As I have already mentioned, lately I have been browsing hospitality groups online and asked questions within my network, in order to get a closer look and better understand what are the struggles people are going through in our industry, what are the questions they have, what myself and all of us can do to help and support each other.
I am particularly curious to see how leaders at different levels are coping with the current situation; who is being resourceful and successful under these extremely hard circumstances, and who is instead getting stuck in their ways.
I have been thinking about how at work – but also in life – there are moments, crises, events that change our world for better or for worse, and which, on a smaller or bigger scale, define a new normal.
Every new normal, requires us to push ourselves to embrace it and adapt as quickly as possible, to ensure success or survival. In my opinion it is quite obvious that if we think we can continue to live our lives and to work the same way we used to before the pandemic, we will certainly fail as workers and as a society.
2020, as many of us are constantly saying, is a year to forget for many reasons, but it has definitely taught us many things as well. I personally walk away from it knowing now more than ever, that a fundamental requisite to be a successful leader is to possess strong change management skills.
This is not only true when a crisis situation presents. In general, as time goes by, as technology improves, as our staff evolves, and as new guests’ needs unfold, our ways of doing things also require change.
So if we know that we are often presented with new challenges and new ways, why don’t we try to adapt ourselves and be compatible with the new reality, versus trying to adapt the reality to our old ways of doing things?
During and after the pandemic, I am convinced that only those leaders who are strong, flexible, adaptable, and who are making an effort to embrace the situation versus trying to change it, will be able to overcome the current obstacles.
If we look at a couple of data about hospitality trends in 2020, we see a 50% revenue loss compared to last year in the United States, and a dip of 46% revenue growth worldwide. With the major revenue loss which unfortunately will continue through the end of the year and several more months of 2021, hotels have no choice but continuing the layoffs and operating with extremely reduced staff levels, to offset the damage.
AHLA statistics show that as of September 2020 only 1 in 4 hotels is back to a minimum of 60% of their pre-Covid staffing levels; less than 1 in 3 hotels is still at or below 20% staffing; and 2 out of 3 are below 50%.
It’s definitely good to see that hotels have been restarting their operations and continue to reopen their doors. It’s great to see that companies have been bringing back some staff members and are recruiting for more. However it will be a long time before we can return to the staffing levels we worked with before Covid, and we simply have to accept that for now we have to operate with limited manpower.
Hotels have cut a great amount of line employees, management positions, and even entire departments in some cases.
Teams are heavily scaled down: we are working with one or two employees per shift, we operate with no department heads, assistant manager positions have been reduced or eliminated, middle management is gone. Positions such as director of rooms, director of operations etcetera for the most part don’t exist anymore. The structure has changed drastically.
The leaders who remain are asked to take over roles they have never done before: just last week I came across a luxury ski resort where there is no Front Office manager, no Director of Housekeeping and no F&B manager; the General Manager is now in charge of F&B, and the Director of Sales has been asked to take over Rooms.
This is happening everywhere: many roles are combined, many people are doing things they are totally unfamiliar with, the staff is asked to perform tasks completely out of their job description.
It sounds like a mess, but it is just what we need to do now, and in my opinion it is totally feasible. We just have to change the way we operate.
Let’s look at some factors by department.
At the front office the most efficient solution is to embrace the newest technology. The main advantage of this is that softwares are capable of replacing the work of the staff and of minimizing the guest interaction. There are still tasks to be performed at the desk of course, most importantly to monitor and regulate the software productivity, but nothing that a manager cannot easily do during their shift.
With less and less need to go to the front desk for check-in, check-out, settling bills etcetera, the checklist of a front office agent is heavily downsized, and their role – as sad as it sounds – at the moment is basically redundant.
Guest services roles are also less necessary, again thanks to technology but also to the new circumstances. Guests prefer to self park versus allowing a stranger to enter their vehicle, and many hotels are now allowing this option, when it was almost nowhere permitted before.
Guests feel safer handling their own luggage, versus letting someone else touch it; they are also more cautious when it comes to storing bags and for the most part hotels are letting them keep it in their room on departure day: with such low occupancy late check-outs are an easy benefit to give away right now.
Concierge might currently be at the top of the list of futile roles. I say this with a heavy heart as I love this department and in normal circumstances I consider it an essential component of a true luxury stay. But let’s face it: already before Covid more and more guests were getting their own recommendations through the internet and skipping this fantastic service; now with the need for minimal personal interaction, and with most concierge recommended activities closed and not available, why would we budget for this position?
So the unfortunate reality is that bellmen, valet, concierge and front desk agents in the new normal are positions whose tasks can be performed by machines, by management, or by guests themselves.
Reservations and PBX could represent an opportunity. As one of the main goals is to avoid face to face interaction on site, guests are more willing and encouraged to try and set up as much as possible before their arrival. During their stay phone calls, texting softwares, smart TVs and options of this kind are obviously the preferred methods of communication. All those requests will need to be appropriately monitored, dispatched and executed by the back of the house. So it could be an opportunity to cross utilize staff without work to assist with BOH tasks.
Security, housekeeping and engineering are the essential workers of our industry. Without them, we cannot guarantee the cleanliness, sanitation, maintenance and safety that we need to be able to stay open, welcome our guests, and protect our staff.
To guarantee that measures are in place and rules are enforced, security needs to have a solid workforce. We must have enough people who can be present in the most crowded areas, who can do rounds throughout the property to ensure people’s health is not put at risk by someone’s negligent actions, to protect our staff when guests are being unreasonable and sometimes aggressive, as we unfortunately hear lately.
To ensure the property is clean and maintained according to CDC guidelines, housekeeping and maintenance also need to be appropriately staffed. Yes, the occupancy is exceptionally lower and there are much less rooms to clean on a daily basis; yes, there is a smaller flow in your F&B outlet and public areas; yes, the fitness center, pool and spa are closed at the moment and don’t need to be cleaned as they usually do. However, the service frequency and intensity that is needed right now is much higher than it ever used to be. High touch surfaces must be hit around the clock, items must be sanitized multiple times a shift, rooms must be serviced in a totally new way. Public areas and floors have to be constantly looked after, even if you have few or no guests, even if some areas are closed, routine cleaning and maintenance has to be performed no matter what.
The point is we need someone to do all this. We simply cannot be cheap when it comes to the above mentioned services, if we do we are failing to comply. So how do we balance the intense need for presence and service, with the lack of payroll budget?
The other part is the inconsistency of needs within the same department, and the unpredictability of certain services.
For example, most hotels have removed their minibar facilities, and opted for offering this on request only, so minibar attendants are now superfluous. On the other end, because many objects (extra pillows, blankets, amenities, etc) have been eliminated from the rooms as well, the request for items could be higher than it used to be, so you need someone to deliver. But some guests might not be comfortable with staff coming to their room and touching the object they are going to use, so they might prefer to bring their own. Hard to predict.
Many business guests are working remotely, and leisure guests have no weddings or events to attend, so with no suits or gowns to wash dry cleaning and laundry are another service that is taking a real hit.
With less check-outs, less VIPs, no photoshoots or site inspections, the job of a floor supervisor or a room inspector is also redundant. There is simply not enough work for them to have a full shift.
Following CDC guidelines, stayover service is offered on request only as well, when it was always a daily service by default. Some guests are ok with it, but some are not and will refuse it. Again, hard to predict.
After departure, rooms must be kept out of service for at least 24 hours, before they can be cleaned and sold again, which makes the room assignment quite hard for the front office and scheduling pretty complicated for housekeeping.
So how do you schedule when forecasting is so hard and when guests’ needs are so unpredictable?
There are certainly small things you can do to facilitate and to maximize your team’s productivity: consolidate your floors and use only your best ones, to reduce the need for housemen and engineers shifts and save on utilities; reduce the amount of credits per room, so a housekeeper can still clean a full board and dedicate more time and attention to each room; reevaluate the way you do your room assignment and have front office and housekeeping work closely to make handling of arrivals and departures more efficient; utilize your staff to do periodical work such as spring cleaning, preventive maintenance, special tasks… It’s now time to do all of that!
But the most important change you can do is within yourself. Embrace the circumstances and show off your change management skills. You as a manager have to be the one to make the adjustment and think outside of the box.
Schedule smart: 1 person per shift, which will not only cover one role but which will be multitasking and assisting different teams, sometimes within the same division and sometimes not. One role per employee is just an unaffordable luxury. You should teach your staff to see the bright side of this: they can learn more, make themselves more valuable and knowledgeable for their future, and they can positively contribute to make it through a difficult situation.
You as a leader have to be flexible enough to take over your employees’ tasks yourself, you have to be willing to cover the desk, park cars, walk the floors, strip and inspect rooms, deliver food. It is now on you to be an agent, a bellman, a houseman, a uniform attendant. You are the one who needs to take over whenever and wherever needed.
The concept of department head is not applicable in this reality, everybody is an MOD. There is no more sitting in the office, executive positions are required to be on the floor, and ready to assist guests and to coach and train staff if necessary.
This is the time to lead by example, to give the employees a sense of purpose and to create more collaboration and compassion than we ever have done before.
Yes, it seems hard, but we cannot fall back on “this is how we have always done it”, we need flexibility, creativity and willingness to do whatever it takes.
We need a leaner and more flexible leadership, we need sustainable leadership.
If you are a leader that wears multiple hats and is not afraid to step in and get your hands dirty, you make yourself more valuable and prove you deserve a spot in your workplace.
If you are not willing to do so and you prefer to stick to your comfort zone, you are making yourself redundant. If you cannot adapt, you are not going to survive in this new environment.
Don’t get stuck in your ways, stop trying to change the circumstances, the only thing you can do is change yourself.
Last but not least, a big message I want to bring across is the importance of the actions of the executive level.
Staff and management are taking pay cuts, are jumping in different roles, are ready to do whatever is asked of them to help reducing cost, but they want to see the same from the top. They want more compassionate executive teams that are willing to do just as much as they are. The best leadership is the one that works from the top down, where everyone is on the same page about what difficult actions we should take, what we need to change, what we have to sacrifice.
If the same efforts are not coming from all levels, how are we going to ask our staff to be flexible and understanding, when the situation is already hard as it is?