NJRHA head stays optimistic: Lancellotti says fall is key for hospitality industry

Dana Lancellotti, a veteran of the hospitality industry, understands the misperception: Yes, Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer in New Jersey — but it doesn’t mean restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues, catering halls and tourism locations suddenly go dormant.

Not by a long shot.

“Don’t get me wrong, summer is a big deal for hospitality — certainly, the shining star — but it doesn’t all just stop in the fall,” she said. “In fact, the fall is huge. It’s a big time for conventions and sports. And October may be the biggest month of the year for weddings.”

Will it be this year? That’s still unclear. But Lancellotti, the new CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, is making it her mission for the hospitality sector to go up — not down — post-Labor Day.

She knows it’s a tough task, with many obstacles:

  • There still is a hiring crisis. While the end of the $300 supplemental insurance should help, she’s the first to admit it’s not the cure-all that some feel it is.
  • There still is a perception issue. And not just that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is far more transmittable. Lancellotti said the actions of others (see New York City’s vaccination mandate) have an impact in New Jersey.
  • There still is a timing issue. Restaurants, hotels and catering venues need to plan now for the fall. Delays are costly.

If the industry needs a silver-lining moment — and they are not easy to find — Lancellotti offers this:

“I think people may have a newfound respect for travel and tourism, and how enormously important it is to us and our economy,” she said. “There are so many things we are missing right now. And we’re finding out what happens when there is not enough business. I think we’re learning a lot.”

Don’t be mistaken, Lancellotti is as upbeat a person as you’ll meet — and she is bringing energy, passion and a lifetime of hospitality industry experience to the position. She said she needs it to match the energy of her members.

“One of the things that’s so awesome about people in hospitality is they are just so tenacious,” she said. “They literally do anything they need to do to make their business run — whether that means jumping in to run the rides or cook the food. Whatever is needed.”

Lancellotti, who became head of the NJRHA in March, has deep experience in the industry, working in restaurants, hotels and tourism. She came to the NJRHA after serving as the division director for business development and tourism for Ocean County for seven years, a job in which she interacted with the private sector and the government.

Lancellotti recently took a short break to discuss the hospitality and tourism sector — and the role NJRHA plays in it — with ROI-NJ. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the hiring crisis. New Jersey, like every other state, did not extend the extra $300 unemployment payment once the federal program expired Sept. 4. How much will that help?

Dana Lancellotti: This is a complicated issue. We know people had to stay home for a number of reasons, including helping with remote learning and because of the lack of child care options. There were many factors here. So, (the extra $300) was only part of the reason.

We know that because workers specifically said that to our operators. They would say: ‘I am comfortable with what I’m able to make right now. So, I’m going to continue to stay out.’

Our industry really needs people to come in and work. And it’s not just the restaurants, it’s the hotels, too. We need the hotels to be staffed so that we can still accommodate travelers and we can bring corporate business back. And we can’t do that if we don’t have enough staff. This is a tough time, because a lot of the kids have gone back to school.

ROI: You talked about the perception issue. How does that impact things — especially at a time when no one knows what to believe?

DL: It means a lot. Look at New York City. What happened there was very impactful. When (Mayor Bill) de Blasio required proof of vaccines for restaurants and gyms and theaters and places like that, everyone here was kind of holding their breath, because they wondered if it was going to be announced for here.

We don’t see Gov. (Phil) Murphy doing that, but, sometimes, it doesn’t matter if there actually is a mandate. Sometimes it’s just the perception that it may happen that can bring a gloomy outlook.

ROI: How do you change that going into the fall season?

DL: We need to show people that there are so many great things to do all year round. We need to get people to expand their thinking outside of the beach areas, enjoying the farm areas and the mountains and the all the different things we have in Jersey. We need to pivot our marketing and start saying: ‘Let’s enjoy our own backyard. Let’s go discover some new things in our town, in our county and our state we’ve never done before.’

It’s the message we had last year: We need to enjoy all the amazing and wonderful things that we have throughout the state that we can, outside, in the fall. It’s a wonderful time of year to explore.

ROI: Your optimism and enthusiasm are showing again.

DL: It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. The technology upgrades have been really cool — a really positive moment. Kudos to the restaurants for bringing back QR codes, because they’ve elevated their service with what you can do with them and how creative they can be.

Some restaurants have used automation, like kiosks. All these places where we used to talk to a person, we no longer do. Is that good or is that bad? We don’t want to see job losses, right, but you got to give a lot of credit to our innovation filling a need.

ROI: And that’s just for in-person meals.

DL: Exactly. To see how people have become brilliant at takeout — how they’ve invested money to upgrade their websites. How cool is it that we can actually get fine dining as takeout now? You can now get filet mignon as takeout. It amazes me how the industry can adapt.

ROI: The industry has been moving so quickly. Is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t been able to do because of the speed of transformation?

DL: We need to let the public know more about what is going on. We’re just starting to be more proactive. We did a radio campaign that said, ‘Please understand that the restaurants are doing the best they can with what they have; please be patient and continue to support them.’ 

We need to tell the public to keep being patient. That they should expect to wait a little bit and expect to see empty tables. We need to tell them that restaurants are not letting you sit because they don’t want your business, but because they don’t always have the staff to properly care for you.

ROI: The fear is that this is not a short-term, pandemic-caused problem. The fear is that this will become a leading issue in the industry moving forward. How are you confronting that?

DL: We work on a lot on workforce development, starting with our pro-start program, which is a national program through the National Restaurant Association that gives training to high school students who have aspirations to be chefs or restaurant owners.

We have a competition at the end of the year, where we award the students who came up with the best concepts for restaurants. We have culinary competitions. These things are exciting because that’s the future. You start filling that workforce in the future by igniting that interest, helping young people understand that this is a vibrant and exciting business. This is not a second job. This is not, ‘I’ll be going to my real job on Monday. This is my side hustle.’ No, it’s a career.

ROI: It’s been your career. You’ve been involved in every aspect of hospitality in your professional life. Still, we’re betting nothing could have prepared you for the opening months of the job. What was it like when you took over March 29?

DL: Some have used the fire hose analogy. I started in the middle of the mayhem. It was immediate and daily interaction with public officials, everyone from the Governor’s Office to local, state and federal lawmakers.

Getting through that experience was tremendous for my learning. I was able to see, ‘This is what our job is about. We are right in front of these people, speaking directly to them.’ 

ROI: The challenges are deep. What made you want to take them on?

DL: I really do see it as an absolute privilege and an honor to be able to have a go at it. I do have a passion for this industry and for tourism — and my background gives insight and understanding of their struggles. I long to make a difference for them. 

Most of all, I have a passion for New Jersey. I was born and raised here, I’m a deep-rooted Jersey girl. And I want to see our survivors, survive and thrive.

Conversation Starter

Reach the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association at: njrha.org or call 800-848-6368.