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About two-thirds of Charleston's tourism-related jobs have been lost due to coronavirus

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“LUV” is spelled out using the light from rooms inside the Charleston Marriott along Lockwood Boulevard on April 6. Hotels and restaurants that had been struggling to fill open jobs amid an increasingly tight labor market have now laid off most of their staff during the coronavirus pandemic that brought travel to a near standstill in the Holy City and around the globe. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In a matter of weeks, Charleston's hospitality industry went from facing one labor problem to another, very different one. 

Hotels and restaurants that had been struggling to fill openings amid an increasingly tight job market have now laid off most of their staff during the coronavirus pandemic that brought travel to a near standstill in the Holy City and around the globe. 

About two-thirds of Charleston's tourism-related jobs have been already been lost during the pandemic, according to estimates from the College of Charleston. 

At the beginning of March, almost 36,800 workers were employed across several tourism-related sectors in the Charleston area. They include restaurants, hotels, attractions and the arts.

Now, about 24,800 of those are out of work, said Wayne Smith, chair of the college's Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

"You can't devastate an industry too much more than that," Smith said. 

It's "staggering" to see how the workforce dynamics in Charleston's hospitality industry have "shifted 180 degrees," said Helen Hill, CEO at Explore Charleston.  

Just about seven weeks ago, the Lowcountry Hospitality Association hosted a region-wide job fair that attracted dozens of local employers eager to fill much-needed positions. Facing a historically low unemployment rate at the time, representatives from those companies touted extra perks to attract job-seeking attendees

Now, with large percentages of staff laid-off, Smith said there will likely be a "huge scramble in the marketplace for workers" when the industry reopens. 

Hill agreed. 

"This is no longer about filling employment gaps," Hill said. "It's a realization that many travel and hospitality-related businesses will be rebuilding a large portion of their workforce when the pandemic ends." 

Restaurants have, by far, seen the highest number of layoffs by number, but Smith said hotels and attractions have shed a larger percentage of their paid positions. 

An estimated 65 percent of the city's 28,000 restaurant workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of March, he said. Hotels, which employed about 7,700 people in the Charleston area, have laid off three out of every four employees. 

Attractions, which employed a substantially smaller number of people before the health crisis hit — just over 600, by Smith's counts — have let 80 percent of their workers go. 

For John LaVerne, owner of the walking tour company Bulldog Tours, retaining all but a small number of paid staff wasn't possible after all Charleston tours were suspended indefinitely on March 18. 

But LaVerne, who also took himself off the payroll, has still been working with his team of about 50 guides. They've volunteered on a rotating basis to host virtual tours that he streams live on the company's Facebook page. 

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LaVerne said they're "all in this together," and is confident his guides plan to return to work with him as soon as they can. 

Some local restaurants and hotels have kept close contact with their laid-off staff, too, with the hope they can bring back an already-trained team once they're able to reopen. 

Michelle Woodhull, who oversees four downtown lodgings and the upscale restaurant Circa 1886 as the president of Charming Inns, said she had to lay off about 85 percent of her staff. 

She hopes to eventually rehire those workers, she said, and, over the last several weeks, she and her team of managers have spoken with those staff members weekly. 

"We don't want to have to start over," Woodhull said. "As much as operators can stay in contact with their laid-off staff, they should. Without them, we don't have a company." 

Woodhull said she's been trying to get those workers the help that she can, whether that's assistance filing for unemployment — their workers, like many others across the state have "found that to be a frustrating process," she said — or making sure they have food for their families. 

A guest room at one of Charming Inns' temporarily closed properties has been converted into a makeshift food pantry that Woodhull keeps stocked for laid-off employees. 

The industry is already thinking about what the "new normal" will be for Charleston's hotels and restaurants post-pandemic, said Woodhull, who is also a board member for the Lowcountry Hospitality Association. 

That could mean installing plexiglass at hotel check-in desks or spacing tables out more widely in restaurants. At the least, she said, one positive that will come out of the current situation is more rigorous cleaning standards. 

"We're still going to see hand sanitizer everywhere," Woodhull said. 

When it comes to the local hospitality workforce, that "new normal" will likely involve more businesses sharing workers as the industry navigates the rehiring, reopening and recovery processes, she said. 

Charleston's hospitality community is more collaborative than most, Woodhull said, and that's been especially true during hard times.

"As much as we are competitors, we are more friend than foe," she said. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.

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