By Alex Shashou

A well-trained staff will mean a well-run hotel.

Labor is the principal operational expense in the hotel business, according to a survey of our GMs. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as hospitality is first and foremost a service industry, with research pegging labor costs at roughly 32% of revenue. As one hotelier put it, “Everything comes down to people, your biggest variable cost is payroll.” When we asked this same GM for his advice for succeeding in the hotel business, he told us simply, “Hiring the best people that you can find. There’s nothing more expensive than cheap managers.”

Though employees are often the greatest cost, they can also be the hotel's most valuable asset. And in addition to choosing exceptional candidates, it’s all about being willing to prepare them to thrive as staff members. Proper training is a vital investment that will optimize your hotel workforce.

One of our GMs felt that staff training is underemphasized in many hotels, especially in the United States. “Hotels are notorious for throwing people in and letting them figure it out,” he told us. “The only hotel I got real training at was my first hotel, when they took me behind the back office and I wasn’t allowed to talk to the guest for three weeks until they deemed me ready. Very few hotels do that anymore. They might do it China but never in the US."

We wondered, is this habit of letting new employees "figure it out" or “watch and copy” actually serving the hotel's success? We doubt it. Providing for staff to learn more skills is certainly an investment, but for many hoteliers, it's one that quickly pays off. Such was the case for this same hotelier, who told us about implementing a successful program of wine education at his hotel. On the food and beverage side at his hotel, there hadn’t been a history of training, especially in wine. “So we’ve decided to start with that,” he told us. “We partnered with Veuve Cliquot and we brought in their champagne ambassador to do a whole training on Cava, Prosecco, champagne and vintage champagne, and do a tasting. For some of our staff, it was their first time they ever tasted vintage champagne.” According to this GM, the positive results of investing in this training appeared right away: “And lo and behold, we sold more champagne that week.” Staff training takes time and money, but when done correctly, the reward is a properly fluid workforce where each individual can serve the hotel to their maximum potential. but the reward is maximizing what each individual can contribute to the hotel.

Experienced managers are the heart of an efficient workforce.

Competent managers are not only qualified to train new employees – they are often invaluable to the hotel's functioning. Many hoteliers improve their staff's efficiency by relying on experienced professionals. For Sardor Umarov, General Manager of the Exchange Suites in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and one of the GMs we spoke with, this means delegating responsibility to managers over their specific department. Sardor told us, “First of all, we hire people that are serious in their field. For the front desk, we have a FOM who handles all the staff and associates, and they're trained by her. She’s great and she’s been working in hotels for over 50 years, so I don't have to spend my time managing her, or dealing with the repetitive things.”

In the housekeeping department, Sardor has found success with the same model. He relies on a manager with over 20 years in the industry, and a graduate of hospitality school. “She makes sure everything stays up to our standards with the housekeepers that we have,” he told us. “It’s all about hiring smart, experienced managers and delegating to them.”

Bringing new recruits into the mission – and keeping them on your staff.

Staff turnover in hotels is a well-known problem; in hospitality more broadly, the rate ranges between 60-300%, three times most other industries. Our hoteliers all experience this problem to a different degree, but each told us how he seeks to counteract the trend, or maintain his staff's level of satisfaction. Considering how to best serve your employees – and improve their work-life balance – is an important component of building a strong workforce.

Keeping employees happy can begin simply by acknowledging their contribution. As one of our GMs noted, "When people don’t feel like they're being valued, they’ll jump.” For this GM, empowering employees means being sensitive to what they need, and appreciative of the work they do. He told us, “Working In a hotel isn’t difficult but it’s hard work. You get home, your back hurts, you’re exhausted, you deal with people all day. So I tell management that their job is to clear the path so that their team can do their job as well as possible. Sometimes that’s motivating them, sometimes it’s giving them the tools and the support they need to get it done.”

This GM also makes it a point to communicate the hotel’s mission to staff members, so that they feel like they’re contributing to something bigger. “For the most part, 99% of people don’t want to do a bad job,” he told us. “They just want to feel empowered, given the tools to do what they have to do.”

Sardor seemed to agree with the previous hotelier that a sense of being valued is important to employees, and possibly a determinant of whether they keep the job. Sardor told us, “We take care of our employees, family business, and it’s a very family oriented environment here. People like that, and they get paid well.” We agree that creating this culture of inclusion can make the difference when it comes to retaining staff.

Some hoteliers find that a positive, welcoming work environment is strengthened by providing opportunities to be social and have fun with coworkers. For Sardor, such events are very family-oriented. He told us, “It’s really a fun environment. Every holiday, we try to have a big open table spread full of food. My mom makes a lot of salads and different foods, and they all love it. The best is the Napoleon pastries, people will fight over that!” Providing such a space for employees to relate to each other in a casual way can greatly promote team-building.

Meanwhile, Michael Hillier, General Manager of The Renwick in New York City, and another of our GMs, touted the benefits of shorter shifts for employees. While team-building, a positive culture, and communicating the mission are all worthwhile ways to improve your staff's work experience, the basic realities of their schedule have a huge impact. In terms of his staff’s work-life balance, Michael told us, “I don’t think we could improve that any more. In a union hotel, they work seven-hour shifts, and the benefits of being a union hotel is that they automatically have that.” As Michael noted, this system is beneficial for the success of the business, as well as the individual employees. “It allows for better service. With seven-hour shifts they’re always fresh, not like other properties where I had guys pulling 18-hour shifts. They’re not even human when they work that hard.” Michael’s emphasis on a shorter work week schedule does not go as far as Uniqlo, which last summer instituted a four-day work week to lure and retain talent, but staff turnover at Michael's hotel would suggest that employees are pleased with this arrangement: he went so far as to tell us that at his hotel, the issue of losing staff members "doesn't exist."

Create incentives to encourage a strong work ethic.

In the hotel business, as in any other, the power of incentives to improve staff performance should not be underestimated. Michael told us about the creative incentives he offered to employees. Though some are monetary, they include a variety of service-related programs too. One is reward for a positive name mention on TripAdvisor. Another is offering the employee who upsells suites or more expensive rooms to guests upon arrival a 10% commission on the upgrade. In another example, staff are incentivized to choose certain days off because they’re free. Such strategies even extend to promoting room cleanliness. Michael told us, “With Housekeeping, I have a test where I’ll write down, ‘Please come see me’ on a piece of paper, and crumple it up in a way that is inconspicuous enough that a guest won’t notice, but if anyone in housekeeping sees it and opens it up, they can redeem a free Starbucks gift card, or something like that.”

Michael explained that it’s important to consider what’s in it for your employees. “It all comes down to the fact that you have people working for you…you just think to yourself, ‘What would make me work better?'” he told us. “Not every positive action has to be rewarded with monetary compensation, sometimes recognition – a pat on the back even – can do the trick”.

In Michael’s view, a hotel's ability to provide guests with a great experience depends on how management treats the staff. “If you don't treat them with respect, they’re not going to be there for you," he told us. "It's the only way to create a true team atmosphere.” At ALICE we couldn’t agree more. The competence and enthusiasm of your employees will determine the quality of service provided to guests, and giving your staff the tools to succeed – and showing you appreciate them – will make all the difference.