On busy days, when the kitchen starts backing up and wait times are dragging at the beachside restaurant of the TradeWinds Island Resort, Kaitlyn Lofgren breaks out the Rubik’s Cube.
The 22-year-old server and bartender puts the toy on diners’ tables and offers them a deal: Solve this before your food comes out and get a free appetizer.
Lofgren and a team of servers at Tradewinds came up with this idea last May, when coronavirus restrictions loosened and the Tampa Bay area saw an influx of tourists — and as many workers in the hospitality industry changed careers. The St. Pete Beach resort was short staffed then — and still is.
“This lets them know we know you’re hungry and you want to get some food but we’re doing the best we can,” Lofgren said. “It’s been pretty good and the guests like to have something to do to distract them from the longer wait.”
Staff are given authority to make decisions like this, rather than wait for approval from upper management, said TradeWinds director of training and culture development Alexis Hoffstadter. TradeWinds ranked No. 15 in large companies category in the Tampa Bay Times 2022 Top Workplaces. The resort has 530 employees and has ranked on the list six times in a row.
Staff members who spoke with the Tampa Bay Times said the family culture of the resort has helped them through the many challenges in the last two years and they’re ready for the next big one — spring break.
“It really does feel like, from top to bottom, everybody knows your name. They care about you. And that’s a big difference for me,” said bellman Joey Lachman, who studies finance at University of South Florida.
At the start of the pandemic, when Pinellas County beaches were closed to the public, TradeWinds remained open. But they laid off much of their staff — from 1,000 to about 120.
“It’s probably one of the hardest days in my tenure at this company,” said vice president of sales Terry Popelka.
The workers who stayed had to fill in other positions. Lachman went from a bellman to doing front-desk work. Lofgren said she also works banquets and weddings. JoLynn Schultz, who was an auditor before, became the assistant manager when the RumFish Beach Resort by Tradewinds reopened.
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”From the bellman to the managers to the front desk staff to the housekeepers, it’s a team effort. We get it done,” Schultz said. “And slowly, the resources are increasing.”
Tourism rebounded in Florida when coronavirus vaccines became readily available. In the last quarter of 2021, visits to Pinellas County were up 14 percent, according to data from Visit St. Pete-Clearwater. But it has been a struggle to find new staff, Popelka said, as many people left hospitality all together for different careers. It’s the hardest to find cooks and cleaners.
Schultz has been handing out business cards wherever she goes to find workers for the Rumfish. If she sees great customer service elsewhere, she gives them a card and encourages them to apply for a job. She’s been able to hire a few people that way, she said.
“When Florida opened up, the demand was huge for the Gulf Coast,” Popelka said. “If you talk to any hotel up and down the beach, it was just something that I don’t think any of us expected to come back as quickly.”
He credited the TradeWinds staff for responding quickly to that demand. Last year ended up being a record for the hotel’s revenues, Popelka said. And that was without much business travel. This is the first full spring break season since COVID-19 vaccines became available. With record tourism continuing, plus business conferences picking back up, it’s a “perfect storm,” Popelka said.
Shannon Hodges, assistant manager of recreation, said she’s training a team of 40 people to be ready in time for the peak season. Fifteen people joined the team in the last few weeks.
In addition, Hodges is preparing the zipline, paddleboards, kayaks and a new floating obstacle course, which will be anchored in the gulf waters, for visitors. That means a lot of maintenance checks, creating “cheat sheets,” being an extra hand for the staff and planning to clean up the beach after the season ends.
“I’m planning for the worst,” Hodges said. “For a completely sold out day, every day.”
Tradewinds Islands Resort
Location: St. Pete Beach
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