Insights from several longtime hoteliers on where the industry has been this past year and where it’s headed
by CARTER DAVIS
When AAHOA held its first Today’s Hotelier Roundtable in 2018, the world was a much different place. As anyone who hasn’t been living on Mars for the past year will certainly attest, hotels have struggled mightily during the past 12 months as non-essential travel ground to a halt and occupancy rates plummeted due to the pandemic.
Now, nearly three years after that initial gathering, AAHOA reconvened this same group for a renewed conversation about labor in the hospitality industry in a changed landscape.
The conversation was moderated by AAHOA President & CEO Cecil P. Staton, and while signs are pointing to recovery beginning in some sectors already, the road ahead is long.
Perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has worked in this industry for any amount of time, a common thread throughout the 2021 installment of this gathering was one of optimism, as the participants almost universally identified silver linings in an otherwise terribly difficult year. While most properties were forced to furlough or lay off employees at some point, doing so allowed the management teams to identify cross-training opportunities for returning employees to continue to meet guests’ expecations while having fewer resources to do so.
Panelists also said the downturn forced them to do a better job of communicating with their employees throughout the process.
“We created a rubric for our general managers to use when reaching out to furloughed staffers and educate [those staffers]on where we are as an industry,” said Ricky Raman, COO, PeachState Hospitality. “We learned in the financial crisis of ‘09 that overcommunicating is exactly what the industry needs. We took the approach of letting [our employees]know that recovery is within sight. It’s a function of time.”
That information-sharing approach, Raman said, enabled those furloughed employees to better understand the timeline and the decisions made by ownership, which, in turn, primed those employees for an eventual return to work.
“This is an opportunity for leaders to step up and lead,” said Dinesh (Dan) Rama, Principal and Managing Partner, NewGen Worldwide. “It will require more effort than ever before. At the same time, we have to embrace technology and understand what our customers want.”
NEW POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Panelists discussed a still-tight labor market, which has pushed properties to focus on intangibles like benefits and company culture to attract and retain the best employees.
“How do we make people want to come to work?” asked Azim Saju, President and CEO, HDG Hotels. “How do we improve benefits packages and create a career path? The concerns from 2018 are even more relevant now and will become more so as we get into the recovery.”
And when those employees did return to work, they found new procedures in place, but the best-prepared management teams were ready with training plans in place for new procedures like contactless check-in and expanded sanitization procedures. For those furloughed early in the pandemic, the workplace was a very different place once they returned.
However, there was some caution offered against throwing everything at the wall – new technologies, procedures, etc. – just to see what sticks.
“My fear is one of overcorrection where the cost-benefit isn’t looked at in totality,” Saju said. “Once we’re through this, we may have some permanent costs imposed on us that we don’t necessarily need.”
THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING
Before wrapping up, and after talking though the strides AAHOA has made in helping pass industry-friendly legislation, the panelists all took an opportunity to talk about how they’ve all seen this industry bounce back before and are glad to have a front-row seat for the 2021 edition.
“When there is a storm, people will come together,” said Heetesh Patel, President, Neves Investments. “We’re still here; we still have jobs; we have accomplished a lot. Take it one day at a time. All of us have dealt with a personal issue in the last 12 months that you couldn’t have predicted. It has been helpful knowing we will find a solution. The power of positive thinking is amazing.”
Offering her own sage advice, Jyoti Sarolia, Principal, Ellis Hospitality, continued, “Be positive and proactive. If you have teams that look up to you, you have to be positive in this environment, no matter how tough it gets. Find avenues to support them in any aspect. I’ve never seen an industry come together like we did in 2020, and we need to continue doing that.”
And with the final word, AAHOA Chairman Biran Patel said, “The commonality among us is resiliency. No matter how many curveballs have been thrown at us, no matter what happens, we stick together. We will get out of this together.”