Operation Oceanfront: The bottom line is, economic recovery is here but the workers are not

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — For over a year, businesses have been dealing with COVID-19 and social unrest. As the 2021 summer advances what do business owners expect this summer?

This week, 10 On Your Side is looking ahead to the summer season with “Operation Oceanfront” — a three-part investigation into preparations for what officials hope will be a summer of recovery from COVID-19 and social unrest over the past year.

“The big picture everybody is excited by the season, bookings are up, people want to travel,” said John Zirkle, who operates Doubletree by Hilton Virginia Beach. He’s also president of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association.

“Right now, our bookings for people who book farther out are higher than they have been, and on par for 2019 numbers,” he said.

2019 was a banner year for resort strip revenue, some of which was generated by the inaugural Something in the Water music festival, a project of Pharrell Williams.

The 2021 turnaround is well underway, and that is supported by numbers from the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. For the week April 25 to May 1:

  • Occupancy is up 65.4% compared to 2020
  • Demand for rooms is up 178% compared to the same time in 2020
  • Revenue is $27 million, up 419.5% compared to 2020

Brian Solis, the acting resort administrator for Virginia Beach, provided documents from the Convention and Visitor Bureau with the most recent information on hotel occupancy. Another shows trends year-over-year.

READ: Hotel/Motel occupancy trends in Virginia Beach
Resort Management Enhancements Plan

Brad Capps is manager of the Breakers Resort Inn and is optimistic about the growth seen in hotel business.

“We are starting to see families, and that is a good sign. Reservations are coming in regularly,” Capps said.

Retail stores are also picking up, like at Coastal Edge Surf Shop.

Coastal Edge President D. Nachnani is also a board member of the Atlantic Avenue Association. He’s seen an uptick in revenue.

“We are excited about the phenomenal season ahead of us, and it’s because of learning we have had over the last 365 days. Because as a community, we have grown closer together,” Nachnani said.

Many restaurants are struggling, but Abbey Road Pub and Restaurant is watching the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.

“Right now, we are about even [with] where we were two years ago. Does that surprise me? Yes, it does,” owner Bill Dillon said.

Unlike some other area businesses, Dillon said his staff hasn’t left him. He said they’re at “about the same numbers.”

Getting enough employees is a challenge some businesses are still working to overcome.

“Staffing is obviously a challenge,” said Capps at Breakers Resort Inn.

“They came in and asked for a raise and obviously we did give it to them because that is what you have to do to keep good staff members around,” he said.

Back over at the Doubletree, Zirkle said the 77-member city hotel association is short a stunning 1,100 positions and some hotels are unable to sell rooms due to staffing issues.

“And let me tell you, that is a huge hit because that means fewer guests and visitors to our city, that means fewer guests going to restaurants and adventure parks,” he said.

Zirkle insists continuing unemployment benefits through Labor Day keeps workers at home in part causing the staffing shortage.

“The extra unemployment plays a role, extra government assistance plays a role, the new childcare credit President Biden just signed where they will start getting physical checks,” Zirkle said.

Zirkle also notes COVID-19 issues with overseas embassies have interrupted the J-1 student work visas.

“Yes, no doubt, we usually get 1,500 J-1 student work visas, and we will probably only get 200 if that,” he added.

The bottom line: Economic recovery is here, but the workers are not.

Industry staffing issues aside, officials are doing work on their end to give the resort area a boost.

Solis, the acting resort administrator for Virginia Beach, said there are three main improvements that the City Council has prioritized based on feedback from resort stakeholders.

According to an email from Solis, those include:

  1. “Re-establishing a stand-alone Resort Management Office that works across the City organization to improve a network of resources in the Resort area including maintenance, code and City ordinance enforcement and homeless outreach.
  2. Enhanced entertainment programming with a 40% increase in funding and nightly entertainment every night from Memorial Day to Labor Day as well as a new Resort Area Ambassador program focused on new hospitality and cleaning resources in the Atlantic Avenue Corridor.
  3. Public and private investment in the Resort area including 19th Street, 18th Street, 17th Street revitalization projects; a future Atlantic Avenue revitalization project; and the private investment of Atlantic Park pending late 2021/early 2022.”

READ: Virginia Beach Resort Management Office information

Capps, the manager of the Breakers Resort Inn, sums it up this way.

“I just about guaranteed we will beat 2019. People are ready to travel. They have been cooped up since last year, and they are ready to put their feet in the sand,” he said.

Coming up Wednesday night on WAVY’s Operation Oceanfront coverage: Why should tourists come to Virginia Beach? 10 On Your Side will have that beginning at 4:45 p.m with a full report at 6 p.m.

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