It has been a rollercoaster ride for anyone working within the local hospitality industry ever since COVID hit Westchester in March of 2020. While several local restaurants and hotels had to close their doors, the news isn’t all doom and gloom on the hospitality front, especially as COVID cases decline. Pent-up consumer demand for leisurely pursuits — whether that means a Michelin-rated meal or a weekend stay at a historic hotel — has resulted in a large number of open positions in the local hospitality industry.“There’s no doubt that the pandemic hurt the hospitality sector the most,” notes Dr. Marsha Gordon, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester, the county’s largest business membership organization, representing more than 1,000 members from various sectors. “Omicron hit [this sector] in a really cruel way around Christmas and New Year’s when there are so many holiday parties and dinners, but we are so pleased to see people going back to restaurants and other segments of the hospitality sector,” she says.
According to the New York State Department of Labor, the hospitality and leisure industry represents almost 10% of the workforce in the Hudson Valley, and for 2021 this sector saw the largest amount of jobs gained (16,400) compared to other sectors, underscoring the fact that there is huge demand for these services.
Despite the pandemic, travel and tourism still remained a significant driver of the county’s economy during 2020, providing revenue to support county services as well as state services. Local taxes (hotel occupancy, sales, and property) and state taxes generated by the industry were $174.1 million in 2020. Local taxes generated fell 19% over the previous year, to $103.5 million. In the last five years though, the industry contributed more than half a billion dollars to local tax coffers ($601.9 million).
“Easing of travel restrictions — coupled with pent-up demand for travel, social events, and human connection — work in our favor. This is not a light-switch moment, but rather a recovery process that we know will take time. But Westchester’s tourism and hospitality community is very resilient and prepared to nurture business back to pre-pandemic levels,” notes Natasha Caputo, director of Westchester County Tourism & Film.
Currently, the job outlook for the hospitality industry is strong, with demand for workers exceeding supply, particularly in the restaurant industry. Employers say recruiting and retaining employees will be their top challenge in 2022. Entry-level chefs at a top restaurant can expect to earn $47,920 and experienced chefs can earn $91,940 in the Hudson Valley, with a projected employment growth of 8.8% by 2028. Almost every position within the hospitality sector is expecting job growth by 2028.
The hospitality industry represents a wide scope of job options. “There are so many jobs in hospitality and you have the multiplier effect for it, so jobs like event coordinators, sound and lighting services, even balloon companies all fit under that umbrella,” Gordon says. Good interpersonal skills are essential, since these jobs are often customer facing. Some positions require just a high school diploma, while others require a four-year degree or specific hospitality courses.
Local training providers such as SUNY Westchester Community College and Southern Westchester BOCES offer courses in hospitality-focused skills. Entry-level salaries for various positions run the gamut from tour and travel guides ($27,280) to food service managers ($54,860), meeting planners ($29,690), audio and video technicians ($31,190) and restaurant cooks ($28,960), according to the New York Department of Labor. There is tremendous opportunity for salary growth as well. For example, experienced audio and video technicians can expect to more than double their entry-level earnings, based on the department’s data.
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Critically acclaimed chef and restaurateur Peter X. Kelly of X2O Xaviar’s on the Hudson in Yonkers and Restaurant X in Congers is committed to hiring local talent. In fact, he recruits servers and hosts from Yonkers High School. “This is a good place to learn and grow if someone wants to get into restaurant management,” Kelly says, although he admits that the industry is very transient. Still, Kelly has a loyal staff, with 60% of his employees having been with him for five to 10 years. “The people who want this as a career path take great personal satisfaction in making people happy. They are passionate about cooking or making it a special experience for diners. I have people that have been with us in the kitchen and dining room since we opened our doors and that is a good thing,” he adds.
Currently, the job outlook for the hospitality industry is strong, with demand for workers exceeding supply, particularly in the restaurant industry. Employers say recruiting and retaining employees will be their top challenge in 2022.
“The only skill I am looking for in entry-level workers is a warm personality and are they genuinely nice. The rest we can teach,” notes Kelly, who offers a robust training program for new hires. For a week, new hires shadow an experienced employee. They learn how to respond in various scenarios, ranging from a spilled glass of wine to silverware that fell on the floor. Kelly also offers wine seminars to employees and emphasizes the importance of greeting guests properly. “It is very rewarding to see the growth of a young person developing social skills in an upscale environment that maybe they haven’t had a chance to experience before,” explains Kelly, who started in the restaurant business at 14.
Servers at his restaurant are paid an hourly wage of $10, but during a busy dinner shift can expect to receive almost $35 in tips on top of that. Of course, pay varies by time of day and on the weekend. “Wages within the industry are growing, but business has been stagnant for so long,” notes Kelly, and it is a key concern for many restaurateurs, along with supply chain issues and the rising costs of menu items.
Currently, Kelly has approximately 70–75 full-time employees at his Yonkers restaurant, and during the pandemic, he tried to ensure that he rotated staff so that they could all receive a paycheck. Although business is on the upswing, it is still not at pre-pandemic levels. Approximately one-third of his revenue is from B2B luncheon meetings — a challenge when many people are still working from home. Additionally, travel to Westchester-based Fortune 500 companies for meetings is down. In May 2021, hotel occupancy tax intake was off almost 50% compared to 2019, according to Westchester County’s 2021 Recovery Plan Performance Report.
“Supporting the return of business travel is very much top of mind. We’re activating outreach to key meeting planners to immerse them in the Westchester County experience and exploring new ways to enhance our marketing efforts for this audience segment,” says Caputo.
Still, Kelly remains optimistic about the restaurant industry here. With many former city dwellers with sophisticated palates moving to the suburbs, Kelly has seen better chefs and restaurateurs move to the area and views it as a welcome change. Kelly enjoys walking the restaurant floor often and says it helps him innovate the menu and make improvements. “Learning how to be better every day is the key to survival,” he says. “We try to outwork other operations. If we have had any success, it is that our guests leave happy and feel that their visit here was time and money well spent. Their time here has to be valued.”