The Next Wave Educating tomorrow’s hospitality leaders

NEW YORK—Educating tomorrow’s hospitality leaders has never been easy, but today, with unemployment at historic lows, attracting and maintaining talent is one of the industry’s top challenges. With a new approach, more mentoring and a better understanding of a diverse workforce, the hospitality industry—its leaders in particular—can set the industry up for a prosperous future.

Such was the topic of conversation at the latest Hotel Business roundtable, sponsored and hosted by The Wall Street Journal, and co-moderated by Hotel Business’ Editor-in-Chief Christina Trauthwein and Publisher Allen Rolleri. The roundtable brought together a range of industry leaders—as well as rising stars in their organizations.

“I think we’ve got to tell the story,” said Brian Quinn, VP, head of development, new-construction brands, Choice Hotels International Inc. “The brands, the management companies, the ownership companies and the associations have to tell the story because it is a unique industry. A lot of us have been on this amazing journey, and it creates great experiences and has the potential to create wealth. It’s a pretty fun, exciting business, but we’ve got to tell the story because sometimes it doesn’t break through.”

Often, telling the story is the hardest part for everybody in the industry. For instance, the potential danger of brand proliferation has been a consistent theme over the years—and with good reason.

“You know, this idea of the brands telling the story… We were just having a conversation on Monday, over at NYU [the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, held days before the roundtable], about the proliferation of brands,” said Kathleen Flores, EVP, Trump Hotels. “How do you tell a story when there are literally hundreds of brands now? How do you differentiate, even just on the point of attracting talent?” 

The story the industry has tried to sell to talent over the years has practically remained the same, but now, a younger generation—one with its own needs—is yearning for more. “A lot of young professionals who grew up in a motel, we saw our parents cleaning rooms at night,” said Nishant (Neal) Patel, secretary of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) and managing partner at Blue Chip Hotels. “We saw them doing laundry. We wore every single hat in that motel, and we did not want to do the same thing, but now it’s important for us to educate our young professionals that there’s more to it. There’s more to this industry than what you saw 20 years ago or 30 years ago, [so we need to] educate them and tell them that they can be in management. They can be in finance. They can be in everything associated with the industry.”

Even though, at times, it may seem like all is lost when trying to attract new talent, there’s still hope.

Accepting the following is simply the first step to recruiting in 2019 and years to come: Pitching the industry to new talent isn’t effortless. Oftentimes, the hospitality industry is a tough sell, but by expanding the potential base of recruits, hoteliers have a better chance of securing what they need. 

“As we recruit, we’re having to recruit from a much broader base,” said David McCaslin, EVP of HHM. “We’re competing now really outside of the hospitality industry for people.” 

With the country’s unemployment at 3.6%, using alternative means to acquire talent isn’t only resourceful but necessary for hospitality companies to survive in today’s economy. Oftentimes, the talent is out there; they’re just not aware of opportunities awaiting them in the hospitality industry.

“Not everybody is fortunate enough to be able to go to a hospitality school, so some of the programs we have with our foundation are going into areas and tapping into opportunity youth,” said Kiersten Pearce, VP of member and engagement services, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA). “They’re not in school; they’re not employed—but they have skills, passion and drive. You get in front of these kids and you explain to them that our industry can be sexy; while the entry level job may not be, there is a path for you. I think we, as an industry, can really influence the next generation.”

After finding the right people, it’s up to the leaders in the space to set both the bar and expectations. Even when these recruits seem to be on board with what hospitality has to offer, encouraging them to become deeply involved in the industry—more than just doing their jobs—is where a little bit of mentorship comes into play. And this is where paying it forward can truly pay off for top executives.

“We have to be mentors,” said Amy Hulbert, VP of boutique and upscale brands, Best Western Hotels & Resorts. “We have to be out in front of the younger generations and make sure we’re encouraging them to get involved in hospitality. It’s one of the best industries in the world.”

While not everybody at a company is eager to move up in rank, some are; it’s an executive’s responsibility to properly vet all employees for growth opportunities—but that comes with a cost. 

“I think there has to be a level of humility, though, from the top down,” said Hiram Negron, regional director of operations at HHM. “When we talk about line-level staff, I’d say maybe a small fraction of them actually want to be inspired to do more; especially in New York, a lot of our line-level staff, they’re collecting a paycheck. I mean, they have to survive, but a small portion just needs to be inspired. A lot of times, that humility is not there to make that connection.”

Acknowledging ambition is as simple as providing additional value, such as providing insight, being available to answer questions and offering opportunities for advancement.

Speaking about a manager she has viewed as a mentor, Erin Dabney, a senior student in hospitality management at Penn State, said, “[We] have those conversations, and I know that even though I’m just a host or server, he knows I want to be so much more in the industry; he cares.” That is important. “I think just finding a mentor in whatever job you have is important to us. We’re starting off as line level, but we want so much more,” she said.

Mentorships aren’t always official; oftentimes, they’re organic. They typically form when the mentee and mentor least expect it.

“I think a lot of folks look for a mentor,” Negron said. “You’d be surprised; there are mentors all around us. It’s just a matter of how those connections are made. You’ll have more than one mentor throughout your career, for sure, and you’ll have mentors you won’t realize were mentors until years after you’ve moved on.”

Potential mentorship opportunities go both ways; they should be looked at as beneficial to both parties involved. “Leaders need to look for mentees, and mentees need to reach up; it needs to be both, right?” Quinn said. “We’ve all been helped along the way, but you’ve got to remember to reach back, and you’ve got to reach up because if you do that, you can go as far as you want.”

Many organizations believe finding potential leaders is the best route to take when recruiting new talent, but sometimes, these individuals are closer in proximity than expected; to find them, leaders simply need to open their eyes.

“We talked about recruiting leaders,” Flores said. “I think they’re there. I think our responsibility is to create environments where they can emerge, where they can shine. I don’t think it’s about laser focusing on, ‘Oh, Hiram is going to be a great leader for tomorrow,’ and then trying to attract him. I think it’s looking at the talent that is already within our organizations. We’ve certainly seen that. We’re sort of an aptitude-based organization. People emerge all the time.”

Once the younger generations are on the hook, preparing them for what’s ahead is a matter of recognizing the issues they’ll be facing for years to come, especially when today’s leaders haven’t quite figured out the answers to many of the problems facing the industry today. These include increasing labor and construction costs, brand proliferation, and talent acquisition and retention.

“I think that one-on-one interaction between the mentor and the mentee is the best way to educate,” said Emily Feeney, capital markets and investment manager, Noble Investment Group. “I feel so lucky. I’ve been with Noble for less than six months, and Adi [Aditya Bhoopathy, EVP of investment management, Noble Investment Group] and I sit down multiple times a week, multiple times a day, going over all different issues.”

Sometimes, mentoring is ensuring mentees play by the rules or use proper workplace etiquette. “You have to meet the generation where they’re at,” said Donna Quadri-Felitti, Marvin Ashner director and associate professor, School of Hospitality Management at Penn State. “It’s incumbent on us to teach them when a text is appropriate, when a conversation is appropriate, etc… It’s our job. That’s what mentoring is about.”

When building the next line of leadership, educating younger generations on more than what they’ve been brought on to execute can go a long way. 

“I think it’s also important to make sure those up-and-coming leaders in your companies really understand all areas of the business,” said Leah Rivard, director of branding and customer experience, Trump Hotels. “One thing that I’m actually really happy and proud to say about Trump Hotels is I helped create our internship program to where we have a summer-long program in which the individuals will rotate through departments; whether it’s operations, sales and marketing, development or finance, they’re constantly in these lunch-and-learns throughout the entire week with every single department, even down to legal, just so that they can have an interaction and that exposure with every department.”

This better prepares tomorrow’s hospitality leaders for tackling the hard issues by educating them on how the companies they’re working for operate and rely on departments working cohesively to thrive.

“I personally have never worked in a hotel,” Rivard said. “I’ve been in hospitality all my life with my parents, but I’ve never worked in a hotel, so you know, it’s being able to have that level of experience and exposure, going to a hotel and being in every single department, really going through what the housekeeping does with all of the beds, the front desk, and so on and so forth. I think it’s making sure that level of education is there and making sure that they truly understand all of the components of what makes one company great—the operations behind it and the people behind it.”

Showing younger generations “how the sausage gets made” puts things into perspective for them. This enables them to get a better understanding of the bigger picture and where they fit in, especially when they’re from outside of the industry. 

For example, when Chip Rogers, currently president and CEO of AHLA, was leading AAHOA, he brought his employees to the hotel across the street and spent the entire day there, just so everybody within his organization could gain a better understanding of what hoteliers do by going through every department. 

“I think it’s sharing that picture with a group of people who are coming in and out of the workforce quickly, and if you just assume that they know what you do and why you do it, then you’re going to be in trouble,” he said. 

Sometimes, giving tomorrow’s leaders guidance on where they fit within their respective organizations can help when pitching the “grow with us” angle of retaining talent for the long term. 

“We do it once a month, where everybody is in the office from all the departments, and we showcase what each department does,” said Noble Investment Group’s Bhoopathy.

The purpose of these meetings is to expose Noble’s team members to one another. The experience is both collaborative and informative, and designed to encourage interaction among departments—instead of promoting the siloed mentality many organizations incorporate into their cultures. Together, these gatherings also serve as a platform for educating tomorrow’s leaders.

Moving up in an organization entails more than just excelling at a position; an individual must also understand where each department and role fits into the company’s overall strategic vision and positioning in the market it’s competing within. Once these conditions are met, the opportunity for these employees to grow becomes apparent—and the higher ups begin evaluating their options.

“There are many examples on the corporate level, not on the property level, where folks have come in as analysts and, over the years, have evolved to be senior executives and partners,” Bhoopathy said.

Noble’s monthly exercises inadvertently create stronger connections among its employees by uniting them under a common cause.  

“What you’re doing in that exercise of bringing people together is creating a sense of belonging because then you will know that even if I’m in accounting, I fit into this bigger picture,” said Smita Pillai, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Dow Jones.

This is where crafting the story becomes so important, especially when talent can’t necessarily see the potential opportunities ahead of them. 

“In our organization, we looked at our management and our senior management, and we put them together into what we call a leadership development program; we took them and put them into groups and we gave them case studies,” said Best Western’s Hulbert. “We had them work on these case studies together as a group, and these were all different disciplines… That was impactful, but the most impactful thing was when they presented together.”

This exercise also provided the company with a way to determine the up-and-comers in the organization. In fact, the hospitality group promoted several employees as a result of the activity. 

Educating younger generations isn’t as easy as it used to be, but even though today’s workforce has access to more resources than ever, neglecting to teach the basics isn’t prudent. 

“When I first went out in the field, all I had with me was my voice,” said Thomas Giuliano, regional director of North American development, Best Wester Hotels & Resorts. “We’re a touch business. We’re a warm handshake. We’re the hospitality industry. I think that’s the greatest thing we can teach them. I think they’re going to have all of the skill sets and all of the tech but, at the end of the day, we’ve got to teach them how to communicate and be a warm and friendly voice out in the field because that’s their great asset going forward.”

The workforce is now more diverse than ever before. “You make the conversation more diverse, not by forcing it, but by opening up to every market that you’re going to be dealing with,” said Lester Adams, director of franchise development, emerging markets, Choice Hotels. “You instantly create diversity because there’s no other choice but to be having a conversation about diversity. When everyone at every part of the table looks, speaks, acts differently, comes from a different age group, you instantly create that opportunity; that way, it’s not a forced legal compliance, you know? It’s a natural change to what needs to happen.” 

This diversity includes more than just race and gender. “Right now, we’re touching on the surface,” Pillai said. “Each one of us is diverse. If you think about one in five Americans having some disability, a billion people across the world have some form of disability we don’t even think about. Think about depression, stress, anxiety. We only think of the physical dimension of diversity, right? So, as you think about all these different dimensions, I think the challenge is how do you educate your workforce, as well as your customers, to be truly inclusive? That’s the billion-dollar question.”

The conversation is rapidly changing gears, especially regarding diversity among the ranks. “I think it’s important that we continue that momentum of having diversity in leadership positions,” said Jagruti Panwala, chairwoman of AAHOA and president/CEO of Wealth Protection Strategies. “Ultimately, it’s going to reflect in your employees, in your associations and in your membership.”

Diversity is more than a talking point; it must be ingrained in company culture if it has any chance of thriving. “It’s one thing to have it on the wall, but it’s another thing to live it,” Flores said. “Your leadership and the representation of who is in those leadership positions is incredibly impactful. We have so many line-level employees, and diversity at line level is not an issue at all, right? How do those people move through your organization?”

Diverse perspectives must also be heard, considered and implemented. If not, organizations risk the potential opportunities to innovate.

“Diversity is so much more than just what’s surface level,” Dabney said. “It’s actually listening to people’s different perspectives and taking into consideration their backgrounds. When you do that, it’s bringing new ideas to the table that might not be the norm; it’s going to be out of the box.” HB