By Dr. Peter Ricci

The past 3 years of a roller coaster ride has taken the hospitality industry from its best year on record to a pandemic low that, at times, seems to be a permanent fixture. At the start of the pandemic, none of our industry leaders could have imagined the mass exodus of workers that we are now experiencing.

From my vantage point as the director of a program that offered a free certificate during COVID to thousands, the voices of the workers (and former workers) are loud and they are clear. To confirm these voices, we later surveyed another 50,000 hospitality workers (had about a 10% response rate) and the sentiments were identical in almost every respect. Move forward to 2022 and all major news outlets and sources continue to share the same type of story: mass exodus of hospitality workers.

Yet, I’m optimistic. Our next certificate here at FAU begins in March, 2022 and I personally hope to see a change in the tone and feedback among hospitality workers and those new to the industry. With my 40+ years in the industry, I remain optimistic because I know that our industry will once again become the “go to” place to work.

So, what happened? What caused this mass departure?

Well, first the pandemic changed human thinking in many ways. It was the first “forced” time – globally – where we all were removed from our 24/7 working environments in hospitality and given time to breathe and think. No revenue forecasting, no irritated guests, no last-minute shifts to pick up. Just time away from the restaurants, hotels, tour operators, cruise lines, and theme parks. Even airlines were “empty” for a while. We also had losses among our own families and loved ones and thought about the value of work/life balance and time with other humans.

Many of our workers realized just how tired they had become from the repetitive pattern of long days (and nights), constantly putting a happy face on when underneath was the emotional toll taken to satisfy guests (emotional labor). From those giving care all day, every day – and then at home too – we were indeed tired.

Simultaneously, we encountered a concept that was unfamiliar to us – “work from home.” Many family members and friends could work from home, had positions that often paid better, and were frequently in roles that did not have cranky guests. Our workforce members now also had time to chat with each other more than ever before.

Our takeaway item is that the hospitality workers realized that they had been groomed to be the caregivers, yet their companies did not take care of them during this high time of need. We were furloughed, terminated, or abandoned – often with zero care or concern. Many were fired by the use of Zoom, WebEx, Teams or other similar technology.

The pandemic gave our industry’s workers time to refresh, regroup, and refocus on the humans in their lives – including themselves – instead of them focusing outward on the humans in the lobby. My faculty members and team have now heard it thousands upon thousands of time in a similar manner to this quote from a former hotel worker: “I’ve been trained and professionalized to be a caregiver, yet the company had zero care or concern for me when it terminated me. In fact, they did it via email.”

It is no surprise that the hospitality workforce members found remote work in other areas, started to enjoy quality time with their siblings/children/spouse/significant others/friends/et al. Many simply did not want to “return to the hamster wheel.”

Further, via social media and other methods, the negative voice spread across the hospitality industry and beyond. Many now have no desire for their children to enter the industry. Others have warned their friends and colleagues to steer clear of the hospitality industry in the short run. This ongoing “voice” helped add fuel to the “great departure” from our industry.

It’s no wonder that teenagers and young adults are not flocking to study hospitality in colleges right now. Many programs are seeing large enrollment downturns. They’ve heard the feedback from their parents, aunts, uncles, and others in the family. I project that this absence of incoming students will only worsen the industry’s employment prospects for the next decade.

At first, this all appeared as a “shock” to the CEOs. As we emerged from COVID, companies could not understand why the masses were not returning. The immediate knee-jerk reaction was to raise wages. And, raise we did. But, with little impact. Then, came the statement “well, when all the government aid and subsidies disappear they’ll be back.” Guess what. The masses didn’t return then either.

The more accurate answer is that there has been a tremendous loss of love for working in the hospitality industry. This loss of love comes from a combination of work/life balance, ability to work remotely, respect, a living wage, difficult guests, and assorted sundry items. It’s not only about the money…it’s not only about the lack of remote work…it’s not only the fact that wages are low in some areas of our industry – it’s a combination.

And, here we are entering 2022 and leadership continues to chat about the message, but little change has yet taken place. People will continue to travel, our businesses to need to operate and return reasonable profits, but we are all left shaking our heads. We cannot and should not stand idly by. Efficiencies and technology will also not be our savior as so many believe.

So, what can we do? As the eternal optimist – I know we will survive. We must first listen and not dismiss. I have plenty of owners, operators, managers who simply want to dismiss and wait. That is not the answer by any means.

After listening, we should make inherent, deep, long-term changes. Let’s begin by illustrating the true caregiver nature that we have ourselves – start by focusing on our internal guests. Let them direct us on what works and what doesn’t work. We have to listen to today’s work force. Of course, all this must take place with reason and good judgment. After all, our hotels are for-profit business in most every case. Yet, to ignore and dismiss is not the answer. Collaboration and creating new scenarios for the hotel of the future is the answer.

On a small scale, I’ve been delighted to personally visit a handful of smaller operations that are now providing benefits for every level of worker for free. Others are incorporating creative scheduling and 3-day workweeks. Some have added extensive remote work where possible. And, my favorite is one that rotates duties of all managers across departments. It has made their hotel fun and attractive…becoming “the” place to work in their home city.

Overall, we have lost our attractiveness in the short run. But, we can fix that. I will remain vocal to any naysayer about our industry, “You just are not yet working for the right hotel, owner, or hotel company.” For anyone who has not yet considered our industry due to the ongoing drum of negativity, please re-consider the fun and great experiences that we do indeed offer. Reach out and find the companies that are aligned with today’s best practices and you will find that a lifelong, passionate, delightful career is available in this industry. You find the joy and lifelong pleasure once you find a hotel company that has listened.