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Estes Park Hotels See Summer Bookings Spike, But Many Can't Find Enough Workers

Matt Bloom
An Estes Park hotel sign advertises job openings. Many businesses in town are struggling to hire enough workers for the busy summer season.

The text message Kathy Kochevar’s housekeeper showed her made her gasp. It came from a competitor hotel. The owner was poaching her staff, offering a job with an hourly wage $4 higher than her own.

To keep her employees, Kochevar raised the starting pay at her sprawling mountainside resort to $18 an hour in May. She put together a bonus program, promising an extra $500 to employees who stuck around.

The changes helped — sort of.

Her staff of six full-time cleaners promised to stay on. But she still hasn’t received any more applications, which she needs to fill seasonal jobs.

“Basically, it’s a bidding war,” said Kochevar, who has co-owned Solitude Cabins with her husband for 17 years. “You can put everything you want in the (newspaper) and nobody's applying. I'm hearing that all over town.”

As pandemic restrictions ease and tourists flock to Estes Park, hotels and other businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their ranks. Many are having a hard time even getting applications for job openings.

At the same time, summer visitation to the resort town is expected to reach record highs. Local occupancy rates are back to healthy levels, according to industry data. Many hotels say advance summer bookings are well above previous years.

The imbalance between the labor supply and sudden crush of demand from pandemic-weary tourists is leaving many small business owners with a daunting question: How are they going to get through the next several months?

At Solitude Cabins, Kochevar has been juggling more responsibilities and working longer hours, stepping in to help run the front desk and clean cabins. She recently started outsourcing some of her housekeeping work to a private company, which raised her costs by about 40%.

“It’s really expensive,” Kochevar said. “But the rooms have to be clean for people, so you do what you have to do.”

Matt Bloom
Carolyn McEndaffer serves a customer lunch at Peppers Mexican Grill in Estes Park.

A ‘perfect storm’

It isn’t just hotels. All sorts of businesses are having trouble hiring the workers they need. Owners blame a combination of visa program issues, unemployment benefits and high housing costs.

“I could call it a perfect storm,” said Carolyn McEndaffer, owner of Peppers Fresh & Fast Mexican Grill, a fast casual restaurant in the heart of town.

As business increased earlier this year, McEndaffer found she couldn’t keep up. She started closing the restaurant one day a week.

Even when she’s open, she’s lucky to have three staff members on the clock. She said the situation has been stressful for her and her customers.

“People are just going to have to be patient and realize that we're not going to be able to do things as fast as we have in the past,” McEndaffer said. “We're going to be a little bit slower.”

She tried hiring two students from Uzbekistan through the J-1 seasonal visa program. But, because of the pandemic, the embassy in their country still hasn’t reopened for the required in-person interviews.

“It’s normally a huge help,” she said. “So, we’re probably going to have a rough summer.”

The hiring struggles aren’t going unnoticed by state officials. Last month, the Department of Labor and Employment launched an incentive program to get unemployed Coloradans back into the workforce, offering a $1,200 check to residents who get full-time employment by the end of June.

So far, almost 5,500 people have opted in.

Matt Bloom
Visitors walk their dogs across the street in downtown Estes Park. Local businesses and hotels have recorded a sharp uptick in the number of tourists in town as pandemic restrictions ease.

Some economists have been hesitant to call the situation in Estes Park and across the country a true “labor shortage.”

A rebound in consumer demand has driven service industry businesses to start hiring again quickly. Meanwhile, many workers may still be hesitant to return to the workforce for any number of reasons, said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist with CDLE.

“It’s a simple timing issue,” Gedney said. “Consumer demand has increased since February and March. However, while older adults have had vaccination options for a while, vaccinations were not widely available to the 16-plus Colorado population until about the beginning of April. This could impact the labor supply of restaurants and specific industries who rely on a relatively younger population of workers.”

Longer-term, structural economic issues are also at play. Colorado’s population is aging. A large number of women left the workforce during the pandemic. After being laid off, many lower-wage workers are also pursuing jobs in higher paying fields.

It’s also important to remember that Colorado was already in the middle of a worker shortage prior to the pandemic, said Joe Barela, director of CDLE.

“Because we've gone through 14, 15 months of a pandemic, that’s not going to magically go away,” Barela said. “We're still in an oversupply of jobs and an undersupply of workers.”

Matt Bloom
Crews work on the Peak View apartments in Estes Park. The workforce housing project is set to open later this summer.

Housing issues linger

Another issue is a lack of affordable housing. Estes Park, like many resort communities, has long struggled with rising home prices and flat wages that make it unaffordable for workers to live here.

The median price of a single family home in Larimer County is hovering around $500,000, according to the Colorado Association of Realtors. Inventory is also at record lows, leaving buyers with few options.

Estes Park is short roughly 1,500 housing units, according to a 2016 town assessment. Progress to fill the gap has been slow.

At a construction site across town, crews are putting the finishing touches on a 26-unit housing development called Peak View. Once open, the apartments will be reserved just for people working in Estes, and rents will be several hundred dollars below market rate.

Naomi Hawf, executive director of the Estes Park Housing Authority, which is overseeing the project, said demand for the units has been huge. When it was first posted on Facebook, people flooded her office.

“It was like a wildfire,” Hawf said. “4,000 views and folks saying, well, how can I get one? And so that started a flood of calls into us. And so we've been able to house some of those folks.”

It’s a small step toward solving the issue, but not nearly enough to meet demand. Hawf said the town needs to find ways to fund and build even more.

“It impacts our economic stability,” she said. “Because if a business owner can't find an employer or is spending money on turnover attrition costs because employees rotate so often, it will have an impact for that business.”

Matt Bloom
Chris Wood, owner of the Castle Mountain Lodge in Estes Park, stands outside the resort's main lobby. Wood has started paying for employee housing to fill the need for cleaning and maintenance.

And that’s forced some owners to get creative with their recruiting.

Just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the Castle Mountain Lodge is one of the few places in town starting the season fully staffed. Owner Chris Wood recruited students from his alma mater in Illinois to fill open slots.

“That’s worked fairly well,” Wood said. “We’re very fortunate for us to have that. And it's a huge asset to us.”

He’s started paying for worker housing at a nearby property. Student Stu Demarkis said that was the deciding factor to take the job.

“It was a big plus,” he said. “It’s like, OK, you get you know, you work until three or four cleaning and then go explore Colorado for the rest of the day. What more could you ask for?

Wood said he needs the help. Bookings are already up 133% from this time in 2019.

All the added expenses can’t get absorbed, though. He recently raised his summer room rates.

What does that mean for customers? He pondered the question out loud.

“Inflation,” he said.

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