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Right-Sized Staffing Ensures Front Desk Sales & Service Success

By Doug Kennedy, December 2007

Recently after completing an afternoon keynote address at a remote mountain ski/golf resort I decided to drive straight back to the nearby city and airport I’d flown into earlier in the week, versus risking taking the one hour drive over dark, unfamiliar roads and end up getting lost en route to my early morning flight.

Since I’d be paying for this room myself, and since I was mostly concerned with the hotel’s location being near the airport, I jumped online and simultaneously on the phone (like any good rate shopper these days!) and booked a room with an established economy lodging hotel chain that was right where I needed to be at 4am the next morning.   

Before the story continues, I should add a few facts, such that it was a beautiful Friday night in a hotel known for numerous tourist attractions, including a medium size casino industry that was itself a reliable demand generator.  Based on my Internet search most of the hotels were running at or close to full occupancy.  I should also add that I paid nearly $100 a night for this economy hotel room, which was certainly an optimal rate for them to be commanding for this brand in this region/city from a revenue management perspective.  

Pulling into the parking lot I was glad to see that the hotel had curb appeal, and it was also reassuring to see that most of the parking spots were full, indicating an established, successful hotel business operation.  Yet when I entered the lobby and joined the queue of about a half dozen guests ready to check-in during this predictably busy time, I found there to be only a single front desk clerk on duty.  

And what a front desk superstar he was!  Besides patiently checking in every guest, he was multitasking as a switchboard operator.  Then in the middle of the third check-in I heard him fielding a reservations inquiry.  I must admit feeling badly for him, but I though surely that he must have a co-worker that is on break or at least an assistant manager around to pitch in on such a predictably busy night as this.  Yet when I stopped back by an hour or so later for change, he was still there in action alone, patiently and diligently working through the line, despite being interrupted by reservations calls.  I wondered two things – “How does he go on break?”  My second thought was “How can I convince him to work for me and move across-continent to Hollywood, FL?”  So later, when things finally calmed down for a moment, I got a chance to ask him about staffing, and found that it’s always this way at his hotel; there’s only one front desk associate scheduled even on its busiest nights! My next personal thought was “I wonder how long this superstar will stay in this job?” 

Guessing by site that this hotel had at least 100 rooms that were likely all occupied, I quickly calculated that this hotel was going to generate about $10,000 in rooms revenue that night.  I also calculated that even if this hotel decided to pay a top wage scale for its market, a second front desk associate would have cost a max $100 that shift including insurance and benefits.

I also started to think about how many future reservations inquiries came that evening where the callers either hung-up after holding too long, or who my front desk superstar had to rush through on the phones due to pre-committed guests waiting in person. Assuming the average guest stays 1.25 nights, that’s about $125 forfeited for every reservations inquiry that was lost because a caller didn’t want to wait on hold.  Even my grade school kids could do the math that this “cost control” mentality is surely to be a losing formula based solely on lost reservations opportunities. 

But what about hospitality and guest service?  How many guests are going to return to stay at a hotel where they are assured of having to wait in line to be checked in by an over-tasked and under-supported front desk agent? 

Now this is not to say that additional staffing is always the answer, nor that even doubling or tripling the staff size alone will solve all the challenges, especially since the workflow tends to “bottleneck” at the front desk on even the slowest of nights.  

Yet to staff so leanly on such a predictably busy and high-demand night is creating a lose-lose-lose situation for all parties.  This is especially true now that the hospitality industry has entered the era of a consumer-generated media, or multi-media we should say as many of social and hotel review websites also allow pictures and videos.  How long will it be until some actually posts a photograph of the line they waited in?   

It’s time for many hotel managers and owners to start to recognize the front desk staff as being an extension of the sales office, and also the “face” of their individual hotel “brand.”  Not the franchise flag, but “brand” in the sense of what it represents to its guests and other “customers” and prospects.   

Of course all this begs the question of how one knows whether their hotel has right-sized staffing. A starting place is to do some simple time-studies based on the minimum average time it takes to complete routine transactions.  How long does each check-in take? How long to properly field a reservations inquiry caller?  How long to field other typical switchboard calls?  Once you have a good understanding of average transaction times, look at reservations systems reports, PMS reports, and PBX reports to find out how many of these transactions occur on any given shift.  

More importantly, look at these reports on an hourly basis.  For example, on an overall shift basis there might appear to be adequate staffing, but when you look at “by hour” reports it usually becomes empirically evident that there are predictable periods during which there the lack of staffing is directly costing your hotel money.  (Oh, and don’t forget to factor-in an occasional break for your front desk superstars to keep them refreshed.)  

Or you can skip all this research phase and go out and talk to your seasoned front desk associates right now, they will likely state the same trends as your reports will identify, or better yet work a couple of shifts helping out the solo front desk associate and you can experience all this firsthand.  

Besides ensuring that your hotel is properly staffed for sales and hospitality excellence, here are other suggestions for helping your front desk superstars get through the inevitable “bottlenecks” that occur every shift.

  • Cross-train everyone who possesses appropriate language and communications skills to field reservations inquires.
  • Similarly, cross-train these associates on at minimum the single task of check-in at the front desk, so they can be signaled to assist during inevitable but momentary periods of peak activity.
  • For hotels that are full-service and upscale, break-down “silos” between departments so that your housekeeping phone coordinator, room service operator, or anyone else qualified regardless of title or job description can field an occasional overflow reservations inquiry.   
  • Depending on the accessibility of your reservations system, consider transferring calls of-property – to your own staff at home.  Many workers will consider doing double-duty as an after-hours, remote back-up.  
  • Consider part time workers who have lifestyles that permit them to report to work for the three or hours during which “bottlenecks” predictably occur at every hotel’s front desk.  Look to recruit through non-traditional resources, such as networking with your own hotel staff, for mature, committed back-up players. 
In the end I felt badly for the front desk superstar that checked me in that very busy night.   Unfortunately, the odds are that this talented young man will give up on our industry after this negative first impression and instead find his talents utilized elsewhere.  I’m sure I’ll unknowingly bump into his GM somewhere at a hotel association or brand conference and will hear him or her talk about the sad state of employee loyalty these days and what a challenge constant turnover is.  
Doug Kennedy, President of the Kennedy Training Network, has been a fixture on the hospitality and tourism industry conference circuit since 1989, having presented over 1,000 conference keynote sessions, educational break-out seminars, or customized, on-premise training workshops for diverse audiences representing every segment of the lodging industry. Ee-mail Doug at:

Doug Kennedy, President
Kennedy Training Network
Direct:  (954) 981-7689

Also See: A Gameplan for Dealing with Front Desk Clerks More Focused on Their Computer than Welcoming Guests; Transform Your Guest Contact Staff Into ?Hostmasters? / Doug Kennedy / September 2007
Besides Training:  Maximizing Hotel Reservations Sales Success / Doug Kennedy / August  2007
Overcoming - “Now Is Just Not A Good Time For Training…” / Doug Kennedy / July 2007
Walking The Thin Line Between Hospitality Excellence and Mediocrity / Doug Kennedy / June 2007
The True Story Of Two Difficult Guests / Doug Kennedy / May 2007
Mentoring To The Max; Frontline Supervisors Often Caught in the Middle / Doug Kennedy / April 2007
First Step In Maximizing Reservations Sales: Believe It’s Possible / Doug Kennedy / March 2007
Training Is Key To Turning “Desk Clerks” Into Front Desk Salespersons / March 2007
Mastering The Lost Art of Check-In / Doug Kennedy / February 2007
Speaking of Hotel Rooms: When You Turn The Lights Off They All Look The Same / Doug Kennedy / December 2006
Train Your Front Desk To Overcome Challenges of Fielding Reservations Calls At The Front Desk / Doug Kennedy / October 2006
The Hotels Reservations Sales Process; Today’s Callers Want a Personalized and Customized Experience / Doug Kennedy / October 2006
It’s Time To Give Hotel Guests What They REALLY Need and Want Daily! Key Basics Some Hotels Still Fall Short On / Doug Kennedy / September 2006
Have You Listened To What Your Hotel Sales and Reservations Agents Are Saying To Real Customers? / Doug Kennedy / August 2006
Next Step In Revenue Optimization: Train Your Front Desk and Reservations Staff To “Maintain The Rate Fences” / Doug Kennedy / July 2006
Beyond “Outrageous,” and “Legendary” Customer Service Training: Creating “Ordinary Excellence, Daily!” / Doug Kennedy / June 2006
The Politics of Revenue Management / Doug Kennedy / June 2006
Hotel Sales “Steps” and “Processes” Are Out; Today’s Inquiry Caller’s Want A Personalized Sales Experience / Doug Kennedy / June 2006



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