Resort Gypsies

In the hospitality industry, Tyler Christian and Liz Sidbury are classified as seasonal employees. They and their coworkers more commonly refer to themselves as resort gypsies.

“That’s more descriptive of what we do, traveling from place to place,” said Liz.

This summer they’re waiting tables in the Rainbow Room at Lake Powell Resorts and Marina in Page, Arizona. The cliff-side restaurant features breathtaking panoramic views of the waterfront and desert rockscape—regularly portrayed as an alien world in science fiction movies like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes.

Sandra Bullock, on location during the filming of Gravity commented, “I had no idea places like this existed.”

In their spare time they prioritize being in love and exploring the exotic terrain.

“We’re not just working a job—we’re’ living a lifestyle, and couldn’t have it any other way,” said Tyler.

Daily Life versus Grind

Among the many employee perks at the all-inclusive resort are free WiFi, access to the fitness center, pools, hot tubs, saunas, and game rooms. Local excursions are also free on a space available basis, and visiting family or friends can stay at a discount.

That’s typical of most venues.

The summer season for resort jobs is 3 to 6 months. The winter season is shorter-usually 2 to 3 months. “You have to plan and budget for transitions,” said Tyler.

As hourly employees, they each net $200 per 3 hour shift, working 5 days a week. Mainstream occupations in business or medicine may have higher earnings potential, but based on feedback from their 20 something peers, Tyler and Liz claim to be saving more—roughly $1,000 each per month.

That’s partly because they own a second hand mobile home that’s paid for. Rent for their pad at the local trailer park with water, sewage and electric included is $5 per day. Dorms are available for as little as $1 a day at most resorts. Subsidized meals at the commissary average $5 to $6 dollars. “You basically save most of what you make,” said Tyler.

Back-of-the-house jobs, entailing little or no direct contact with guests include housekeeping, pool maintenance, buildings and grounds, food prep, laundry, and reservations.

Front-of-the-house jobs entail face-to-face interactions with guests and require greater decorum. Waiting tables, managing the front desk, booking excursions, tour guides–present tipping opportunities.

Management and accounting positions pay the best.

Getting a Gig

“Twenty years ago, the definitive source for these sorts of jobs was a print publication called Petersons Summer Jobs,” says Kathi Noaker. She’s the Director of Employer Happiness at “Companies posted ads in newspapers and reps travelled far and wide, recruiting mostly at college job fairs.”

“Not surprisingly, the majority of these jobs were filled by college age kids,” she said.

That’s all changed. With the advent of the Internet and baby boomers either retiring or losing their jobs, the contemporary age bracket extends to people in their 70s and 80s.

“It just makes sense to post opportunities on the web,” she said. “Like Craigslist, it’s cheaper and faster for everybody.” is the premier portal for seasonal job postings. Everyone working there held a seasonal job at the start of their careers.

The company tagline is Jobs in Great Places. Their mission is to provide transformative experiences for anyone who’s never been anywhere else. That philosophy is palpable from the biographies they’ve posted on the site, and evident in conversations with everyone interviewed at the Lake Powell resort.

An up and coming competitor is Some of the jobs there are for oil rig roughnecks and video game testers. “Different” in Naoker’s estimation, but not focused like CoolWorks on the resort industry.

Tyler recommends matching job descriptions with interests, and diversifying, at least in the first few assignments so one can wear multiple hats in an organization and determine preferences.

“There’s no shortage of opportunities here. There’s around an 80% turnover every year,” said Noaker. “Most people don’t have the flexibility to ship out someplace else.”

Seasonal human resource professionals founded an association in 1988 to address these problems. They promote the industry, seeking to improve recruitment and retention.

There are two broad categorizations of workers. “Seasonal employees” do one-off assignments without long-term aspirations of making a career out of it. “Seasonal professionals” target moving into long-term management-level positions. The latter offer the stability and pay needed to settle down and raise a family.

Coolworks has their own taxonomy of job seeker types.

The “Adventurer/Discoverer” has a passion like visiting historical sites, kayaking, or camping and wants a job that will allow them to do what they love on their time off.

“Older and Boulder” types are typically semi-retirees, seeking a change. “Lots of recent widowers take these jobs,” said Noaker. Delaware North is a company contracted by the Park Service to run sundry stores at Yellowstone. “They specifically go after 70 and 80 year olds.”

The “Student/Teacher with a Limited Summer” seeks positions conforming to the academic calendar. Summer camps are popular venues, with specialties such as computers, arts/crafts, equestrian programs, etc. It’s a great resume-builder for education majors looking for experience mentoring kids.

The “Professional” is sought for a specific skill, like a front desk manager with a hospitality degree or CPA. They’re looking for the stability of a longer-term assignment. Event planners and wilderness guides are also currently in demand, according to Noaker.

Coolworks recently partnered with AmeriCorps to staff the Conservation Corps. Naoker reports that this initiative is “close to our heart.”

The Right Stuff

Caron Beesley of the Small Business Administration lists three desirable characteristics of seasonal workers; adventurous, independent and able to adapt. “If you’re tethered to your gadgets–cell phone—WiFi you won’t be happy on a remote assignment. But most people case out what they’re getting into,” she said. “Being out in nature is healing. Nature is restorative, but there are more opportunities in urban locales.”

There are numerous paths to becoming a resort gypsy. These are chronicled on the CoolWorks site.

Others came ashore from the cruise industry. By law, any ship docking at an American port is required to staff 10 percent of its positions with U.S. citizens. There is much cross-fertilization between the cruise lines and resorts, according to Beesley. Some, like Princess Cruises, now own resorts as well as boats.

Phil Bynum worked for ARAMark managed food services at Brooklyn College for 37 years. At age 68, the company lured him out of retirement to run concessions during peak season in Hawaii and Idaho, prior to arriving at Lake Powell.

Mistaken Perceptions

“There’s a common misperception that these are dead-end jobs,” said Noaker. “It’s surprising, the skill-sets that people develop working these jobs.” On-the-job training in a commercial kitchen is as good as going to a culinary school. Buildings and grounds maintenance is great preparation a career in facilities management. The crew on excursion boats log time and experience needed to make captain.

“These positions demonstrate you have the capacity to work with lots of different kinds of people,” she said. “Not everyone’s on a college track and not everyone who went to college gets a job in what they majored in.”

The Dark Side

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration reports that 17.4 percent of waiters and bartenders use illegal drugs. That’s twice the national average among all professions.

Noaker acknowledges this, but counters that restaurants and resorts are increasingly adopting zero tolerance policies and instituting random drug testing to combat the problem.

According to the latest (2013) data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of hospitality workers is 30, meaning half are younger. “They’re at that partying age,” says Noaker. “It’s no surprise if they’re out drinking at night.”

There are also some bad employers, but they get flamed on social networks. If there are lots of verifiable complaints from different people, Coolworks will delist a resort from the site.

Bill Berg, who founded CoolWorks, applies the “Niece Test” to a company. “If I wouldn’t want my niece to work there, I don’t want them listed on the site,” he said.

There’s also occasionally banter on Twitter feeds popular with resort gypsies (#seasonalworker, #resortgypsy) by the disgruntled employee (“We’re just a bunch of indentured servants”) or angry employer (“Today’s kids have no work ethic.”). “These are rare on the my.coolworks feed,” said Noaker. “It’s all about attitude.”

One source of disgruntlement is the disparity in pay between the front and back of the house, mentioned earlier. In addition, tips are not always shared equitably.

“The dirty little secret of the trade is the J1 student visa issue, like the kerfuffle on Martha’s Vineyard,” said Beesley. J1s are limited to international students on a 4 month visit. The program was implemented after World War II as a vehicle for cultural exchange.

The problem, first reported in the Vineyard Gazette, revolves around the underpaid and abusive circumstances some of these students are subjected to.

It was discovered not long after the 2008 financial crisis that restaurants and resorts on Martha’s Vineyard were staffing the majority of their seasonal positions with J1s, displacing qualified American workers. Many J1s were earning less than $1 a day, and there are reported cases of some resorting to prostitution in desperation.

“That’s still a big problem,” said Noaker. Coolworks, however, is just a job posting site. It’s the responsibility of the seasonal HR staffer to play fair in the recruiting game. “The government isn’t very vigilant. J1 buyer beware.”

Until recently, there was also a blind interview problem in the hospitality industry. Because of the sheer volume of recruits needed each year and geographic dispersion of the applicants, seasonal staffing professional had to rely on cover letters, resumes and references alone.

Future Prospects

According to Deloitte THL Research, the hospitality industry employs more than 14.6 million people, which equates to 1 in every 8 jobs in America. On average, 55,000 new jobs have been added every month since January 2013. Even during the economic downturn from 2008 to 2010, the industry had a net gain of more than 1.6 million jobs.

By their reckoning, three factors are driving this trend. An ever increasing number of retirees have time and money to spend, millennials are replacing them in the workforce and gaining in disposable income, and the international market is exploding.

The recent drop in fuel prices has also stimulated an uptick in discretionary travel.

There is a consensus among Tyler, Liz, and the experts canvased herein that the state of the profession is strong and poised for growth.

The couple never worry about their next placement, having established a reputation and rapport with the management at preferred properties.

Liz would like to start a family and knows couples who’ve managed to pull this off working for resorts. One or the other eventually opts for a desk job. The opportunities for stable employment in one place increases with seniority.

They have a savings plan and destination worked out. She’s 25 and he’s 26. They’ve targeted settling down in 4 years.

Tyler graduated with a bachelors in business from Bentley College in 2008, coinciding with the onset of the recession. The job market was tanking, but he’d already concluded he was not “wired for office life.  He reports getting chided by his mother on occasion for “not having a real job.”

Noaker concurs, “Professional seasonal workers get a lot of grief like that from their parents. You really get that vibe from the chat rooms.”

There are more conventional ways to make a living, but the couple profess to having found a natural fit in their current approach.

“Mostly, it doesn’t matter,” said Liz. “Some people live to work. We work to live.”

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