HB on the Scene: Leaders talk labor, other hurdles at Lodging

The Lodging Conference—held this year at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix—always gives hospitality professionals a chance to catch up, share industry insight and even have a little fun. This year was no exception.

On day one, the general session covered industry challenges and leaders’ outlooks on them. While labor remains top of mind, the scope of that challenge is shifting.

Moderated by Chip Rogers, president/CEO, AHLA, the panelists included Arash Azarbarzin, CEO, Highgate; Michael J. Deitemeyer, president/CEO, Aimbridge Hospitality; Greg Juceam, president/CEO, Extended Stay America; Justin Knight, CEO, Apple Hospitality REIT Inc.; Gilda Perez-Alvarado, global CEO, JLL Hotels & Hospitality; and Mit Shah, CEO, Noble Investment Group.

The conversation inevitably began with the staffing shortage, and the leaders said they were all optimistic about that issue lessening as travel returns and as leaders find ways to alleviate some stress points.

“I think we have incredibly interesting dynamics for our industry right now,” Knight said. “We’re at a point now where we’re relatively close to where we need to be from a staffing standpoint. We still struggle with labor but in different ways than we were struggling six months ago, when the biggest challenge was getting people to show up for an interview or they accept the job and they wouldn’t show up for their first day of work. But, we’re moving past that now.”

Deitemeyer agreed and also noted things that Aimbridge is doing to increase employee retention.

“It’s getting better—there are certainly signs,” he said. “In our world, we’re focused on trying to appeal to a broader segment of the population. We’re working on a lot of employee-type programs, scheduling [and] flexibility. We’re also trying to change the profiles of some of the people we hire and broaden it. When you think of economy or more extended-stay hotels, through AI and business analytics and tools, people can focus on just the customer interaction.”

Azarbarzin mentioned other ways of combating the crisis like incentives for employees if they refer friends, but his focus specifically was on another industry challenge.

“[Retention] is a much bigger part of our job today than it was two or three years ago, but for me, personally, ESG is going to be a much bigger thing for us to look at,” he said. “All the experts said when we’ll be done with this crisis…[ESG] should be a focus for all of us.”

Perez-Alvarado brought up other concerns, which focused largely on owners, but also the guests.

“We’re playing a very dangerous game with workforce dynamics and the negative impact it’s having on the most valuable investment markets in the United States—in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles,” she said. “The worst part is there are no free market dynamics right now. All the currents are basically against each other. The lack of cooperation from labor unions with owners who provide these jobs…that’s a big area of concern. Something’s got to give, and we’re nowhere on immigration, so we’re stuck.”

Shah remains optimistic that 2023 will bring full recovery, adding, “It might not be the first part of next year, but as we get to the second half or middle of next year.”

Juceam agreed, with confidence in his segment but also bullish about the industry as a whole. He believes the industry will fully recover by the second half of 2023—possibly by the end of Q3 but maybe Q4.

“We’ve all tried to help each other and do our part but the hardest part is that the goal post keeps moving,” he said.