Area Hospitality Industry Weathering COVID-19 Storm

It officially began with a health order from the state March 20.

That’s when all on-premise consumption of food and beverages in restaurants and bars had been officially banned.

Then, Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Stay at Home order” followed on April 4 thus further delineating “essential” versus “nonessential” businesses.

One thing that is certain since COVID-19 is uncertainty. Since mid-March, there have been a lot of mandates with the information changing daily, perhaps even hourly in some instances.

Over the past few years, Huntsville and Madison County have been experiencing exponential growth in lodging, dining, and beverage establishments.

However, COVID-19 has been quite the game changer, for both seasoned and new businesses alike.

Although the order was scheduled to end April 30, it is anyone’s guess as to the long-term impact and what Huntsville-Madison County’s version of the “new normal” will be.

Many people do not immediately consider North Alabama as a tourist destination.

However, in 2018, there were roughly 3.35 million visitors to Madison County and more than $1.4 billion generated by tourism.

“We receive information on an annual basis from the Alabama Tourism Department,” said Charles Winters, executive vice president at Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as estimated visitors to our county, their estimation of economic impact of all types of visitors; that’s business travelers, convention attendees, all the folks who come into our community.

In North Alabama alone, tourism-generated dollars are tied to a multitude of capital improvements, as well as an estimated 20,000 jobs in the hospitality-service industry sector.

With the “Stay at Home” order, businesses cut back their hours and services, which translated into fewer employees being needed. Many have been furloughed, laid off, or flat-out terminated.

As a result of COVID-19 and assorted mandates, varying from state-to-state, the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard, with estimates as high as 7 million jobs lost or furloughed at the national level.

Although restaurants have been deemed “essential” and can still offer curbside or window pickup, as well as a variety of delivery and pickup options, not all restaurants have decided to keep their doors open.

“Due to COVID-19, Grille 29 Huntsville is temporarily closed,” said Regina Burnett, director of catering sales. “We are unsure of a return date at this time.”

The layoffs and furloughs serve as a double-whammy for the already personnel-strapped hospitality sector.

“As an industry, we’ve been growing exponentially here in Huntsville,” said Jennifer Middleton, director of sales at Candlewood Suites Huntsville-Research Park. “Workforce has been a huge issue for everybody, especially the hospitality industry.”

As the area growth ensued, local industry leaders addressed the issue by getting involved in tech programs, culinary programs at area high schools, along with assorted job fairs, all designed to bring attention to showcasing hospitality and service industry jobs as variable career options.

“Then, overnight, this work that we have been promoting as one of the best industries to work in – it comes to a halt,” said Middleton. “It’s just sad, for us to come from one place to another where we were in desperate need and, now, we have too many and not enough demand.”

In response, the Huntsville-Madison County Hospitality Association board took action. Using social media, the association contacted its members, letting them know that resource information had been posted on its Facebook site. A Facebook public group site titled, “HSV Food To Go Options (COVID 19)” was also created so people can find out what restaurants are open along with ways the community can help do their part to boost the hospitality industry.

“On a positive a note, we can promote ourselves as one of the best industries to work in because, as an industry, you can see how resourceful we are,” said Middleton. “We say this all the time, amongst ourselves, that we are one big family.

“And we’re passionate about serving people and especially about taking care of our own.”