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The Hospitality Industry and Some of the Personnel Challenges it Faces!

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By Fritz Kummer
August 2010

The following are my thoughts about issues that profoundly impact the hospitality industry.  It is a very direct and introspective look at some of the most pervasive problems and challenges facing our chosen career.  Having observed our industry as both a senior executive (at both the property and corporate level), and as someone thoroughly familiar with virtually every aspect of the realities of the day-to-day operations of a hotel (having filled innumerable staff and management positions in Sales, the Rooms Division and Food and Beverage), I have come to some conclusions that are certain to be at odds with prevailing wisdom.  Having always prided myself on being direct and objective (a quality that we as industry leaders need more of than ever before), I believe that you will see, as I explore some of the industry's problems, that we as managers and leaders must look more at our own performance and our own assumptions than elsewhere (as is so easily and often done).  Turnover problems, and issues with promising young talent leaving the industry, do not necessarily come from pay issues or insufficient dedication, as many would like to believe.  It may be that the root causes of some of our problems may be looking back at us in the mirror every day.  And, while some of these points may be hard for some to accept, my history of adherence to them and vigilance in avoiding succumbing to their debilitating affect have served me in an unfailing manner. Through these principles, I have secured a ten fold (or more) reduction in staff turnover, achieved record financial results and incomparably improved guest satisfaction scores, and upon leaving assignments, received expressions of appreciation such as notebooks of individually handwritten "thank you" letters from each property managers and numerous staff members.  I make this point, not for self aggrandizement, but to point out a remarkable occurrence that happens too infrequently. So, if you are interested in getting some very thoughtful and motivating insight into our industry and some of its greatest challenges - read on. . . . . . .

The Hospitality Industry and Some of the Personnel Challenges it Faces!

Throughout my career I have always been amazed at the number of opportunities to improve both guest and employee experience that we as leaders of our industry allow to slide right by us though they are readily evident and visible on multiple occasions nearly every day.  I am quite sure that these omissions and lost opportunities do not occur, for the most part, because of a lack of care or concern by good, well intended managers, supervisors and staff members.  I have instead come to attribute these problems to more systemic problems that may at first be hard to see because they are so interwoven in what we as industry leaders think and likewise routinely do on a daily basis.  I will address them under the broad terms of "staff" (hourly) and "management."  As a result of the close interconnection of many of these problems, I will address issues related to staff positions from the manager's perspective and vice versa.

My decision to address "staff" related issues prior to those of management is in itself an indication of the priority I assign to most of the subsequent challenges I will be addressing.  The first major mistake many managers make is that they never spend enough time, or any time at all, learning about or truly relating to the staff they supervise.  What time they do spend is, more often than not, lacking regularity, frequently interrupted, or devoted to purposes other than promoting staff enrichment.  While managers often acknowledge that it is really the staff that is responsible for the ultimate quality of service or product delivered, the lack of understanding by many of those same managers of all the interrelated tasks necessary to achieve staff performance excellence suggests that such praise is often more lip-service than sincere recognition for an important role and a job well done.

Issues Relating to "Staff" Personnel

Priorities and Goals:

Often, managers who did not work their way up through the hourly ranks have problems relating to their staff, especially in the Housekeeping, Laundry and Utility/Stewarding departments, along with "Bus Persons" or "Service Assistants" in the food outlets.  These individuals, who came into the organization as managers, have difficulty relating to the vastly different goals, values, aspirations, drive, work ethic and economic strata of their staff.  They hold and display several preconceived notions and bias that due to the lack of quality, non-business related interaction, blinds them and thereby seriously hinders both parties' performance.  Unfortunately, this alienation can be contagious.  Staff personnel may also develop the same bias and notions that affect and reflect on how they interact with their fellow staff members and supervisors/managers.  I saw this firsthand while working as a Steward during my own immersion into the basic workings of the hotel industry in the summer of 1979. There was a Pot Washer, an older woman, who never accepted nor understood why the "son of the owner" would be working with her in such a seeming mundane position. She often made comments to me about how I should be working somewhere else - "up front, behind a desk."  Her perplexity at how to work with someone she identified as being from "the other side" hindered and detracted from both of our performances. 

The "Lowly Employee Syndrome":

While it is so often noted, but all too rarely taken advantage of, the greatest source of practical working knowledge of what it takes to create a successful hospitality environment is derived from the staff personnel themselves and their experience and experiences.  But this knowledge frequently goes unrecognized, "unexploited" and unrewarded by management and thereby both the organization as well as all the individuals whose job also entail such activities/actions loses out in a big way.  This problem is one of the most pervasive needing to be addressed, but is most often dealt with strictly from the top down and more often relegated solely to the HR Department/Director to address and handle. 

Staff members, often out of deference to their superiors, or fear of losing one's job, or solely out of the lack of knowing any other way of doing something, will often remain quiet and struggle through tasks that are often cumbersome, highly inefficient and risky or even down right dangerous.  This wealth of knowledge that these individuals, which generally constitute the single largest percentage or group of the entire operation's staff consequently goes untapped because of their managers inability to ask those "below" them for help, and/or where staff member(s) simply stay quiet.

The "Glamorous Positions":

One of the biggest problems caused by the perceived stratification of job assignments is the attitude that often emerges among individuals who take what are often called the "glamorous positions" (Front Desk Clerk, Bell Person, Host/ess and Server).  They subsequently miss and often develop an unhealthy and totally inappropriate attitude of being “too good” for the "grunt" positions that are in fact the foundation of the entire industry, namely Bus Persons and all Housekeeping, Laundry and Utility/Stewarding Department positions.  This misguided view and missed opportunity to learn the essence of their profession is seldom reversed and often is never fully overcome.

Although I have found this problem to be most prevalent with graduates of some of the more prestigious hotel and culinary schools, it is most certainly not limited to them alone.  In an industry built predominantly on the shoulders of individuals from some of the lowest economic strata of our society, the snobbery and total lack of effort on the part of many managers to even try to relate or communicate in a constructive, mutually beneficial ways is bewildering.  This "demanding" of respect versus earning it is among the primary causes of low morale, equally poor productivity and cripplingly high turnover. 

Turnover:

While a large percentage of management today is quick to make excuses for high turnover problems being due to non-competitive wage scales, new properties coming on line, or just the "transient", non-committal nature of the type of people who apply for those positions, such is often not the case.  As most studies show, pay ranks closer to the bottom than to the top of the factors that keeps people happy and enjoying their work.  While wages must be competitive, they are not of paramount importance.  The hospitality industry as a whole has blindly accepted high turnover in many positions without doing a thorough top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top study of the true causes of this costly problem.  The most significant factor here is the lack of true, totally unencumbered two-way conversation about all aspects of the working environment covering equipment, organization, attitudes, staffing levels, and only then possibly wages.  Though I have dedicated but one specific paragraph to this issues ALL
of the points that both precede and follow this section are in essence discussions of other issues that affects and contributes to this continually festering problem in our industry.

Communication:

The poor and often non-existent communication of goals, objectives and pertinent daily business information throughout many hotel operations is the single greatest shortcoming negatively affecting literally every individual's performance in an organization.  It is a factor in each of the aforementioned points.  This problem is due to a myriad of reasons, including the syndromes and pre-conceived notions and bias already mentioned.  Foremost among these reasons is a lack of reports or documents that are as easy and concise to read and understand as they are to produce.  All too often, reports and communiqués are developed absent of understanding of whom the ultimate end users are, their abilities, and possibly the constraints on their time to review, analyze, digest and ultimately act on the information provided.

Issues Relating to "Management" Personnel

The boundless need to "Advance":

While ambition can be a great driver of success, moving people up before they fully understand and appreciate the inner workings of a successful hotel, or are properly prepared to fulfill higher level assignments continues to be a problem.  This to common problem results in young managers not really learning the job at hand and merely passing time "paying their dues" but not really learning positions they know they need to cover and have on their resume if there is to be any chance of them reaching their ultimate goal, frequently that of becoming a General Manager.  This constant looking beyond the present, and not taking the time now to really learn one's (present) job is one of the two greatest contributing factors for the innumerable inefficiencies that plagues this industry and which it has learned to live with and blindly accept.  While Marriott and Hilton may be by many accounts the preeminent hotel "flags" today, and the ones that attempts to be the definition of consistency, the great disparity in the quality that I have personally experienced at several of their properties epitomizes how they too are not immune, nor been able to fully eradicate the effects of this shortsighted and debilitating attitude and others.

The existence of this problem and its severity is further aptly demonstrated in that within the first FIVE pages of a popular and commonly used college text book written for introductory college courses to the restaurant and hospitality industry it is discussed how they, the neophyte hospitality "professional", should both set their sights on becoming a General Manager and remuneration expectations they should set upon entering the (hospitality) business world.  So, in essence, before an 18 or 19 year old young man or woman has even been given a clear and well defined description of the industry they have shown or expressed an interest in, and often before they have ever held their first full-time (or part-time) job working in, the educational process has already outfitted them with blinders which limits their peripheral vision to fully observe and learn the fundamental aspects and intricacies that form the foundation of industry they are just now beginning to learn about but yet have been directed to set their sight on reaching and filling some of the most senior positions in.  They have had their course defined and expectations set - directed to become Generals on the first day of boot camp!

The need in the industry to "Fill Open Positions", both new and existing:

I once "lost" a sales manager who though he had more than 15 years of experience in sales outside of the hospitality industry, and interviewed exceptionally well, he showed absolutely no evidence of even beginning to grasp hotel sales - even after nearly three months of employment - but yet was hired (one day before we were going to let him go) by another hotel in the market for nearly twice (85% more) what we were paying him - which his starting salary with us was already 20% higher than what he had previously been earning.

By not addressing innumerable root problems, coupled with the vacancies that the opening of new properties create, this industry is constantly faced with a problematically high level of turnover and the need to fill the related openings.  This is the second primary factor contributing to the many ills of the hospitality industry.  The industries' "farm clubs" have been unable to produce the number of required qualified prospects.  To overcome this problem, besides being forced to be constantly bringing in new and untested "blood" with results in disasters like my opening example not being uncommon, one of two approaches are taken with both often having a significant and debilitating affect on the property and the individuals (both staff and management) involved.  First, new more narrowly defined positions are created resulting in higher cost and the acceptance of lower levels of efficiency and productivity of each contributing individual and the further expansion of an often oversized and cumbersome management hierarchy which already lacked a clear understanding and definition of their job or purpose.  Secondly, senior property executives encourage and convince exceptionally performing department and individual (sales) managers to take the next step up and become divisional leaders or assistants.  These individual's performance evaluation is often based on a usually unacceptably short periods of time or an equally limited number of key events where the managers performance exceeded the norm but was again within a very short span of time and often did not allow for the "honeymoon" period or "newness" of the new job/position has run its course and the long term performance, attitude and drive of the manager becomes readily apparent.  The exercising of either of these misguided actions may fill positions in the short term, but their overall benefit to the individual(s) and the organization as whole in the long term often prove to be suspect at best. 

This latter approach in particular is often even more devastating than the former with the previously perceived exceptionally performing manager being most often the biggest loser.  In these cases, since other factors did not allow for the proper evaluation of the manager's true contribution to date and level of knowledge prior to his/her promotion, it often results in the property ending up in losing a superstar of a department/individual manager and "gaining" a division head whose performance, even after allowing for an appropriate amount of time to learn the new job (which is again often cut short due to economic demands of owners and financial institutions), it never measures up to their performance in the prior spot or meets the needs and demands of the new position.   This subsequently often results in the promoted individual having to make the undeserved and untenable decision of having to admit to he/she having "failed" in their new position and accept a demotion back to their former position - an option which is seldom available, and has an even lower possibility of succeeding, or leaving the organization totally, through either resignation or termination.  

Promoting "Best Practices" regardless of industry or economic conditions:

While many companies compile lists of "Best Practices," it is notable how often such programs are shelved during the good times, only to be pulled out as a reactionary response to the potentially devastating challenges during slower times.  Following the September 11th tragedy, it was amazing how even some of our best General Managers had to call upon associates at their former employers to forward "Best Practices" lists, instead of them already being in their possession and/or more importantly having not already implemented them at their own properties. As so aptly demonstrated by the unparalleled financial performance of Southwest Airlines over the past quarter century, when "Best Practices" are routinely practiced and become part of one's culture, an organization can weather and even prosper during even the most trying of times.

Even today, during these tough economic conditions there are daily WEB blast dedicated to seeking input and distribution of new and innovative ideas to meet the challenges of the market.  Though these suggestions may not be formally called a "best practice" the tone of the way in which they are presented certainly resemble such a concept.  It should also be noted that theses ideas, the solicitation of them, and their daily presence on the WEB did not start until the economic downturn was fully entrenched and had already had a devastating affect on the entire hospitality industry.  In addition, these same sites and others, during the good times, seem to show an affinity to concentrate their selection of articles to highlight that cover financial related issues - increasing group sales, ADR, RevPAR.   Similar emphasis, during the good times also seem to focus on and introduce new programs to get more (paying) customers through the front door, while failing to address the issues that affect keeping the SAME "customers" who come through the back door whose responsibility is to deliver a consistently high quality of service  to those "paying customers."  The seasonality (good times versus bad times) of highlighting definitively different types industry issues only further exemplifies how "Best Practices" are really a misnomer and therefore should be prefaced or followed by some qualifier like:

"Best Practices During Tough Economic/Market Conditions"

The need for "Authorship" or "Re-Inventing the Wheel" syndrome:

Among these challenges facing the industry is some managers’ inability to credit other sources of good ideas and practices.  In this vein, I like to call myself a "world class" borrower.  Many of my best programs and systems (the very ones that have made me often uniquely successful in my assignments) were in fact evolutionary improvements to those implemented and devised by others.  If one were not so concerned with "authorship," it would be amazing how much more we as industry professionals could accomplish.

Though I totally deplore and disagree with his management style Harold Geneen (1910 - 1997), former President and CEO (1959 - 1972) of the International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (ITT) hit on, in a quote attributed to him, the root cause and consequence of this debilitating syndrome:

"The worst disease which can afflict business executives in their work is not,
as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it's egotism."

In Conclusion

One will notice, except for the couple references to "remuneration expectations" under "The boundless need to Advance" section and the similarly few uses of the words "pay" or "wage(s)" under the "Turnover" portion of this article there were no other mention of anything else related to salary and wages!  So while a lot of the industry's personnel woes are often attempted to be tied to the lack of staff loyalty (an issue that I do not mention or postulate at all) due primarily to monetary issues the almost non-existent reference to such in the preceding pages/paragraphs exemplify the hollowness of that argument.  The solution to many of the industry's ills rests in managements' ability to take charge of their facility in a way that minimizes or does not allow external factors and forces to so detrimentally affect and impact the performance or operation of their facility, division, outlet or department and that when they come upon idea or inherit a system that has proven in the past to work EXCECPTIONALLY well to leave it alone, not change it and move on to another issue/factor that is not functioning nearly as well.  And,  as mentioned in the "Best Practices' section - to incorporate, without exception, such "practices" into the daily operations regardless of the strength, or weakness, of the industry as a whole.  The culture of the organization must reflect and have incorporated in it an immutable attitude of consistency towards such successful concepts, systems and practices that are determined from within, but regardless of origin, versus always for ever being susceptible to the whim, dictates and influences of their competitors and others totally extraneous and unrelated elements and industries to its success.

About the Author:
Fritz Kummer has been recognized by peers as one of the most knowledgeable and effective executives in the hospitality industry. He brings over twenty-five years of experience in the field to his writing and thinking. During those years he covered just about every operational position in a hotel, and more than a dozen management positions spanning the three major property divisions (Sales, Food & Beverage and Rooms). He readily attributes his successes to the efforts of the top notch and challenging people he surrounded himself with.

He has been the architect of aggressive and comprehensive programs that restored service levels and resulting revenue at multiple underperforming hotel properties. As General Manager, he consistently significantly improved service and business metrics, enabling significant rate increases that resulted in record high revenues and profitability while also expanding the respective property's market penetration.

As Executive VP and COO of the Adam's Mark Hotel chain, he led his business unit to unprecedented growth that eclipsed the already strong performance of the parent company's other business lines.
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Contact:

Fritz Kummer
412.491.5300
fritz@asehospitality.com


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