Orlando, Florida, is known for Disneyworld and all its other theme parks. It is also second only to Las Vegas in terms of the volume of people going there to attend conventions. When people visit, the experience the greatness of Orlando hospitality.
Leah worked as a convention services manager for one of the largest convention centers, a very large hotel with 400,000 square feet of meeting space and fifteen hundred guest rooms. 2020 began by looking as if it would be the busiest year ever. They were expecting to have a record-breaking number of conventions at the hotel. Then news of the pandemic came.
“We started to see these cancellations kind of slowly…But the sales team started to panic and you start to hear rumblings because we keep getting more and more phone calls. At first we’re just thinking, OK, we have some time, some downtime.”
Back in 2008, during the last recession, they all had to take a one-week long unpaid furlough. In her mind, it was going to be something like that. Things quickly got worse. By mid-March, the hotel had taken a huge hit. All groups had cancelled for April. Reservations for July and August started falling out.
Management came down to talk to them and the first things that happened were pay cuts, which weren’t horrible – about 10% of her salary. She could live with that. However, the cancellations continued, and it quickly got really scary. Within a week of getting pay cuts, the staff was told that they would get furloughed and the hotel didn’t have a return date. Her last day of work was March 30th.
“I distinctly remember my director telling me we’ll see you before Memorial Day. You’ll definitely be back before Memorial Day. No questions asked.”
Memorial Day came and went, and she didn’t return to work. On July 13th, her director gave her the dreaded phone call. It was short and very emotional for both of them. She had worked with the company for 14 years, and so she knew many people who had worked at the company for more than a decade. It felt like they were a little family. She knows the company tried to keep her, but she was laid off.
“There were about twenty one of us. I would have been number 10 in line in seniority, and I was cut. So, 14 years was not enough to keep me on board. That tells you what a great company it was to work for.”
Orlando is all about hospitality. Its economy depends on international travelers and tourists from the rest of the country to come to Disneyworld, to Universal Studios, to the other theme parks, and the convention centers. The city really depends on the rest of the world to keep its economy going.
“When I finally felt like maybe it’s safe to go out to a restaurant again,a couple of friends and I went to the Ale House, which if you’ve been to Orlando, you know Miller’s Ale House. And we sat outside on the patio on a very busy street, International Drive, which is typically filled with tourists. It was a ghost town. I walked down the street, parked kind of far away, and I walked down the street because it was a nice day and I didn’t pass a single person. That’s just unheard of. We’re missing people. We’re missing our heart.”
Hospitality workers are a very tight knit group in general. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone has worked with someone at one of the other properties. Everyone was hit.
“Within my group, my social circles, I would say 90 percent were released from their jobs and unemployment in Florida was a joke.”
At times it took Leah 4 hours to log on to the unemployment website though she eventually did receive unemployment benefits. She doesn’t know when hospitality will return. Florida has moved into phase 3, which allows full restaurants and hotels, but it doesn’t matter. Group businesses aren’t coming back. International travelers aren’t coming back. It is heartbreaking.
Leah hears from friends up in the northern part of the state or in the rest of the country that are kind of getting back to normal. It feels very weird. Orlando is still very dead, and still very quiet. It’s as if they are in a standstill. Within Leah’s social circles, 70% are still unemployed. Some have picked up side jobs here and there. Leah has started a small Etsy shop making masks to earn a little extra money. One of her friends has started in insurance. The only friend who has been able to keep going is a wedding planner. Finding jobs is hard.
“I was in my position for about 14 years previously at one of the largest convention spaces in Orlando. I was making great money. So to go from that, to pick up something for twelve dollars an hour and then try to find reliable childcare wasn’t worth it. Any time a job would be posted that had anything to do with meeting, planning, convention services, something sort of in that realm, you could look on Indeed and you would see the day it’s posted. You would see it already has one hundred and thirty applicants… So those positions are very rare still. And when they are posted, I would venture to guess that the hiring person is overwhelmed with applications and you just get lost in the shuffle.”
Leah is fortunate. Her husband is one of the rare people who managed to keep his job in the hospitality industry, so they’re doing okay. She has friends who are on food stamps, and they had never before been on food stamps. Unemployment in Florida is seventy-five a week, which was only enough money to be livable due to the six hundred dollars a week unemployment bonus. Right now it is at four hundred, but if it goes any lower she believes there will be a huge decline of people being able to pay their bills.
She has friends who are waiting the pandemic out. Leah knows that financially she can wait, but she doesn’t know if she can mentally wait.
“It’s like you’ve got to do something. When you go from being that busy all the time, all year long, never getting a break, there was no such thing as 9:00 to 5:00, it was 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., crazy hours to nothing. It’s weird. It’s not who you are anymore.”
It’s also been difficult because she is someone who loves socializing and meeting people from all over the world, but that has abruptly stopped, and now there are days that all she does is talk to her five-year-old son. Missing all that social interaction can be depressing. She had her first panic attack this year. There are some days she feels that everything is fine, and then there are other days when she feels like a wreck.
She may have to change careers.
“It’s frustrating to think of starting over. But I’m still so young and have been seriously thinking I’m starting over a research going back to school for something completely different. That’s expensive.”
Leah and her family are also looking at job opportunities in other states and seriously considering moving. Equity values have risen. Her house is going for 8 to 12% higher than it was before, which she thinks is still hugely inflated. It will fetch a good price if they sell it.
Moving is scary, though. She loves her house. She loves and is used to Orlando.
Read another sotry about how an event planner had all hotel events canceled along with her career.