Hotels across the country are feeling the pinch of labour shortages. The hospitality industry is not alone in facing this challenge, but the Hotel Association of Canada estimates that, with rising demand for accommodation service, the national labour shortfall could reach 10,000 by 2035. But a Toronto-based partnership of hotels and educational institutions is working to nip the problem in the bud with an innovative program called “Be Our Guest.”
“The idea for this program started two years ago,” says Dario Guescini, director of Work Integrated Learning at George Brown College in Toronto. Previously, as chair of the college’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, he brought together a program-advisory committee of industry experts, including Hani Roustom, general manager at Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel.
“We were seeing a declining trend in interest in the industry [and] enrolment trends going down,” Guescini says. “We started to think about how we could position the hospitality industry as an industry of choice and show young people they could have a very meaningful career as part of this industry.”
At the time, the perception of young potential employees seemed to be that hospitality jobs only offer long hours at low pay, he says. “We wanted to change that perception and elevate the profession.”
“We continuously discuss the labour shortage the industry is facing; this is something I’ve experienced firsthand and it’s a challenge that’s going to continue to exist,” says Roustom. “Learning from other industries, we wanted to pilot an initiative at the Hazelton and, if it worked, to engage others in this process. Why did we name this initiative Be Our Guest? This initiative is about wooing the next generation of hospitality professionals, inviting them as our guests, to experience how exciting our industry is. At the same time, we wanted to change the mindset of employers towards interns. Because we’re addressing the long-term labour shortage, we need employers to start thinking of those interns as the long-term future of the industry.”
A conference was held to gather ideas from hospitality-related educational programs and the concept of an experiential-learning opportunity for high-school students emerged from the discussions. “We need to give credit to Hani,” says Guescini. “He invested the time; he’s the one who was passionate about continuing this work and he pioneered the Be-Our-Guest program.”
The program evolved through an increasing network of project partners, beginning with Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate Institute, which joined in a pilot project that saw high-school students rotate through a sampling of employment areas over the course of several months.
Seeking to involve others, Roustom reached out to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and connected with Helen Ho, co-ordinator of Experiential Learning and Student Engagement, and Ron Felsen, centrally assigned principal: Leadership, Learning and School Improvement. Other early partners were Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO); Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA); Erin Haid, director of Talent Acquisition (North & Central America) for AccorHotels; Alexi Hakim, general manager at the InterContinental Toronto Centre, and Konrad Gstrein, general manager at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto. They joined Roustom and the other educational partners to establish a framework that could be implemented across the industry.
“We were approached with the idea of the program and felt it was something under ORHMA’s mandate,” says Elenis. “We’ve had, in recent years, some of the best performance numbers that we’ve seen and it’s critical that we have the employees required in years to come. In many cases, it’s about breaking down and busting myths. There’s a variety of careers to choose from and a variety of skills involved that perhaps our students don’t recognize.”
“Any way we can give students opportunities to explore their passions through experiential learning, we’re interested in that,” says Felsen, noting TDSB already offers Specialized Trade Exploration Programs — STEP for short — in construction and transportation. Felsen envisions an ongoing TDSB program, provisionally known as STEP to Hospitality: Be Our Guest. “We’re looking at this as an exploration model where students would rotate through different aspects of the hotel,” he explains.
“Last year, we had two students do a placement at the Hazelton Hotel,” Felsen continues. “This year, we have 18 students in the Be-Our-Guest program. We’re experimenting this year; we’ve engaged a number of hotels.” In the future, the program could be designed as a “dual-credit” offering, which allows a student to earn both high-school and college credits at the same time.
Currently, students in the program begin with several weeks of classroom learning, covering skills such as resumé-writing and a health-and-safety component. Then they begin to work in a hotel, with a co-op placement and a job-shadowing rotation. Depending on the specific situation, some students will work about three or four hours per day. Besides the Hazelton Hotel, this year’s cohort has been placed with the InterContinental Toronto Centre, the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and the Fairmont Royal York.
“In the short term, the Be-Our-Guest program aims to provide students experiential insight into the intriguing and vibrant world of hospitality; in the long term, it aims to attract a pipeline of future talent,” says Gstrein. “Our current students are surprised and impressed by the scope of opportunity hotels offer. Beyond broadening their understanding of the workplace, students are enriched by the diversity of people, cultures and experiences our industry uniquely provides. In turn, it will encourage their consideration of our sector in their educational and vocational planning.”
“What drew us to the Be-Our-Guest program is the structure,” says Hakim. “We’re currently hosting seven students in different departments. During their time with us, they’ll be involved in our day-to-day operation along with planned training sessions and orientations. We enjoy having the students here and exposing them to the many facets of our industry.” “As the world of travel and tourism evolves on a daily basis, the hospitality industry can only grow with fresh minds and new ideas,” he continues. “A younger generation getting involved and being passionate about the industry will provide endless opportunities for growth and continue to keep the industry going. In the near future, I would like to see the program rolled out to all GTA hotels and, eventually, expanding across Canada. When students are thinking of their future, we want to be included in those thoughts.”
“Our goal is very ambitious: to try to do something that will help the industry collectively and help ourselves at the same time,” Roustom says. “Working with other industry stakeholders and hoteliers in our city, and after this successful expansion and intake, the vision is to make this an industry-wide effort and develop it to include other measures such as employer-qualification process.”
“We will be implementing initiatives to make sure the employees will be engaged,” he says. “Assigning the interns to a young mentor will help senior management understand how to make the internship more meaningful.”
Another component should be a practical departmental project for students to solve and, ideally, managers should “make sure the students attend learning and development events and, in the hotels that can afford it, maybe implement departmental shadowing. Also, to inspire them, we want to try to give the interns an opportunity to have a one-on-one with the general manager or senior executive of the hotel,” says Roustom.
“What we’re doing is to involve the entire community,” says Guescini. “This should be driven by hoteliers; we need to develop talent and we are committed to doing so.”
“I would encourage the industry to get involved and treat these individuals as their own, to ensure the students have a well-rounded feeling for the industry that they hopefully will come into,” says Elenis. “It’s the best industry in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
Written by Sarah B. Hood