mean short fuses. This year, the disappointment seems more pronounced. Earlier this year, 14 percent of visitors told the Maine Office of Tourism that customer service did not meet their expectations, a significant increase from pre-COVID days. Some fear that long lines and short staffing could leave even more people less eager to return.
However, people are coming. Maine Turnpike reports traffic at pre-COVID levels for July and August. Tony Cameron, who heads the Maine Tourism Association, predicts a new record for revenue. But these figures, he said, are misleading.
“It doesn’t mean the bottom line for businesses is much bigger,” he said. “In some cases those fine lines 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 hardest year,” she said during a brief break from one of the double shifts she’s been working six days a week. The Pilot House has just three kitchen staff to handle 800 seats a day, so her parents, who retired after owning both places for three decades, are now back pulling the kitchen rounds. Raymond used to stay open late at night for all the locals who work in the industry; now it is forced to close at 21:00
“I feel bad for people who come into town and can’t get food after 9 other than Domino’s,” she said, and worries that could keep people from coming back next year. “It’s like, hopefully, we’re not going to lose people, you know?”
Up and down the coast, it’s a similar story: Dinner in Portland? Book two weeks out. It’s a two-hour wait for a table at Wells. Traffic won’t stop in Ogunquit and Bar Harbor is congested. The fair can’t find enough workers for its rest areas, while many restaurants are cutting days and hours due to staff shortages.
Or shutting down completely. After 29 years in business, Kerry Altiero decided to close his Rockland flagship cafe Miranda this summer after 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 Maine’s hospitality industry — are at a breaking point.
“There will be buckets of keys from my colleagues on bankers’ desks in the fall,” he complained.
There are many factors, but staff is the biggest, largely due to Maine’s demographics. The state 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 handle the seasonal demand.
Right now, there are two jobs for every unemployed job seeker, said Jessica Picard, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, and securing visas for foreign workers, a longtime source of jobs for tourism industries, has been a challenge.
Then there is the housing crisis.
During the pandemic, out-of-towners flocked to Maine to work remotely, snapping up second homes and rental units. In 2021, the Maine Association of Realtors saw more sales than in any year since record keeping began in 1998, and the average sales price increased 17 percent.
“Maine quickly became 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 fewer places to live. Rents have increased 20 to 30 percent over the past two years, Curtis said. Lewis said he’s witnessed many situations where people moved to Maine to get a hospitality job, only to “go back to their boss and say, ‘I can’t find suitable housing and I’m going back. where I came from.’ “
All these factors are making it difficult for hospitality workers like the 26-year-old Emma Couture, who recently returned to Maine after two years in Pittsburgh. By then, rents in Portland had skyrocketed — she was paying $675 for a room, now prices start at $1,000 — so she spent eight months living in her parents’ basement while she looked for an apartment. She found work as a nanny, but lost her parents’ health insurance when she turned 26 and became so frustrated with her housing search that she applied for SNAP benefits and considered living in her car.
“It’s all turned into Airbnbs and seasonal rentals,” she said. “And the apartments that were affordable were gobbled up by millionaires who don’t live here.”
Couture finally found an apartment, but it’s 40 minutes from Portland. And despite being an eager young worker, she has avoided seasonal work because she wants a full-time job in the service industry. So she’s applied for dishwasher and bar gigs, but even those have been hard to come by as she’s struggled to get the attention of jaded managers.
“I feel like I’m going to be broke soon,” she said.
Meanwhile, the tourists are here and some admit to feeling a little weak.
Kate Shields has been visiting Maine for years, but this summer she found higher prices and lousy service.
“It’s $33.95 for a box of lobster,” Shields said. “Totally worth every blessed cent, but a noticeable increase.” And the line to pick it up, she added, “was much longer.”
Shields plans to continue returning to Maine every summer. But she did offer advice for people who may be making their first visit after COVID. “You may be very glad to be back,” she said, “but you better temper your expectations.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @janellenanos.