October 9, 2023

Innovation and Collaboration Keys to Labor Challenges

via Hotel Business Exclusives by Gregg Wallis

Workforce automation company Unifocus convened a dozen C-Suite brand executives, owners and industry influencers to focus on the labor crisis at The Lodging Conference in Phoenix.

Moderated by Michael Frenkel, president, Travel Conversations LLC, the panel included Brian Kirkland, CIO, Choice Hotels; Bharat Patel, chairman, AAHOA; Neal Patel, immediate past chair, AAHOA; Chris Trick, CMO, Sonesta; Todd Felsen, CEO, OTH Hotels; Chris Henry, CEO, Majestic Hospitality Group; Peter Kressaty, chief commercial officer, LHW Advisors; Evan Weiss, CEO, LHW Advisors; Glenn Haussman, No Vacancy Podcast; Erik Frederick, CEO, Pizzeria Uno; and Moneesh Arora, CEO, Unifocus.

Challenges persist

On a review of the current environment, participants agreed labor remains an intransigent industrywide challenge.
AAHOA’s Bharat Patel reported members continue to struggle with the issue, urging that “we cannot stifle innovation” as a means of finding solutions.

OTH’s Felsen agreed, stating that the ripples of the problem spread across each property, from housekeepers to dishwashers to front desk personnel. He said that his company has been aggressive in implementing training innovations as well as tech solutions to promote recruiting as well as retaining associates.

LWHA’s Kressaty also stressed the importance of training, noting that at several of the properties under management, LWHA has seen hotels requiring staff members to stay at the hotel for several days and rotate functions at the property as a means of engaging them in the full guest experience—both as a means exposing them to the full property offering, and building “skin in the game” in service delivery.

Other participants agreed on the importance of training and engaging the “whole person” in staffing and service decisions. Majestic Hotels CEO Henry spoke for the younger generations, noting that quality of life and diversity of experience are keys to building respectful, mutually productive relationships with the new generation of workforce.

Hotels, restaurants and universities – connections & opportunities

Pizzeria Uno CEO Frederick offered insights on commonalities between the hotel and restaurant industries and offered anecdotes from his F&B experience as well as military background as a way of better understanding employees’ needs and building loyalty over time.

He said he would rather have a top manager in a “so-so” location, than a top location without strong property management. As in the military, a combination of thoughtful training; carefully calibrated rewards and incentives; and appropriate discipline and parameter-setting are critical to building successful on-property teams. He was confident the approach could work as effectively at hotels as they have at the more 600 restaurants in his system.

Haussman agreed and pointed to a disconnect between education programs offered at hotel schools and the urgent needs of brands and property owners.

LWHA’s Weiss stated that industry education needs to prepare, encourage and respond to the needs of hotel personnel up and down the entire employment chain.

The group agreed that closer collaboration with the industry’s leading educational institutions is critical.

Pressure-testing tech solutions

Unifocus’s Arora shared best practices from the tech sector, suggesting that operational innovations can supplement improvements in training and staff engagement as a way of driving both profitability and an improved guest experience.

For example, with today’s innovations, it is possible to get staff schedules on mobile devices, making shift swaps easy and seamless.

These and other technology-driven solutions can free up employees to focus more intensively on guest service—and promote efficiencies and cost savings at the same time.

Choice’s Kirkland asked whether the industry can build the same kind of trust in labor management solutions that hoteliers currently have in revenue management and like technologies.

The group agreed that a push in this direction is critical.

Sonesta’s Trick reinforced the adoption of state-of-the art tech solutions as important not just for brands, but for owners and franchisees across the brand ecosystems. Best-of-breed tech solutions can be tested by the brands, and then rolled out to the benefit of franchisees. He revealed that Sonesta has now partnered with Unifocus on a broad range of solutions and is optimistic about the potential.

Finally, the group discussed the ways in which continued collaboration and communication can help address staffing issues.

Bharat Patel reported the development of programs to utilize workers in India for check-in and other services at U.S. hotels, via kiosks and other technology innovations. They are also active in immigration reform and other areas.
Felsen said his group is continuing to try different solutions across the hotel tech stack to find the optimum mix of automation and associate involvement—always with an eye to serving the satisfaction of both the guest and the hotel employee.

“Gratitude is free,” concluded Arora. “With technology as an enabler, employees are freed to care better care of guests and serve the brand and owner at the same time.”