“I am finishing my 45th year in the business and the group of people I have the most respect for is housekeepers,” declares Philippe Gadbois, SVP, Operations for Atlific Hotels. “Not only do they do a tough job,” he points out, but “guests are unforgiving about areas of hotels that are not clean.”

A single hair in the sink or a mark on the pillow can compromise an otherwise perfect stay. “It can change your whole perception, even of the whole city. Housekeeping touches every single aspect of the guests’ stay,” says Lina Gavino, senior director of Housekeeping for the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto. “Housekeeping is evolving; now it’s about connecting with the guests. A lot of guests work from their rooms; we get to know their preferences. You’d be surprised how many guests nowadays leave us thank-you notes.”

In fact, housekeeping and laundry have never been more intently scrutinized. “Warren Buffett said ‘it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.’ With the world we live in now, it can be as quick as taking a photo and posting it on TripAdvisor,” says Graeme Jenkins, senior director of Hotel Operations with Pomeroy Lodging, which owns and manages properties in Western Canada, including the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, an Autograph Collection hotel in Kananaskis, Alta.

“In my opinion, there’s no more important piece of business than a clean room,” Jenkins adds. “[Guests] can probably get over a front-desk agent being short with them or not being able to find a parking space, but, if a room is dirty, it speaks volumes about the management. We answer all of our reviews — good, bad or otherwise — on Google, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Booking.com. Feedback is a gift — whether it’s positive or negative, we can see where a business is starting to slide and where a business is starting to correct.”

“Every hotel probably has those situations,” says Anthony Mckenzie, director of Housekeeping at One King West Hotel and Residence in Toronto. “We try to contact the guest and make it right; make the changes we have to do in-house and ask them to come back.”

“If a customer complains about something, investigate it. If it’s true, ‘fess up,” says Gadbois. “I like to use those issues as training opportunities. The basic premise of our business is a clean, comfortable night’s sleep, so we’d better get that right.”

New technology is making it easier to cover the basics. For instance, the hotel-operations platform Alice can be used in conjunction with the Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch, so housekeeping staff can be connected with management even when they literally have their hands full.

The Pomeroy Kananaskis uses the Plus Manager maintenance system, which allows room attendants to flag problems with lights, plumbing or room temperature using iPads. “It reduces the paper trail and not only tracks productivity with maintenance, but also gives them an electronic database on how often they’ve been in that room,” says Jenkins. “Our managers get what we call an Innkeeper’s Report. We run a cost-per-room — that’s an essential piece of the business, knowing where we are each day — forecasting labour, projecting what we need,” he explains, adding attendants’ productivity relies on managers’ ability to track details and provide necessary equipment and supplies efficiently.

For instance, says Jenkins, “Having the right inventory is absolutely key to running an effective laundry operation. We’ll run a three-par in our hotel, knowing we have enough that we’re not going to slow the staff down and the lockers are well stocked at all times.”

“We use HotSOS and REX (Room Expeditor),” says Mckenzie. “All our assignments are on an iPad. REX connects directly with Opera [PMS], so you can see if the guest is still there or checking out. When [attendants] click on the room they’re cleaning, I can see that they’re in that room. With HotSOS, they have the opportunity to say this room needs a tissue holder, or something needs to be repaired; it automatically goes to maintenance or our houseman.”

“Nowadays [attendants] can bring their own iPads and communication is so efficient that we don’t waste any time finding the room attendant,” says Gavino, adding managers have more time for “interacting with attendants [and] doing training, which we weren’t able to before because we were on the computer doing a lot of administrative tasks.”

Also key to productivity is staffing. “My biggest focus is to hire the right people,” Gavino explains. “You can teach someone how to make a bed, how to clean, but you can’t teach them attitude — to care, to exceed expectations. We have a long process of interviews. We do a lot of in-room training; we do a lot of communications to shape the way people will behave on the floors.”

“We refer to our housekeeping team as the Clean Team,” says Jenkins, who often has to compete with the oil-and-gas industries for employees. “Part of that program is to engage people. We conduct monthly and quarterly inspections focused on the room product.”

Inspections are tied to a point system and teams with the best scores are recognized with annual service-and-achievement awards. “Not only does the team receive a trophy, but each team member receives $250 in cash; that alone engages a lot of winning attitude,” he says.

In hotel-dense Toronto, Mckenzie attracts people to his establishment by “allow[ing] them to understand the hotel itself, the meaning behind it and the history.” He also works with the Hospitality Workers Centre, which is run through a non-profit organization. “They bring people in who may have been less fortunate in finding a job. They do a training seminar with them and then, once [candidates] graduate, they do training. If we know they could be an asset to the company, we’ll hire them,” he explains.

Considering how much contact housekeeping staff have with guests, when it comes to training, “it’s a fine line between giving too much rope and not enough,” says Jenkins. “We realize, as managers and leaders, that you can’t be everywhere all the time. Housekeeping is the heartbeat of the hotel; they are the eyes and ears of the organization. [Their] feedback is super important.”

At One King West, “I share all feedback from all of our guests; we really want to instill a sense of pride in all of our staff. Each week we touch on a health-and-safety message, whether it’s snow safety, lifting or spills. We want to talk about safety consistently; I encourage them to give feedback,” says Mckenzie.

“In Kananasksis, we have a closed-door policy: when housekeeping staff are in the room, they close the door. In our other properties, we ensure the cart is parked in front of the door and keys are only given to people on that reservation,” he adds.

At Toronto’s Four Seasons, a training game called “What will you do?” gives staff confidence to make the right decisions in situations such as being asked to let someone into a room. “We always remind them what the right answer is and the reason why we want them to say that…not only for their safety, but for the guests’ safety,” says Gavino.

Management has a responsibility to back up attendants when guests cross a line, says Gadbois. Should a guest make an attendant feel unsafe, “there are processes,” he says, “up to and including assault. Depending on the situation, we’ll ask the guest to leave or call the police. If we can’t ensure the safety of our employees, we’re not going to stay in business.”

“Housekeeping is not only about cleaning rooms; it’s about the people that touch every single guest,” says Gavino. “My internal guests — my employees — are the most important part of my day. If I look after them, they will look after my guests. It’s not only a job, you have to be passionate.”

Written by Sarah B. Hood


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