Amid surge of visitors, resort country struggles to find workers

Beachgoers sit in lounge chairs.
Visitors fill the lounge chairs on the beach at Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake in north-central Minnesota on Aug. 3. It’s been a busier summer than ever for the historic lodge and resort, but filling vacant positions has been a challenge.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

After a year of being cooped up during the pandemic, Minnesotans have been hitting the road for summer getaways in record numbers.

Many are opting to head to the popular Brainerd Lakes area in north-central Minnesota, where resorts, restaurants and shops are booming.  

But those businesses are struggling to find enough workers to meet the pent-up demand. 

A severe labor shortage has forced some of them to boost wages and benefits, scale back services or reduce hours during the peak of the summer tourist season.

A help wanted sign on a door.
A sign on the door of StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery in Nisswa, Minn., advertises job openings. Stonehouse and other Brainerd-area businesses have had to reduce hours due to a shortage of workers to keep up with a busier-than-ever summer tourist season.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"It's really transformed from a war for customers to a war for workers,” said Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

Fewer people are applying for jobs, and open positions are taking five or six weeks to fill, Kilian said. In a recent survey of chamber members, two-thirds said they’re concerned or very concerned about workforce issues, he said.

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Many say they are experiencing burnout and fatigue along with their employees, due to long hours and being short-staffed, Kilian said.

"You have a lot of business owners that are cleaning cabins or running the business from the time it opens to the time it closes at night, because they can't find people,” he said.

The labor crunch is ill-timed, given the unprecedented number of visitors coming to the area. Kilian attributes the surge to pandemic-weary people ready to go all out on what he calls “revenge vacations.”

"People want to go a little closer to home, we've seen that,” he said. “But they're also spending a lot more money ... So it's dinner every night, lunch every day, going to several attractions, spa treatments, you name it."

People walk along a path.
Visitors walk along the flower-lined pathway leading from Grand View Lodge to the lakefront on Aug. 3 in Brainerd. Keeping up with strong demand has been challenging for Grand View and other Brainerd-area resorts as they face a worker shortage.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Grand View Lodge in Nisswa is jammed to the hilt with people eager to enjoy the Gull Lake beachfront, golf courses, restaurants and spa. 

"We've had a fantastic season. It's the busiest we've ever seen before,” said marketing director Frank Soukup. 

Soukup said they're happy to see so many guests. But finding enough employees to handle the surge has been tough. The resort is down about 150 workers, from its usual summer peak of 700 to 725. 

Grand View Lodge has offered higher wages and bonuses to lure workers. Dishwashers earn up to $20 an hour. But Soukup said they can't find enough people to fill the available jobs. Its pizza restaurant and wine bar are closed, and other restaurants have reduced hours. 

"Most of our team members are working excessive hours in order to make up the difference and still trying to create that service in that atmosphere that our guests come to know and love,” he said.

At Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake north of Brainerd, assistant general manager David Spizzo said the resort has been “noticeably busier” this summer, especially with traveling families.

At the same time, they've also struggled to find enough people to work at the front desk, in the kitchen and the grounds crew. And the resort has had to stop taking reservations for guests to arrive on busy Fridays and Sundays, when there aren’t enough housekeepers to clean rooms before check-in. 

"We're kind of scratching our heads, to be honest with you, where everybody is,” Spizzo said. “We see the tourism capacity and all the folks coming through, but we're just not seeing the job applications."

Area business leaders have a few theories about what's behind the worker shortage. Some think enhanced state and federal unemployment benefits might be tempting some workers to stay home or work limited hours. The cost and scarcity of child care is another likely factor.

A barista makes a drink.
Dana Hammer, a barista at StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery in Nisswa, prepares beverages for a steady stream of customers. StoneHouse owner Mike French says business has been booming this summer.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Travel restrictions related to COVID-19 also have slowed down the number of international workers and college students who get visas to work at Minnesota resorts and restaurants in the summer.

It's not just resorts that are feeling the crunch. 

StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery in downtown Nisswa is known for roasting coffee beans from around the world — and for its hand-baked scones that people line up to get fresh from the oven.

Owner Mike French said the business has been growing for the past few years and has reached the point where he doesn't know if they can keep up.

"There's been an extraordinarily large amount of folks who are coming up, and they seem to have a lot of disposable income,” French said. “It's stressed our ability to meet those needs."

StoneHouse has had to reduce hours at two of its locations and, at times, limit the number of scones people can buy.

Filling jobs has been a challenge, even though baristas make $20-plus an hour with tips, French said.

"We find that money's not the issue,” he said. “It's just there's nobody out there to work that wants it. They're all gobbled up somewhere. They're working for some other employer.”

Business owners stress that people are still welcome to come to the Brainerd Lakes Area this summer. They might just need to have a little extra patience.

Every business is trying to do its best to provide good customer service, Spizzo said. 

"We want to see everybody's faces,” he said. “If you can just be respectful and be patient and cordial when things aren't exactly on time or exactly perfect."