HB on the Scene: Culture tops conversation at Humanist roundtable

CHATTANOOGA, TN—During the latest Hotel Business roundtable discussion held here, leaders gathered to discuss two issues that are top of mind for hoteliers, which just happen to go hand-in-hand: creating a positive company culture and managing the labor crisis.

Hosted and sponsored by Humanist Hospitality at The Edwin Hotel, Autograph Collection, the panel included Ravi Patel, president, Hawkeye Hotels; Del Ross, chief revenue officer, Hotel Effectiveness; Chip Rogers, president/CEO, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA); Jim McPartlin, chief people officer, Highgate; Greg Bohan, instructor, Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, Florida Atlantic University; Todd Orlich, VP, operations, Virgin Hotels; Kelley Jones, founder/COO, Hospitality Alliance; David Martin, COO, Humanist Hospitality; and O’Mally Foster, VP, culture and talent resources, Humanist Hospitality.

Moderated by Christina Trauthwein, VP, content & creative, Hotel Business, and Allen Rolleri, VP, business development & operations, Hotel Business, the conversation began with culture and its connection to retaining workforce.

“The companies that got culture before [COVID] are in an incredible position because they get it; the other ones now get to see that culture is not just hand waving, culture’s actually a thing, you can decide to do this,” Ross said. “We are on the cusp of being so much better than we were. At conferences, you hear CEOs of hotel companies and analysts ask, ‘When do you think we’ll get back to 2019?’ We do not want to go back to 2019. At least on a people front. We had the worst turnover we’ve ever had in history—prior to last spring—in 2019. We couldn’t hang onto anybody. We had problems with wages, with quality, with loyalty. We have an opportunity to revitalize this industry and make it everything it can be while still maintaining its roots.”

The panelists agreed that hospitality’s roots are something well worth clinging to as they’re the reason they became a part of the industry themselves. The issue, however, is communicating that effectively with potential associates.

“A lot of the mission and vision and values of the organization going back to even the ’60s and ’70s are exactly as they have always been,” Orlich said. “What’s changed for us is how we deliver that message to our colleagues, and it has to be much more personalized, much more detailed and specific to their needs and what they are interested in learning about. It has to be put in the context of their own growth and development. ‘What’s in this for me?'”

The workforce has certainly shifted, especially in the past two years, adapting to a more remote world, but also one that is highly personalized and adaptable to their needs.

“We’ve broken the trust. All employers have broken the trust of our employees. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out how to rebuild that in our own individual way. Individualism is probably the key differentiator that we need to identify with. People’s needs have all changed and their view of our organization and their view of their loyalty has changed,” Martin said, explaining that upward mobility is another key to job satisfaction for employees, not just compensation or being comfortable, but continuing to learn and feeling like they’re contributing.

Associate development is paramount for Patel and Hawkeye Hotels, and the company does a full assessment of all employees of where they want to be in the short- and long-term.

“We hear our associates saying all of the time that at least they know if they start as a housekeeper and they want to be an exec or a general manager, there’s a plan for them,” he said. “If they tell us day one coming into our organization, ‘I’m good starting here, but here’s where I want to be,’ those are the people we want working within our organization. We’re very deliberately developmental of our associates.”

Aside from working with employees to map out growth and development, a major hurdle is acquiring new and loyal workers. So, how do companies get the messaging out successfully? How do they communicate about an industry that was just decimated by a pandemic?

“Our students are coming into a world that I have been, and all the faculty have been telling them is this wonderful life in the hospitality industry but it’s like a recency error the last two years they’ve heard nothing but horror stories, and they’re like, ‘Why are we getting into this?’ What we’ve been trying to tell them is the world has changed completely,” Bohan said.

According to Bohan, a lot of his students feel they have already paid their dues, already working full-time, and do not want to do undesirable tasks like picking up the worst shifts with low pay, doing night audits and taking out the garbage.

What the industry needs to keep reminding the younger workforce about is the foundation upon which the industry was built and still thrives: its people.

“I’m an ex-Disney person from the ’80s and to paraphrase Walt Disney, he said, ‘You can build the most amazing place in the world but it takes people to make it a reality,'” McPartlin said. “I remember the glamour and the crazy shifts…there was all that and more, but generationally that’s changed. So now we have to tap into what we do to make it seem fun and like magic.”

Jones recommends also tapping into current associates for insight.

“There’s an old saying that it’s easier to give birth than to resurrect,” he said. “Integrating the culture and hiring a new team member, they don’t know any other way than the way you train them. I learned something at 14 years old bussing tables: managers think they know what’s going on in the operation. If you want to know what’s going on, ask the team, they’re in the operation every single day.”

Panelists also noted the importance of communicating job importance to employees, which can be accomplished in effective, consistent check-in conversations.

“Lightbulbs that go off that it’s not just this task,” Foster said. “[Employees think] you’re talking to me, you’re investing in me. Because we’ve made it so one-on-one—that humanistic approach that’s happening—that’s where I’m seeing the success in this.”

Being positive yet realistic is also something more tangible for associates. Rogers said that telling stories of attainable opportunities is key for young people looking at hospitality careers.

“If you’re a 17-year-old, a junior in high school, and think about what career am I going to go into and you can tell that kid, ‘Well you can start as a dishwasher and you may end up as a CEO,’ they’ll think, ‘Yeah well I can also play in the NBA,'” he said. “But if you tell them, here are the five steps it’s going to take you within 8-10 years, if you do these things, you can be in this position making $150,000 a year, to them that’s a ton of money and to them that makes sense. Those are the stories we have to do a better job of telling.”

Pictured above, left to right: Kelley Jones, Chip Rogers, David Martin, Greg Bohan, O’Mally Foster, Del Ross, Todd Orlich, Ravi Patel, Jim McPartlin and Mitch Patel. Credit: Daisy Moffatt Photography.

Look for more roundtable coverage in the April issue of Hotel Business.