By Daniel Johnson
Just as you can’t “pour from an empty cup,” hotels can’t provide great service without the help of great staff – hospitality professionals know this to be unequivocally true. Hospitality is, in many ways, defined by its providers. Great hospitality isn’t simply the provision of a singular service; instead, it’s an experience, one that is continuously curated and delivered in a meaningful way via engaged staff, a pristine property, and the best available technological advances.
Despite this, hiring has always been a crux of our industry, from technology to management, front desk, and beyond. The pandemic has severely impacted our sector’s professional growth and evolution. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), COVID-19 has wiped out a decade of hotel job growth and accounted for 39% of all jobs lost in the United States. Hotels are down half a million jobs below the industry’s pre-pandemic level of 2.3 million employees. These numbers are US-centric; however, the situation affects hoteliers worldwide.
Simultaneously, guest demand for contactless and mobile-enabled solutions to reduce risks from face-to-face interactions grows louder and more prominent in our industry’s discussions. In a recent presentation from HT Magazine, 32% of respondents noted a lack of skill as a critical technology challenge in 2020, while 30% referenced security and privacy concerns with the adoption of new technologies to be top-of-mind.
To this effect, the question on the minds of industry leaders must be: What price will we pay for the skills chasm that has opened up before us? How will hotels find talent if more and more people think twice about starting a career in an industry that is so vulnerable?
When a Skills Gap Becomes a Skills Chasm
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in June 2019, the leisure and hospitality industry hired just over 1.1 million people nationwide, representing an increase of 42,000 hires from May and 64,000 hires from June 2018. In March 2020, however, this industry-wide momentum came to a screeching halt as hotels began planning and implementing cost-reduction efforts in the face of international travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. A Statista survey revealed that the global hotel industry’s revenue dropped to $198.6 billion in 2020, a 46% decrease year-over-year, and data indicates it will take three years for the hotel industry to recover.
The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily sidelined the hopes for a promising start to a career for new grads and emerging hospitality leaders. In a CNBC interview with Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, it was revealed how quickly the landscape changed for their senior students, many of whom had bright futures ahead of them. What had been a golden age for graduating seniors, ripe with multiple offers and opportunities, was now a fight for survival. With a drastic spike in unemployment rates across industries since the spring of 2020, recent graduates find themselves competing against an onslaught of experienced workers who have been furloughed or are exploring new sectors.
In many cases, former hospitality professionals are diverting their focus to alternative industries after months of struggling to find consistent, stable work. Understandably, hotels may struggle to find capable associates for an industry that is so highly impacted by natural disasters, political instability, climate change, and recessions.
The Demands of a High-Tech and High-Touch Landscape
Simultaneous with staffing-related concerns, industry-wide demand for emerging technologies, including contactless systems, integrations, and IT security, is at an all-time high. This should come as no surprise as, in a post-pandemic world, hotels and travel brands are expected to cater to anxious travelers and proactively mitigate any safety-related concerns while protecting their data from the influx of cyber threats. However, it’s important to note that the successful implementation and development of this technology requires skilled professionals and adequate training and data security measures.
And while new-age technologies are well-positioned to increase efficiency, mitigate risk, enhance convenience, and facilitate a safer guest experience, these platforms are not meant to replace human labor entirely. Hospitality professionals are encouraged to consider a lack of talent from a technological perspective and a guest-facing perspective. The creation of a great online and offline guest experience, as you might imagine, requires expertise on both sides of the spectrum – without that expertise, how can we collectively rise to the occasion of increasingly stringent guest expectations?
Looking to the Future
Now, more than ever before, hotels must invest in their future in an effort to ensure their recovery. This requires hoteliers to emphasize recruiting candidates based on potential (rather than experience, in some cases) and implement last-mile training. In this case, ‘last-mile training’ would require hoteliers and hospitality technology vendors to equip new hires “with specific technical skills and business knowledge that can be best developed through hands-on work experience.”
As Chip Rogers has noted, this ongoing skills gap dilemma will also demand additional government support. Hospitality has, after all, been one of the hardest-hit industries, and hotels will need access to resources to retain and rehire their staff and attract new talent. With this in mind, ‘The American Rescue’ plan has been proposed as a vital step toward helping small businesses stay open and protect jobs. It contains many necessary provisions AHLA has advocated for to help put the hotel industry back on a path to recovery.
Hospitality programs should also look to this time as a critical learning opportunity and, where possible, use the current crisis to inform the development of applicable skills. In times of crisis, innovation takes center stage, and this pandemic is no exception. In many ways, the pandemic represents an opportunity for our current and emerging industry leaders to rethink and reshape the way our industry operates, leveraging the knowledge and insight of experts who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the future.
While we can’t deny the unprecedented trials and tribulations experienced this past year, the travel demand will, in time, return. Presently, prospective travelers around the world are feeling fatigued by a year of lockdown-related restrictions. With the promise of vaccines and herd immunity, travelers will, once again, start to make plans for future trips and experiences. This begs the question… will our hotels be ready?