TORONTO —Close to 120 housekeeping professions gathered last week at the Chelsea Hotel Toronto for Hotelier magazine’s Housekeeping Forum — an annual event for the ever-important hotel housekeeping department. The afternoon sessions included a keynote address from industry veteran Nicole Stewart from the Fairmont Royal York as well as panels focused on how the pandemic has changed how hotels run the housekeeping department, as well as how to ensure your housekeeping team is mentally and physically healthy. Hotelier’s editor/publisher, Rosanna Caira, also handed out the highly anticipated Executive Housekeeper of the Year and Room Attendant of the Year awards.
A Journey of Learning
Following lunch, Nicole Stewart, assistant director, Talent & Culture (HR) for the Fairmont Royal York, delivered the keynote address. Titled Beyond Housekeeping, Stewart’s address took attendees along for the ride as she recounted her journey from working on a cruiseship to being part of housekeeping departments at some of Canada’s top hotels and finally to her current role at the iconic Royal York in Toronto. She shared how every experience she had in the industry provided valuable learnings that helped propel her career.
“I truly love the chaos of housekeeping and it’s one that I will never forget,” she said. “It was scary at first, fitting into a new career track, but once I did, I realized how many transferable skills I gained through housekeeping leadership and I knew I would succeed with throughout my career.”
She also had words of advice for attendees. “I encourage you to approach your professional journey in the passion, determination and a growth mindset,” she said. “Embrace challenges, invest in continuous learning, build meaningful relationships, maintain a healthy work-life balance — whatever that looks like for you — and uphold integrity. Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint — a successful result of a consistent effort and perseverance. I wish you all the best in your careers. And I look forward to witnessing your achievements.”
Choosing Health and Wellness
The second panel of the afternoon, Choosing Health and Wellness, delved into how hotels are carving out new wellness programs to provide housekeepers with the mental and physical energy they require while keeping them healthy and happy.
Moderated by Nicole Di Tomasso, assistant editor of Hotelier magazine, the panel included Liana Carniello, director of Human Resources at The Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel; Dr. Khush Amaria, senior clinical director at CloudMD (formerly MindBeacon) and CBT Associates; and Wayne Carrington, instructor/facilitator at the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC). Together, the panellists identified wellness and training programs and initiatives offered at each of their organizations.
“The month of May for Marriott International is many things, such as Associate Appreciation Week, but it’s also the month we’re designating as Mental Health Awareness Month to get the conversation going. Our CEO, Anthony Capuano, will be hosting a live Town Hall for everyone to dial in to talk about it at the senior level,” said Carniello. “At the property level, we’re being challenged to find spaces where our team members can take a pause. We have a room at the hotel called the Mental Well-Being Centre, which is currently getting a face lift. It’s a place where housekeepers, and all departments, can go before or after work. The only rules are no food and beverage and no noise.”
Additionally, Carniello said the hotel works with various platforms, such as Equilibrium, which allows staff to download inspirational quotes and affirmations and seek training for both physical and mental wellbeing, alongside the traditional Employee Assistance Programs and organized benefits.
At HWTC, coaching and training sessions are available for those who are interested finding work in the hospitality industry. “We ensure our job seekers are in the right mindset and that they feel encouraged as they come into the industry, offering our support in any capacity,” said Carrington.
“One in five Canadians struggle with their mental health,” said Dr. Amaria. “CloudMD is a workplace health and benefits association. We want to make sure, whether you’re leading it from a HR perspective or just a leader out there working every day, that you can understand what might be available to you because help and support for mental wellness can come in various [ways.] It doesn’t have to be a sit down office visit, which might not always be accessible for everyone. Specifically, our iCBT program is designed for the everyday person, if they’re working shifts or long hours, to be able to access digital services and support for trauma, anxiety, depression, et cetera.”
The panellists also discussed how to initiate difficult conversations about mental health, how to create and maintain healthy work environments and opportunities to address mental-health disparities in different communities.
“Connection is key,” said Carrington. “Ensure that you’re checking in with your housekeeping teams, maintaining relationships with staff, reading their ques/body language to see if anything has changed and creating a safe space for discussion. If it’s not you they’re able to talk to, highlight the issue to the HR team.”
Dr. Amaria said leaders who “walk the talk can really change the psychological wellbeing of a workplace. When they talk honestly about their own mental wellbeing, their own struggles and the ways in which they coped, the less stigmatizing it is and the easier it is for everyone to be honest about how they’re feeling.”
Dr. Amaria also highlighted a tool called BeThere.org, which offers a few golden rules on how to support others. “If you’re worried about somebody, simply say what you see, do something to show you care, offer to hear them out on their time and connect them with somebody who can help,” she said. “And, different communities have different mental-health experiences. It comes down to a cultural mistrust of healthcare providers and includes not being able to resonate with those who are providing help. But people can request to speak to someone who looks like them or comes from an immigrant background.”
Additionally, the panellists touched on flex hours, which could be a combination of short shifts, flexible shift patterns and fun perks, as a solution for the current labour crisis.
“Marriott International is piloting programs at the hourly level called Flexible Work Arrangement, and this includes housekeeping. We need to get better at working through a part-time model, and saying okay to working four hours in the evening or only on the weekends,” said Carniello. “We also need the communication so our senior associates understand the differences in scheduling. It’s great that we’re seeing more people from younger generations coming into housekeeping, specifically more males and students who want to move up.”
The panel wrapped up with some strategies anybody could implement to manage stress and improve their overall wellbeing, which included identifying warning signs, socializing, daily self-checks, listening to music, exercising, humor and more.
Creating a Winning Culture
The final panel of the day, Creating a Winning Culture, featured four general managers who discussed the role of the housekeeping department by focusing on recruitment and retention strategies, morale boosters and a new appreciation for the role of housekeeper.
Moderated by Rosanna Caira, editor/publisher of Hotelier magazine, the panel included Jennifer Belanger, GM, Bruce Hotel; Patrick Cappa, GM, The Omni King Edward Hotel; Paul de La Durantaye, regional director – Ontario, Germain Hotels; and Catherine Velie, GM, W Toronto.
Generally speaking, Cappa said the role of the housekeeper hasn’t changed over the course of the pandemic. “We certainly went through a big transition working with skeleton staff, adapting to a changing marketplace and addressing the heightened awareness from guests about cleanliness,” said Cappa. “However, I think most hoteliers and housekeeping teams would say they haven’t changed or started cleaning any better than they did before. These teams have always prided themselves on what they’ve done and how they do it, day in and day out, which is a very demanding job as we all know. I think guests are being a little more critical whereas before they were perhaps more forgiving. It’s more guests that have changed rather than our cleaning practices, and they hold us to task.”
Belanger agreed. “We’re following the lead of what the guest wants and their level of comfort. We’ve been able to bring back most of our services,” she said.
In terms of recruitment and retention strategies, Velie said there’s an increased focus on training. “Can we train this person? In the past, we looked for somebody who was more experienced, but now we ask ourselves if this person has what we’re looking for, do they have the right attitude to do it and can we give them the training that they need?” she said. “Speed is the key, and we have to be very active to find them.”
The GMs mentioned visiting colleges and universities, partnering with organizations who work with new Canadians to promote career opportunities and implementing referral programs as some of the ways to find new workers. Additionally, in this new environment, the GMs identified labour shortages, supply chain, an aging workforce and diffusing negative workplace discussions as some major challenges affecting their housekeeping departments.
To boost morale and minimize stresses for people in the housekeeping department, de La Durantaye said employees at Germain Hotels have access to a fitness centre and the quiet room, which is sometimes an empty suite or meeting room. “Most importantly, make sure the team feels heard. Sometimes stress just needs to be vocalized. Sometimes there’s no action to take, they just need to voice it to someone,” he added.
“As senior leaders, we can get caught up in our reports and meetings, but where the magic happens is in our hotels and on the guest floors and public areas. By us being there, it sets the tone and makes a difference at the end of the day for support as well as making sure we’re doing things right.”
The discussion wrapped up with panellists offering their advice to those in the room who were interested becoming GMs.
“Perseverance, hard work and don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone,” said Cappa. “Make your intentions known and try to participate in as many experiences as you can. We don’t have all the skills. I wouldn’t pretend to know all the different departments in our hotel and certainly not have the expertise in all of them, but I’d say we all have a solid understanding of what it looks like. That allows us to support and understand the job is being done right. We can’t be threatened by that.”
“Operate with integrity. Don’t tolerate more than what you expect,” said Belanger. “If something doesn’t feel right in a meeting, say it but say it professionally. Be positive, be a light to people, know your facts, think critically and be kind.”
And the winner is…
The day closed off with the announcement of the Room Attendant of the Year and Executive Housekeeping of the Year award winners.
Room Attendant of the Year was Margaret Manswell from Toronto’s Omni King Edward, while Executive Housekeeper of the Year honours went to Jennifer Plourde from Quebec’s Le Chateau Montebello.