What is up with scarce hotel staffing and what you can do about it?

We know what you were thinking the last time you tried to check into a hotel only to be greeted by a massive line and sweetly informed that your room won’t be ready until after dinner. “Where the H*!! did all the hospitality workers go?” “Can’t they get a bleeping robot to clean those rooms?” “Isn’t there an Uber for hotels someone can call?” “Am I going to have to pay even more dang fees to get limited service?” “Where can a meeting professional get a drink around here?” That last one may have just been us.

You are not alone. The Great Resignation continues to hit the meetings industry where it hurts just as the world is trying to get back to gathering. The hospitality and leisure industry is home to 1.4 million fewer jobs (20% lower) when compared to 2019, according to statistics provided by Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, who spoke at Destinations International Annual Convention 2022 in Toronto.

The “open jobs rate” in hospitality makes up 9.1% of jobs compared to 3% for the rest of the economy, with a quit rate of 5.5%. That high rate of voluntary attrition means that for every person hired, employers still have to backfill the leakage from those who are leaving. “Workforce development has emerged as perhaps the greatest challenge facing the visitor economy,” Sacks declared.

Restarting hospitality is going to take some creative thinking on everyone’s part. Smart Meetings took each of the big questions and asked the experts what they are seeing in lobbies and on job boards today.

We started by asking our Smart Meetings community how the record number of LinkedIn changes is impacting their programs and how they are navigating those challenges. We asked former hospitality workers about where they went and what it would take to convince them to come back. We also chatted with those tasked with training and recruiting the next generation of meetings magicians to find out what excites potential producers and conference service managers about a career in events.

The answers were at times brutally honest. Many suggested that what is needed is a wholesale shift in how we approach hotel and event staffing. But a few gave us hope that what comes next may actually be more sustainable than the model inherited from a distant past that may not have been serving us well even before everything went to Sh!t.

The State of Staffing

Alex Carvalho-Lukachova, a Smart Women in Meetings Award winner, produces large and small meetings for Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente. She has seen it all and is proactive about ensuring the best possible experience for her guests. “I had a big awakening about how bad the shortage is,” she said of a site visit she did in May for a September program. She waited 30 minutes to check in. The front desk wasn’t trained. No one was at the bell desk. The room wasn’t ready and when she finally got in, it hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned. There was even food left in the refrigerator from the previous guest.

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Carvalho-Lukachova went to the highest levels at the hotel to inquire and they apologized profusely, but the property was also lean on sales managers so she was still concerned that there wouldn’t be enough staff to turn the room when the time came.

Her solution?

For that property, she is conducting secret shopper drop-ins a few weeks before the event, bringing extra help from a DMC to handle decor and checking in regularly.

But for future programs, she has gotten proactive and added questions on her RFPs about levels of housekeeping (Daily refresh? On request only?), availability of amenities such as restaurants, shops and room service (what are the hours?). She is building contingencies into her contracts so there is recourse if service levels drop below what was agreed upon. “You have to have frank conversations so you can let your attendees know what to expect,” she said. “Some properties are managing the transition better than others and I feel like I have to be a detective,” she confided.

Carvalho-Lukachova is not alone.

The Smart Meetings community sounded off in July about whether The Great Resignation had impacted their planning staff and 63% said they have had to get creative to cover programs.

“I feel like I have to be a detective.”

–  Alex Carvalho-Lukachova, Kaiser Permanente

Marisol Hernandez, a senior executive assistant at Kellogg Latin America in Queretaro, Mexico, said, “This has made me change some things when planning and sometimes to accept what in the past was not acceptable, and sometimes pay more.”

“Bring extra staff to compensate for the understaffing at hotels, restaurants and venues,” counseled Melissa Layton, meeting planner at Operation Altitude in Vail, Colorado.

Terri Utecht, president of Utecht Diversified Event Resources in Denver, concurred and said she is hiring temporary workers and increasing her budget.

One anonymous respondent said, “Hire quality contractors (1099). It seems like so many of the great talent out there went and opened an LLC, so we’re embracing this new partnership opportunity, which has actually been quite the win-win. I don’t know that we’ll ever go back.”

Communicate limited services to attendees in advance, including limited housekeeping, restaurant/ room service availability, and later check-in policies.”

–  Marisol Hernandez, Kellogg Latin America in Queretaro, Mexico

Another anonymous third-party sourcing consultant said just getting someone to respond to an RFP is a challenge much of the time. “When a hotel doesn’t respond to simple requests like sending a catering menu in a timely manner, many clients refuse to book because they see that as an indication of the kind of service they will get during the event,” she observed.

Kay Johnson-Frutiger, manager of global commercial meetings with Labcorp Drug Development Global Commercial Organization (GCO) based in Madison, Wisconsin, is shrinking the size of events to compensate for the cost and doing “lots of research on the venue and staffing and understanding expectations.”

Anne Gingrich, a Smart Women in Meetings Award winner and director of events with CHG healthcare advised, “Ask all the questions that used to be assumptions, especially when it comes to outlet hours. Partner with the hotel/venue to see how you can support them rather than have a bad experience and blame them. Prep your execs and attendees for possible service gaps.”

Troy Reynolds, CMP, EMD, chief experience officer with the Connecticut-based housing services company Imaginneurs, focused on framing expectations. “Under-promise to overdeliver on expectations and design event formats around the theme of self-service/self-sustaining,” he suggested.

Mike Nesbihal, president of WorldWide Meetings and Events in Staten Island, New York, said, “Be prepared for the worst, and be happy when it goes as planned.”

Monica Bell, senior coordinator of membership and meetings with the Society for Academic Emergency medicine SAEM in Des Plaines, Illinois, had this advice: “This, too, shall pass.”

Where Did Everyone Go?

Smart Meetings checked in to the popular hotel employee Facebook group Hospitality Family and quickly received more than 100 comments to the question, “For those who have left the hospitality industry, where did you go and what would it take for you to return?” We promised not to use names, but the stories were universal.

“Ask all the questions that used to be assumptions.”

–  Anne Gingrich, CHG healthcare

The answer to the first part of the question covered the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational categories. Loan officer, healthcare, technology (often remote), banking, real estate, marketing, education and insurance topped the list. Some went into business for themselves, opening a franchise, consulting or other businesses. Many took offers to retire and never looked back. One respondent said, “After over 40 years in restaurants and hotels, I loved it until I didn’t.”

The explanations for why were both frank and nuanced. Work-life balance came up repeatedly. “I became a mortgage loan officer a few years ago for more flexibility, having young kids. As much as I miss hotel sales, I would never go back to a role that prevents you from putting family first.”

Another said, “Although I loved the hospitality industry, you could never get me to go back to the day-to-day operations of the hotel business. I work Monday through Friday, 8-to-5, no nights and weekends, no holidays, no forecast meetings, no budget meetings, no labor meetings, no health inspections. Life is great.”

Others praised the ability to take scheduled lunch with no interruptions, receiving overtime pay for working holidays and paid sick days. “I can go to the bathroom and not have to notify someone,” effused one respondent.

The question of what it would take to come back was even more pointed. Respect was high on the list. “Respect from owners and management to get behind their employees when guests are abusive (should not be tolerated) and hold all employees to the same standards. Good benefits and a livable (not just surviving) wage that paid employees for all hours worked” was seen as a minimum requirement. Lack of affordable childcare was also listed as a limiting factor.

The recurring hospitality perk mentioned is one that has appealed for decades—personal interactions. One person who left to go into insurance swore he wouldn’t come back, but in the end, he missed the person-to-person interactions. “Hospitality is in my blood,” he said. “The force was strong and I’m thrilled I’m back.” Another was looking for the right opportunity to return from senior living. “Hotel sales has been my life and I’ve missed my industry friends, clients and my love of travel,” she said.

One respondent had this advice, “Hotels will do better with staffing operations if they don’t try to cut corners and hire enough staff to have plenty of coverage/support, including management positions. Wearing out your teams and not giving them support/relief when needed has caused so many to leave the industry. We shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting a healthy work-life balance!!”

How Will We Hold on to the Good Ones?

The good news, according to a recent study titled: “Overcoming the Talent Shortage in the U.S. Hotel Industry” by NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study is that current employees believe more than other segments of the population that they are valued, they belong, employment in the industry is accessible, and hospitality offers career opportunities.

“As the hospitality industry continues to rebound from the effects of Covid, it is especially critical that hoteliers understand and implement innovative talent acquisition and retention practices,” said Tom McCaleb, BCG managing director and partner. “A majority of hotel workers agree that the industry offers valuable developmental opportunities to help them succeed in their careers. That said, these workers are calling for more flexibility, transparency when it comes to pay, and clearer career pathways to maximize the appeal of work in the hotel industry.”

Tourism Economics’ Sacks called staffing an “enduring challenge that will be measured in years and not months and needs to be thought about long-term and strategically.”

Pay is part of the solution for some. Sacks reported that as of July, nonsupervisory salaries had grown an average of 25% and 10% for supervisors for an average increase of 23.5%.”

He is seeing creative programs from destinations and hotels with job fairs (and in one case, “a Career Celebration”), marketing and grant programs targeting new demographics, such as high schools and at-risk populations. “The problem is complex and housing and childcare are some of the variables that need to be addressed,” he said.

Marriott International has always prided itself on putting people first, but the world’s largest hospitality brand is investing in a number of programs to promote diversity and inclusion including Unity to develop relationships in minority communities and TakeCare, which offers grants through a relief fund that helps employees facing financial hardships caused by natural or personal hardships.

Caesars Entertainment, which manages more than 25 brands all over the world, offers team members Wellness Rewards to give access to health management tools, including dental and vision programs, and onsite screening and consultations for mental health and wellness.

Atlanta-based Valor Hospitality Partners has launched a Future Leaders program across its hotel properties in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Expanded benefits include flexible work hours while traveling and referring to all employees as “Hotelitarians,” a term defined as “highly engaged, emotionally connected and passionate people.”

What Do We Do in the Meantime?

Since one of the recurring themes on current and potential hotel worker lists is flexibility, the idea of an Uber for hotels has been batted around at cocktail parties across the world. Products such as Indeed Flex, which started in the United Kingdom and has now launched in Austin, Texas, allow employees to upload their resumes, set what times they are available and indicate their required salary.

They can even turn their availability on and off the same way an Uber driver does. Facilities management and retail employees enter their work availability and the app matches them up for temporary or permanent roles. The platform is marketed as “The future of work,” but some have questioned whether jobs requiring security access, extensive training and knowledge of a hotel property would be a good fit for intermittent employment.

Moments after retiring as CEO of U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow announced that he was partnering with Mike Gamble, president of SearchWide Global to launch a solution for this exact problem. The Future Work Solutions (FWS) app, which will operate using facial recognition software and a matching algorithm, will connect pre-qualified workers with hotels and venues as supplementary staff.

Gamble is a Marriott and CVB alum and passionate about building a strong, diverse hospitality workforce. “The world has changed and we need new tools to solve this problem so everyone can get back to work,” he said.

Read a Q&A with Mike Gamble about the future of hospitality staffing. 

Longtime Maritz Global Events and corporate meetings executive Tracy Judge, a Smart Women in Meetings Hall of Fame inductee, has been addressing the variable staffing problem from the event side of the equation since before the pandemic. She launched Soundings in San Diego, California in 2018 as a talent platform to connect event and marketing professionals.

Now her company is the link between 1,600 in-person, virtual, freelance, full-time or contract meeting professionals and major companies in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Over the pandemic, she launched a hands-on Soundings Thrive Platform Playground to give out-of-work freelancers a chance to produce virtual events on various platforms and get the experience they need to provide even more value.

Judge called freelance networks a win-win that give employees agency and flexibility in who and how they work and meeting professionals the specialized skills and manpower boost they need for big programs. “People want to be able to control their own lives and careers and we need to support that,” she said.

What About the Next Generation?

If thousands of veteran meeting professionals and hoteliers retired or permanently fled for alternative careers, what will it take to attract the next generation of meeting professionals? We asked experts working with the 68 million Gen Zers born between 1997 and 2012 for pointers.

Rethinking Recruiting

Maybe the industry needs a rebranding. Carl Winston, director at San Diego State University‘s L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, ventured that in order to lure students to the field, we may have to “sexy-it-up” by stressing the wide variety of ways to be involved, including the production, marketing and financial side. “Hospitality schools have witnessed a great resignation as well,” he said as he competes with programs that produce employees for Google and other remote work environments with stock options and high starting salaries. He is adding a technology component to the hospitality track to make it more relevant for the skills that will be needed in the future.

The NYU/BCG study mentioned earlier that surveyed 1,197 current, former and prospective hospitality and service employees, pointed to referrals as the leading route into the industry and pay and flexibility as the top factors weighed in deciding to embark on a hospitality career with inclusion and belonging farther down the list.

A Video-first Solution

A lot of people are rethinking what recruiting looks like today. Dan Hudson, founder and CEO of London-based Gigl, believes ushering in the next generation of hospitality worker will require a new approach to recruiting and scheduling. “To engage Gen Z, we have to be flexible and engaging,” he said. That is why he believes in reaching out to people on college campuses, TikTok and Instagram. “We need to fish in another lake,” he said. “We can’t use the same bait as before Covid (BC). After Covid (AC) is a video-first, mobile-first world.”

Hudson’s suggestion is to remove the friction required to apply for a hospitality job. Instead of answering pages of questions and uploading curriculum vitae (CVs), his website traffics in 60-second videos. “Hire people for people, not a piece of paper,” he advocates. “Increase the focus on building a career.”

Once hired, Hudson suggests rotating people in different jobs every four months and then slotting them into the department where they fit best. “Once people buy into an environment, that will stop the churn,” he explained.

Right Culture

One longtime hospitality advocate is trying to change the industry from the inside. St. Louis-based Phil Bruno is now chief experience officer at Treat ‘em Right hospitality training agency, a company he started to share best practices from some of the top service organizations in the world, including Disney and The Ritz-Carlton. He entered the industry as a busboy to pay his way through school and get a travel and tourism degree. “I got hooked on being part of the party for a living,” he recalled fondly. Now he wants to help his beloved industry come back stronger. “This is not a temporary problem. I don’t think Gen Z will settle for the way it was,” he observed.

“The solution is to change the culture, treat people well,” he said. “People stay because they love their work family. Companies need to treat people like family and operate transparently.”

The reality is that this reconning could require raising prices or reducing profits to staff appropriately. “People may have to adapt to fewer room refreshes and not have the same expectations they did in the past,” he warned.

“The needs have changed, but the approach has not, and the solution is not just money,” he concluded. “We need empathy and respect.”

This article appears in the August/September 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.