When you run a small hotel in the middle of a forest, with satellite Wi-Fi, no cell service, no bus service, and 15 minutes away from the nearest town, recruiting and retaining staff is a challenge at the best of times. Throw in the chaos of a global pandemic and you’re pretty much lost in the woods.

“We’re down about 80 per cent” in occupancy levels, says James Hague, general manager of Baker Creek Mountain Resort near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. “It’s one of the worst two years I’ve ever had, and I’ve been in hospitality for about 20 years.”

Hague says he relies heavily on international workers — primarily Australians, Brits, Filipinos and South Asians — to staff his resort of 16 suites and cabins, but with the lockdowns and visa backlogs, he’s been left with a skeleton crew that he’s had to cross-train to cover multiple departments.

As for his Canadian contingent of workers, he says, “Everyone was wondering if the CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) payments were keeping people at home and not looking for work. I won’t comment on that, but I will say that in November, when those subsidies stopped, we had a huge influx of applications and it’s been much better since.”

Perks and Programs
Hague says he sources staff through social-media platforms such as LinkedIn, Indeed, Facebook and, oddly successful, Kijiji. And even with a limited budget due to his property’s relatively small size, he’s offered higher wages, completion bonuses, free ski passes, subsidized meals and accommodation.

“We also do team dinners and team events. We renovated our main staff house, put in a couple of video games, pool table, a little bar area. But it’s still a struggle, since you’re living and working in the middle of the forest. But the people who love it, love it.”

On the other end of the spectrum are larger hotel companies, such as Accor, which spans the globe with 40 brands comprising more than 5,000 hotels across 110 countries, with greater resources and sourcing power. But even it has not been immune to labour pains. Last year at this time, the Paris-based company posted a US$2.4 billion loss for 2020, and European RevPAR was down more than 73 per cent in the fourth quarter, according to Skift. Accor CEO Sebastien Bazin stated at the time that 2020 was “probably the worst year we’ve navigated through since the company was founded in the 1960s.”

The company embarked on a US$235 million cost-savings plan that included eliminating 1,000 corporate jobs and shutting down two regional headquarters in Europe and Asia. But outside-the-box efforts to recruit and retain staff remain vigorous and ongoing. Robert Mellwig, senior vice-president of Talent and Culture, points to the company’s vast, far-reaching presence, as well as its value system, to attract candidates.

“[The pandemic] has forced a new level of innovation, imagination and creativity within our team,” he says. “So, Accor, and most of our competitors, have had to think through and respond with new programs and a new approach.”

Some of that creativity includes reaching out to alumni via a re-recruitment program. There are also partnerships through the company’s All Heartists Fund (employees are called Heartists), created in 2020 to support staff affected by the pandemic, to cast a wider net for more diverse candidates, including a special refugee-recruitment initiative to attract displaced Afghans, for example, to a career in hospitality.

Most of the new programs, however, target the younger generation’s desire to work with companies that reflect their own core values of charity, sustainability and meaning in the work they do.

“We found really innovative ways to connect all of our Heartists to the purpose and meaning of work,” says Mellwig. “[We consider]: What is it we’re called to do? How does that relate to our values? What about our company’s value proposition is unique, special, differentiated, that gives people a reason to join and more of a reason to stay?”

Alongside the company’s commitment to diversity and gender equality in the workplace, sustainability and social-responsibility issues, such as its eco-friendly and carbon-neutral initiatives, all of which appeal to their mostly young recruits (54 per cent are under the age of 35), Accor offers benefits such as “pick your perk” in markets such as Banff, for example.

“Historically, benefit programs have been ‘one-size-fits-all’, because it’s more complicated to administer a program that is tailored [and] curated,” says Mellwig. “So, we’ve found more success in finding ways for people to select from a menu of options that are important and valuable to them. For some it may be a ski pass, a spa day or dining credits, or in some cases it’s assistance with child care.” Mellwig says, in some markets, the company has piloted the same-day pay method used by gig economy businesses such as Lyft and Uber.

As well, the company’s global presence allows a “work-from-anywhere” policy for those in the executive suite. “We [also] have policies that allow for greater flexibility, including how and when people start or end their shift, how they take time off during the work week to attend to child care or other parental responsibilities,” says Mellwig. “And that includes positions, like room attendants, that haven’t historically had that kind of flexibility.”

Reality Check
Perks, policies and programs are all commendable incentives, but in his experience, Steve Renard, owner and president of Toronto-based Renard International Hospitality Search Consultants, believes the only sure-fire recruitment tool is money. “It’s always the same: we want more money, we want a good future,” he says of what candidates tell him.

And that quest for meaningful work? “You know, that’s nonsense. That’s talk. Core values, what’s that anymore? If you’re in your 20s or early 30s and living at home, it may make sense. But the people who need the jobs who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, you think they care about core values? The only core values they care about are paying bills, feeding their family and not getting thrown out of their house. There’s an awful lot of people out there who need to work. And although they might say they’re picky, if a good offer comes along, it doesn’t matter who it’s with.”

Even so, he acknowledges that, particularly with big companies looking for senior staff, enticements work. “We did a study [that found] 40 different benefits out there you can use: bonuses, moving expenses, cell phones, clothing allowances, R&R, a job for the partner,[membership in] sports clubs.” But bottom line, he says, “Sure, it’s a candidate’s market at a certain level, but not every level.”

Tech Tools
Baker Creek’s Hague says tech for the isolated lodge is limited to some cloud computing and remote check-out. “With our upload capacity, [anything more advanced] is just never going to happen. Our rooms don’t have phones; we have real hotel keys. We’re stuck in the past, but that’s the appeal for a lot of our guests.”

As for Accor, Mellwig says, “We have a partnership with a group called Handshake, which allows us to reach candidates at the collegiate level from a very diverse, broad-based series of job boards. We’re able also to experiment with [on-demand foodservice-staffing platform] Qwick for a more instant workforce solution. We’ve also double- and tripled-down on our partnerships with LinkedIn to solicit talent.”

The company is also upgrading technology in the back office to better manage talent and culture, finance and accounting and guest-facing platforms for better workflow, as well as plans for internal communication systems to connect all staff via hand-held, mobile-enabled language-response technology platforms. “For example, our hotel, the Queen Elizabeth, in Montreal, is in partnership with a group called Beekeeper, a mobile-enabled technology app that allows us to deliver content in one language and receive content in a different language and can reach our teams instantaneously.

“We’re also looking at other aggregators of the travel experience that are enabling a line of sight to the business to help validate how our members feel about staying with our organization and hotels.”

Because, in the end, without those members, there would be no hotel. As another recruiter, Vivian Wang, founder of San Francisco-based Landed, states, “The pandemic has forced us to take a hard look at who’s supporting the economy and how we’re supporting them. So, we need to put in place strong structures to better protect workers, especially those in marginalized communities. This could include better job discovery tools, financial safety nets, educational resources to help build the futures of employees. And that’s how you hit that lofty goal of retention.”

By Robin Roberts


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