A decade ago, guests arriving at an Accent Inn in British Columbia would have discovered that some of the hotel’s rooms were unavailable. Hotel administration told guests the rooms were under renovation, but the problem was actually a dire housekeeping labour shortage. “It was demotivating to the team knowing that, ‘Wow, here’s a room we could sell, but we’re not [going to], because we’ve got no one to clean it,’” recalls Mandy Farmer, Victoria-based Accent Inns’ president and CEO, who was VP at the time of the labour shortfall. “It was a great lesson; I never want that to happen again.”

Lessons in labour have been critical pieces of the hotel administration oeuvre, but perhaps no more so than today. With hotels of all stripes committing to branding initiatives designed to create memorable guest experiences, customer service emerges as the most compelling differentiator and, with it, a call for a fresh focus on industry personnel.

“It seems everybody is into branding and design now and consumers have more options than ever,” says Brendan Gibney, director of Franchise Operations at Mississauga, Ont.-based Choice Hotels Canada. “That means they expect better service, and the quality of staff is more important than it used to be.” There’s no shortage of hospitality manpower, he qualifies, but the trick is finding quality sales- and service-focused staff. That means finding individuals who can cater to customers’ needs and simultaneously capitalize on sales opportunities.

It helps to encourage employees by including them in decisions and keeping them abreast of company developments and goals, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. “Empowerment can be tricky,” Gibney concedes. “You’re not going to include every front-desk agent in every business process meeting, but they need to be part of the process.” This ultimately benefits the customer who wants a front-desk attendant who’s capable of making immediate decisions.

But the inherent seasonality in many markets adds a layer of complexity and demands hyper-vigilant attention to labour costs. “You can’t hire everybody to work 40 hours, five days, every week of the year,” says Gibney. Rather, his company has invested heavily in cross-training. For example, an employee might combine a couple of part-time jobs to make a full-time job, working three days a week in the breakfast room and two days in the laundry room. It’s a win-win solution — filling a hotel’s vacant positions, while fulfilling a worker’s need for full-time employment.

The characteristics of the generation moving through the workforce now are also creating challenges. Gen-Y hospitality program grads, eager to climb the corporate ladder swiftly, aren’t excited about stepping into front-line roles, notes Erin Haid, talent development manager at Toronto-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Canada.

Indeed, opportunity for swift advancement is the most important factor in retaining employees today, confirms James Lockhart, president of Group Lockhart Inc., a London, Ont.-based benefits brokerage specializing in hospitality. Citing data from the 2013 “Using Benefits to Attract Workers” report for the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council in Ottawa, he points out that the likelihood of retention increases by more than 230 per cent when employees are given promotion opportunities. “In fact, opportunity for advancement is even more crucial than offering a competitive wage, which increases the likelihood of retention by just 82 per cent,” he says.

At Starwood, managers forge partnerships to offset the challenge of attracting entry-level employees. For example, they work with municipal organizations involved in job-development for disabled workers. “These are individuals who classically have very low employment,” explains Haid.

Once a trusted team is established, the focus turns to retention. One strategy would be aligning compensation with performance. For most branded hotels, 45 or 50 per cent of sales takes place at the front desk, notes Choice’s Gibney. Bonuses predicated on front-desk personnel’s success encourage them to exercise this muscle. “And, when you engage your associates, they’re going to be more committed [to upselling],” he adds.

Incentives and rewards are also key to keeping employees happy, an objective that’s particularly challenging among housekeeping staff. “Cleaning 16 rooms a day, five days a week, is the hardest job in the world,” says Gibney, who thanks his employee group with bonuses that celebrate hard work, such as Tim Hortons gift cards for high “cleanliness scores” and loyalty points that accumulate for bigger prizes.

Accent Hotels’ Farmer has addressed staff retention issues by incorporating fun and playfulness into the company culture, a mandate that involves management training. This approach has led to potluck lunches, staff parties and handwritten notes with pay stubs from management. The 175 employees at her six hotels (Victoria’s Hotel Zed and Accent Inns in Victoria, Vancouver airport and three others in B.C.) also engage in development games with prizes.

At Choice, open communication is a key to keeping hotel staffers engaged. At its big hotels, shift briefings keep incoming employees apprised of occupancies, guest ratings and incoming guests. Smaller properties use a “briefing book” to keep employees connected.

In addition to town halls, newsletters and regular confidential surveys, Starwood connects with its associates through an Intranet site packed with financial news and messages from the CEO. And the Starwood News Network internal video system broadcasts hotel campaigns, brand-specific services and community news on “talking billboards” displayed throughout employee-only areas of the hotel.

Training and development is a perennial concern for hoteliers, who are responding with innovation. Choice associates have access to Choice University, an online training program featuring instruction on everything from the fundamentals of housekeeping to front-desk sales and loyalty programs. And employees from the corporation’s 360 hotels are invited to dial in on Webinar Wednesdays for a free 20-minute presentation produced for various training categories. The webinars are then posted on the Intranet site.

Listening to staff is key, too. After hearing too many stories about how employees leave big-brand hotels in response to bureaucracy and “a lot of stupid rules,” Farmer fostered more in-house authenticity. “We don’t make our people follow scripts,” she says. “We encourage them to be who they are, to be friendly, to be genuine. That feels better to them.”

Overall, whether improving communication, training and development, or rewarding a job well done, attention to detail enhances the employee experience. “What our employees take away is a huge priority for our operation,” says Starwood’s Haid. “How we treat them influences how they feel when they’re here. If they feel good, it creates motivation and passion, and the guests are the [beneficiaries]. Fundamentally, and truly, everything we do is based on that truth.”


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