For a long time, the collective consciousness has been preoccupied with the impact of the baby boomers, but a new force is coming into focus. While not as copious, millennials — born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — are now more vital to the labour force than any other demographic.

“They have significantly different values, beliefs and lifestyles from the baby-boomer generation — differences our hotels are having to adapt to for the simple reason that millennials will dominate the workplace in the coming decade,” says Erin Haid, associate director of Talent Development at Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “They like transparency,” adds Mike Oshins, associate professor of Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. “They like their companies to be connected to their values and the environment; they want the opportunity to move up, they want a clear path and they want to be continually challenged.”

“If you look at hotels’ corporate offices and common spaces and compare them to those of Google, Twitter or Facebook, we’re behind,” says Anne Larcade, president and CEO of Huntsville, Ont.-based Sequel Hotels and Resorts. “If we endeavour to hire millennials and keep them, we need to step it up with our associate cafeterias, break rooms and benefits that go beyond health and dental to things the millennials value, like yoga, self-help and alternative wellness,” she adds. “All of this has not been picked up on broadly by the hotel industry, this desire for millennials to love where they work. It’s been a huge oversight and it’s something hotels need to address.”

Millennials are looking for “interesting, challenging and meaningful work,” says Eddy Ng, a professor and F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He is also the author of a University of Guelph-funded study, “A Comparative Study of Work Values between Generation X and Generation Y,” which found this group doesn’t like to sit still long, they welcome mobility and they tend to job hop. In fact, his research found that the oldest millennials held an average of seven jobs by the time they hit 30 (compared to four for Gen Xers and fewer for baby boomers). But that taste for novelty can be fed from within the machine. Hospitality is great for its different roles, says Ng. “This is the generation that has trouble concentrating. A banker does the same thing forever. In hospitality, you get to endlessly explore different aspects of the industry.”

Millennials are tech-savvy, no doubt. Deprive them of the latest technology, and you’ll see a lot of frustration, warns Kristi Thyssen, human resources manager at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto. But operators have to find a balance between allowing devices and ensuring that customer service isn’t disrupted. “It is no longer a hard ‘no’ with gadgets, Facebook and texting, but instead a negotiation into what is acceptable to the business,” explains Monica Stewart-Bittner, GM of Super 8 Calgary Shawnessy. “For example, cell phones are okay at the desk, but must be on vibrate and texting cannot be done in front of guests and in place of work.”

Flexible work hours, a range of roles and a chance to hone their expertise in different locations are other priorities for this generation. “They like to have flexible schedules and be able to trade shifts as much as they need to accommodate their personal needs,” Stewart-Bittner adds. “There is more emphasis on a work-life balance.”

Those who invest in their employees earn long-term loyalty, says Elisabeth Kelan, professor of Leadership at the Cranfield School of Management, in Cranfield, England. “Millennials are more likely to leave organizations when they feel they can’t develop there. But if [hotels] develop millennials, they’re keen to stay.”

This generation is motivated to work with sustainably minded companies that are connected to the communities around them, and are keen on helping them develop other skills in the workplace. In that spirit, the team at Starwood provides volunteer opportunities and training programs on subjects outside the standard job duties and responsibilities, such as service culture, emotional intelligence, conflict management, time management and relationship-building.

Starwood also unveiled the Starwood Student Experience last year. This program for current and new associates who are concurrently advancing their education offers them several ways to get experience with the company, from hourly positions to internships and positions in Starwood’s management trainee program, and sweetens the deal with discounted hotel rates for its associates.

But after they’re a part of the team, this generation enjoys consistent feedback, preferring daily input rather than annual or biannual sit-down performance reviews. “They want to know how they can get better — and they want specifics,” says Thyssen. “They don’t just want to hear that something isn’t right; they want to know what it will take to make it right.”

Employers can mine this characteristic to their benefit, says Kelan. While millennials are confident, they harbour a lot of anxieties. They’re anxious about their future job prospects and are keen to find a secure job with their current skillset. “This means they understand they have to be at the top of their game all the time, which makes them hungry for feedback and self-development. Employers need to understand that.”

And if they don’t, millennials will find a happy landing somewhere else. After all, the skills they learn in hospitality — customer service, service quality, leadership, management — are highly transferrable, says Boston University’s Oshins. “They’ll go elsewhere, get paid more and have better opportunities. It’s the ‘Googlification’ of North America: where’s the free lunch? Where can we play ping-pong and have our dry cleaning taken care of? If [hotels] don’t make provisions for this segment of their workforce — who are prepared to work long hours but also want to have fun — they’re going to lose them. Full stop.”

Written By: Laura Pratt 

Volume 27,  Number 8

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