By Amy Bostock

TORONTO — After a two-year hiatus due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, attendees gathered at The Chelsea Hotel Toronto recently for Hotelier magazine’s annual Housekeeping Forum, a full-day conference highlighting the nerve-centre of any hotel — the housekeeping department. Awards were also handed out for the coveted titles of Executive Housekeeper of the Year and Room Attendant of the Year.

Following morning sessions focused on the state of the hotel housekeeping department, post-pandemic, from the perspectives of hotel general managers and supplier, the focus shifted to the housekeeping team itself. Sessions included a discussion about mental health and wellness, the importance of human capital and a panel of housekeeping leaders who talked through the challenges of COVID-19 and how their teams overcame them.

Moderated by Rosanna Caira, editor/publisher of Hotelier magazine, Mental Health & Wellness: How to keep your housekeeping staff healthy, happy and safe featured Anna Chartres, regional director, Talent and Culture for Central Canada, Accor; Harriet Ekperigin, vice-president, Mental Health, Green Shield Holdings; and Janice Cardinale, Heart-Centric entrepreneur.  

“I’m actually happy and sad to say that [mental-health issues are] something we’ve seen coming for a long time,” said Chartres. “We’ve been working with our leaders in the mental-health area for about eight years, since we first realized it was key to help people understand the issues surrounding mental health. We’ve offered a lot of training for our leaders on how to have conversations and start to open the door on mental-health.”

For Accor, opening that door included “offering certificate programs from Queens University, working with our EAP providers and providing ongoing support through our mental-health committee, which is made up of people who have a passion and really want to think about things we can do in this area. It really is about awareness, de-stigmatizing the issues and having honest conversations,” said Chartres. “We’re not professionals, but we can help people get the resources.”

While mental-health awareness has grown, Ekperigin spoke to the fact that certain groups in Canada are more likely to face disproportionate challenges in accessing mental-health supports because of racism, discrimination, socio-economic status or even social exclusion.

“For people from marginalized communities or racialized communities, as well as those who are at the lower end of the socio-economic status, it’s really difficult to talk about mental health,” said Ekperigin. “The best thing we can do is what we’re actually doing now — talking about mental health. But it starts at the top. I remember going into an organization and they wanted me to give them some tips about how to improve people talking about mental health in the organization. I said, ‘Well, it starts from your senior leadership team. Does anybody talk about mental health at that level and offer support?’ And they looked just looked at me and I said, ‘Well, that’s your problem.’ Because every one of us knows somebody who struggles with mental health — or we do ourselves — so the fact that we’re not talking about it at the senior leadership level does not give the people at the bottom the opportunity or the autonomy.”

So how do companies start those conversations? According to Cardinale, the first step is education. “There’s more education out there today than there ever has been. There are a lot of speakers that can be brought in to the hotel to speak to the staff more on a therapeutic level, make suggestions and talk about mental health openly and comfortable,” she said. “It’s about making brave spaces for them to be able to start a conversation.”

She said leaders need to understand what people are going through and how they can re-frame how they’re feeling and have perspective on it, “and not make them feel embarrassed that something is happening inside them. There’s an opportunity to educate the human resources department and other people within the organizations so they know how to speak to these people — it’s the language that’s used, you have to show empathy.”

Human Capital

The next group to take the stage discussed the challenges of finding housekeepers during a severe labour shortage. Moderated by Gopal Rao, the panel included Tony Elenis, president and CEO of Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA); Mandie Abrams, executive director, Hospitality Worker-Training Centre; Joshua Platz, managing partner, Global Hospitality Search Consultants; and Dena Maxwell, director of Workforce Development, Tourism HR Canada. The group examined some of the best practices being used and developed by hoteliers to ensure success on the hiring, training, diversity and inclusion fronts.

“We all know that COVID impacted our industry. We were the first hit and the hardest hit and it’s going to take the longest for our industry to recover,” said Maxwell to set the stage for the discussion. “For example, in the first two months of pandemic, we lost 880,000 employees, our unemployment rates reached 30 per cent. That number gives me butterflies — it’s a big number. We experienced huge unemployment rates right off the bat [because] the border closures and the health restrictions directly impacted our businesses.”

She said the fact that hotels had to lay off a lot of staff has caused a lot of issues going forward. “Even two years later, we’re seeing a lot of reputational damage — our industry is now seen as unstable, with many afraid to return to this industry because they’re not sure about it being locked down again and losing their jobs. If you get laid off multiple times, or you don’t figure your job is stable, you’re eventually going to leave the industry or seek out more stable work like factories or warehouses. So now we’re competing with other industries and this is this is going to hinder our recovery.”

Platz agreed, stating people who worked in the hospitality industry “were left with choices to make — are they just going to sit there or are they going to look for alternate means of supporting themselves and their family. And we when we look at the data, a lot of people chose to go back to school and learn new skills and a lot of people chose to altogether leave the industry and try something different. The service sector was a big beneficiary of the outgoing hospitality professionals — things like insurance and finance and government and real estate were big beneficiaries of our loss. And so now we are having to ask ourselves, how do we bring them back and attract new people?”

At ORHMA, Elenis and his team are collaborating with government on a program that will see the hotel industry reaching out directly to communities for staff.

“We’re making a list of community groups and employment services and are engaged in building relationships with them. We’re going to take candidates through training programs, there’ll be a [government]subsidy paid, and then we’re going to bridge them with industry. And there’ll be a subsidy paid to the employer in a collaborative effort with the provincial government. It’s new. It’s been developed now for the last three or four weeks and we’re excited about it.”

“I think we can all agree that every problem we face as a society has always been solved by being innovative,” said Abrams, pointing to companies that have chosen to go out and look for people in areas they hadn’t before, such as people on the autism spectrum. “There are approximately 500,000 working age adults on the spectrum, but only one out of four are gainfully employed. [Employers need to] realize that people that have autism are not disabled. In fact, in some ways, these people are more effective employees as their attention to detail is bar none. So, the question is what programs do we have in place to start looking at non-traditional sources of employees?”

The Housekeeper’s Perspective

The final panel of the day, moderated by Paul Gingras, brought together four housekeeping professions to talk about what is was like to work in Canadian hospitality during pandemic times. Panellists included Yudelkys Avila, Property Service manager at Friday Harbour Resort; Sara Park, assistant executive housekeeper at Chelsea Hotel Toronto; Domnick Pereira, director of Housekeeping at Hazelton Hotel; and Laura Domingues, director of Rooms, Accor.

The biggest challenge to housekeeping departments, shared Pereira, is staffing.

“We’re seeking to employ the best in the industry and it’s also important to retain the people we have. [During the pandemic,] hiring people was just impossible. We needed to make sure that we could offer our guests the same kind of service, which was difficult because of the limited resources we. had. So, we decided that we have put a cap on the number of rooms we offered, so that with the workforce we had, we could provide the service.”

Pandemic challenges accelerated the evolution of technology across all industries, and hotels were no exception. But, said Domingues, although technology such as robotics can help shoulder some of the housekeeper’s load, it will never replace a live human.

“I do believe that technology’s amazing,” she said. “And there’s so many technologies you can utilize to support a team and to make it better and more efficient. But I don’t think we can replace human beings in the housekeeping world quite yet — this isn’t the industry or the division in which we can look at that.”

Gringras wrapped up the session by asking, “If you could change one thing to make your job in housekeeping better, what would it be?”

“I want better understanding of what the housekeeping world is by everyone else,” said Domingues. “That’s why I believe cross training is such an important program in hotels. It inspires our colleagues and our talent, and gives them the opportunity to explore what is out there and what opportunities there might be for them in the future. It also allows everyone else outside housekeeping to understand the complicated and demanding world of housekeeping, which gives extra appreciation for what we do.”

Park said she wanted to see promotions more available to those within the housekeeping department. “During training, [leaders need to be] observing and giving feedback and reviews, so staff can have the opportunity to move up. Especially now that we have young people coming into housekeeping, we need to offer the opportunity to do different jobs and not be stuck in one role their whole career.”

And the winner is…

The 2022 Hotelier Housekeeping Forum wrapped up a jam-packed day of programming with the much-anticipated Housekeeping Awards. Executive Housekeeper of the Year honours went to Gillian Jaramillo from Chelsea Hotel, Toronto, while Yvonne Jarvis from The Westin Harbour Castle Hotel was named Room Attendant of the Year.


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