By Amy Bostock

TORONTO — The Ontario Hospitality Conference — a networking and educational event bringing together accommodation and foodservice industry professionals — took place last week at the Westin Toronto Airport Hotel. Over the two days of the conference, attendees at the inaugural event presented by the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), connected with key industry leaders and suppliers to form new contacts with industry peers and gain insights into key industry issues with actionable take-aways.

The afternoon sessions kicked off with a future-forward look at the role of technology, apps and robots in the foodservice and hospitality industry. Moderated by Ben Leon, director of Restaurant Success (Eastern Canada) at SkipTheDishes, the panel featured Greg Staley from E-Pro Bot, Marilyn Schaffer from XTM Inc. and Dakx Turcotte from UEAT. 

 “Labour challenges clearly outlined that we need to do more with less,” said Leon. “And what does this look like? There’s a concept of a smart restaurant, where emerging tech is replacing traditional methods. You have inventory-management software and forecasting tools, dynamic pricing, companies that are specializing in eliminating food waste, robotic cooking and delivery, ghost kitchens — the list goes on and on. And so, we’ve got a great group of panellists here who are going to shed some light on how their products and businesses can help.”

Staley talked about robotic solutions and how they can help the industry. “Robotics are pretty new to Canada, but they’re really not new around the world. There are about 100,000, active robots servicing different needs within different industries all around the world and that number has been growing at about 30 per cent,” he said, adding Canada is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to implementing robotics.

He also stressed that robots are not here to take people’s jobs, but to make their jobs easier. “If you’re short staffed, the remaining staff then is stretched extremely thin. And those people are stressed out so you risk them getting sick or quitting as well. Our robots really do work as the ultimate assistant — they can save a server 30 to 40 per cent of their time, every single shift.”

The Broken Supply Chain

Moderated by Garth W. Ruggiero from Atlific Hotels, the next panel addressed the main causes of supply-chain challenges in different areas, including food, alcohol beverage and general supplies, and discussed what suppliers are doing to manage through the situation. The panel of experts included Jamie Berryman from Sysco Canada, Todd Barclay of Recipe Unlimited, Vito Curalli from Hilton Supply Management and Joe Cooney from Guest Supply Canada.

Barclay shared that one of the keys to success right now for his company is “just remaining flexible. You have to do what you have to do to make sure the customer has what they need. So, one of the key takeaways for us right now is you have to work together [with your suppliers]. What you need may not be readily available next day, it may be in a week or two. But if you’re flexible, and you can be flexible with your menus, and still stay within your brand standards, be prepared to be nimble and flexible, you’re going to be much less stressed.

Berryman agreed. “Right now, it feels like we’ve gone through every worst-case scenario every day. We go through these different calamities, and we deal with it. So, communication is key — your sales reps are going to be your best friend. They know what’s in the building, and they know what’s coming. We’re seeing our customers focus their menus on fewer items, which means you can leverage your buying power a little bit more and then leverages those items where you’ve got continuity of supply locked down.”

Labour Woes

With labour shortages top of mind for operators across the country, the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel & Motel Association tackled the topic of temporary foreign workers. Speaking at one of the afternoon breakout sessions, a panel featuring Cathryn Sawicki, a lawyer at Serotte Law Canada, Grant Carter, from Living Water Resorts and Christopher Chevrier, Employment Social Development Canada, spoke about recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program as well as parameters on how best to navigate it. As Carter told the packed room, “While it’s not a total panacea for the labour shortages, it is a good solution.”

Sawicki outlined some of the changes recently made to the program and zeroed in on a few key differences between a high-wage Labour Market Impact Assessment, LMIA, and a low wage LMIA, with work permits available for either six months or one year. The LMIA is a document that employers in Canada need to apply for before they can hire a foreign worker.

Carter outlined the necessity of showing proof to the government that there are no local Canadians able to fill the job need to show government that they’ve been advertising the vacancy for before being able to use the program, informing those attending the session that operators also at least four weeks. While the TFW program has been in existence for quite a few years, it’s been criticized for many for being cumbersome and challenging. But recent changes have been applauded by many operators. According to Chevrier, on average it takes 37 business days for an application to be finalized, a reduction in time from the previous 60 days it required, leading him to note, “the process has been much improved.”

Hoteliers can apply for a LMIA through Employment and Social Development Canada and Service Canada. If the department agrees to the need, operators will receive a positive LMIA. The cost of an LMIA application fee is $1,000 per requested position and employers are responsible for the fee and the associate legal service costs.

Following the final Networking & Marketplace Break of the day, where attendees could browse the numerous vendor booths, panellists for the closing session took the stage. Titled Prices Are Up, Quality of Guest Experience Is Down: Balancing the Consumer Value Proposition, the panel of leaders shared approaches to address actionable and practical methods for delivering positive guest experiences though various strategies while still delivering a profitable guest transaction for the business. 

Moderated by Mo Aladin, Peer Guidance Group, the panel included Jonathan Holliwell, Marriott Canada; Margot Swindall, Technomic; Gunjan Kahlon, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts; and Juanita Dickson, Gusto 54 Restaurant Group.

The conversation kicked off with Aladin asking the panellists what keeps them up at night and the consensus was that the biggest challenge they faced was labour.

“We can’t have this conversation unless we talk about the labour tsunami that our industry faced this year,” said Holliwell. “Just to put it in perspective, at Marriott we have about 260 hotels in Canada and more than 50 are currently managed. I just pulled the numbers from those hotels, and pre-COVID there were about 11,000 full-time employees. Since March, coming out of Omicron, those collective hotels have hired 6,500 employees. And so, when you think about that, more than half of our workforce is now only say six months into their job, and there’s a deficit of experience and expertise and knowledge and frankly thinking on your feet in our industry. So, what’s happening now is managers are facing questions we’ve never faced; the amount of time that goes into developing these are these new team members is intense.”

But, he said, this is also an opportunity to re-set things. “If you’ve replaced, let’s say 55 to 60 per cent of your employees, you no longer have a workplace culture, you have a new culture and you got to build it again.”

With labour challenges directly impacting guest experience and consumer demands constantly changing, Aladin next asked the panel, ‘is the customer always right?”

“If you asked me that about five years ago, I would have said our culture is based around an exceptional customer experience and the return customer,” said Dickson. “All of our businesses are based on repeat customers so we do a lot of training on ensuring that guests coming in the doors are well taken care of. What we’ve seen throughout COVID is a general change in consumer behaviour and anger management — it’s become very different — and so what we’ve had to really embrace as a company is balancing the employee experience with the guest experience. So, we’ve built a business that happy people make people happy, and the customer’s always right, but what happens when your customer is now [harassing] your employee that is impossible to retain, and now you need to protect that employee experience? And so, we’ve seen a shift in the way we manage and the way we train and the way we deal with conflict resolution but it requires balance.”

Click here to read coverage of the Ontario Hospitality Conference morning sessions.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.