By Moneesh Arora
C-Suite leaders from across the industry joined Unifocus for an executive roundtable discussion alongside last month’s AAHOACON conference in Los Angeles to discuss the single challenge most prominent on the minds of owners, franchisees and hotel brands: The cost and availability of labor, and finding new ways to staff hotels creatively.
We were pleased to welcome media influencer Glenn Haussman as co-moderator for the discussion, which touched on hotel staffing challenges, the place and purpose of new technology, how hospitality is evolving to overcome these disruptions, and more.
Here is a summary of some of the findings:
Recruiting and retaining
Securing and retaining frontline workers has always been a challenge. In the current economic environment, the competition has reached a near frenzy pitch.
According to one operator at the roundtable, the level of competition for labor will only increase further, as operators rethink the elements that entice workers to join the industry.
“At this point, offering $15 an hour isn’t enough incentive [to retain people],” he said. “We are talking to owners about ways to entice new workers to join hospitality, and some are looking at offering health benefits, paid time off and other elements that are not typically seen in a traditional hospitality environment.”
According to another hotel commercial leader, one problem is that the current selection of hotel operations positions available fails to appeal to workers in the same way that it used to, with technology innovation as an increasingly important element.
“We have deployed kiosks at a number of our hotels to assist front desk operations, and in most cases, it isn’t necessary to have someone physically present at the front desk unless an issue is escalated to management,” he said. “With the cost of hiring, training and retaining these workers on the rise, it’s time to get creative, more creative than ever before in finding ways to make job description and duties more attractive and fulfilling.”
In many ways, hoteliers have a lot to learn from the success and creativity of the gig economy.
Roundtable participant James Turnbull, director, operational finance, KSL Resorts, said that watching his company’s operating workforce drop to just a few hundred individuals during the pandemic caused a material shift in how it approaches recruitment and retention.
“The main takeaway from the success of the gig economy is scheduling flexibility and how we can apply that to hospitality,” Turnbull said. “More workers today are open to the option of a two- to four-hour shift rather than being locked into an eight-hour shift behind the front desk. When we get that right, we can embrace further flexibility, such as allowing workers to move between properties as well, allowing hotels to share staff.”
According to Raja Goel, partner, Highgate Technology Ventures/Highgate Hotels, many hotel leaders have begun experimenting with advanced business intelligence tools capable of automating key operational sticking points, such as doing away with the night audit.
“Our next area of focus is the guest experience,” Goel said. “For the last 10 years, we have focused a lot on improving distribution technology, now we are also turning our attention to the stay and post-stay experience by cutting out as many repeatable tasks that are a wedge against retention.”
While these investments are valuable in the long run, several roundtable participants cautioned against relying on technology exclusively. “Many people across the industry are fascinated by artificial intelligence and other buzzwords, but so many of our operational challenges can be solved by better communication,” said one leader. “If a family of four books a guestroom and they find only three towels in the bathroom, that simply shouldn’t happen. In that case, we already have all the information we need to provide the best experience, and technology is an overcompensation.”
Turnbull agreed. “Right now, we are struggling against an overload of technology,” he said. “One of our properties was being supported by 48 separate systems, and a reservation agent typically needs to interface with 11 of those throughout their shift.”
Hotel tech systems are still largely siloed and more needs to be done to connect the systems so the PMS shares full data with operations management systems.
Call for unity
Amid the discussion about labor, several owners participating at the neighboring AAHOACON conference lamented the increasingly fractured nature of the hospitality industry in addressing critical issues. Without a national campaign promoting career success in hospitality, supported unilaterally by brands, franchisees and technology leaders, one said the younger generation would remain uninterested in joining the industry.
“We as hoteliers are offering a career, not just a job, and as it relates to advocacy, there is so much more that unites us as an industry, regardless of where you stand,” he said. “It’s surprising that today we cannot gather member-driven organizations to declutter the issues impacting our bottom line.”
Before the industry can unite on major issues such as these, it must find a way to bring itself together in smaller ways—such as reducing the steep learning curve associated with technology such as property management systems. George Limbert, president, Red Roof, said overcoming this challenge was one of his earliest goals since becoming leader of the company in 2021.
“When I became president of Red Roof, I started to visit each of our properties,” he said. “During one of those visits, a franchisee told me it typically took 30 days before new workers felt comfortable using the PMS to check in guests. This led us to invest in tech leader HotelKey because their system reportedly takes three hours to train new workers.”
New kinds of hospitality careers
A great deal of emphasis has been placed on raising worker wages, but this may not be a silver bullet. Lina Patel, a leading spokesperson for women’s issues in the AAHOA community and now director of strategic franchise initiatives at Red Roof, said that despite raising worker pay as high as $30 per hour, it can still be a challenge to fill some positions on property.
“We can pay $50 an hour, but people don’t want to make a career out of cleaning bathrooms,” she said. “People want a more glorified position, so we need to provide routes for growth and flexibility. Additionally, there are many international workers who would be more than willing to fill these positions.”
Several participants acknowledged that the industry’s treatment of workers at the beginning of the pandemic may have damaged hospitality’s ability to attract talented employees for fear their position may be in jeopardy.
One said that hotels need to focus on new sources for workers, starting with universities. “I believe in hospitality schools because these students are looking to build careers in this space,” she said. “After that, tech comes into play.”
The bottom line for the group seemed to be that in spite of intractable problems, a rising tide of frustration and cost can be met—if only the industry and its key players can cohere around a mission of worker improvement enhancement, spurred by innovative technology.
“The answers are all here,” concluded one participant. “It’s up to us as thought leaders to discover them, refine them and present them industrywide.”
Glenn Haussmann, No Vacancy Podcast (co-moderator)
Michael Frenkel, Travel Conversations LLC
George Limbert, president, Red Roof
James Turnbull, director of operational finance, KSL Resorts
Azim Saju, CEO, HDG Hotels
Raja Goel, partner, Highgate Technology Ventures/Highgate Hotels
Vinay Patel, founder/CEO, Fairbrook Hotels/immediate past chair, AAHOA
Gautam R, head of commercial, STAYCAL Hotels
Mohamed Throwfek, EVP, Westmont Hotels & Resorts
Lina Patel, Days Inn/Red Roof
Tejal Patel – Leading women’s spokesperson, AAHOA, multi-property franchise owner
Moneesh Arora, CEO, Unifocus (co-moderator)