Moving on up


To retain their best workers, hotel companies are providing a path for career advancement


When Matthew West interviews job candidates, he asks them what they’ve done in the past year to further their career development, and the typical response reveals that employers aren’t doing nearly enough to nurture their top performers.

West is the Director of Talent Acquisition and Development and Corporate Responsibility for Real Hospitality Group, a third-party hotel-management company based in Ocean City, Md., and operating more than 100 properties across the country. He said about 25% of job applicants report their current employer hasn’t offered them any opportunities for advancement, and that’s the main reason they’re seeking a new job.

“This was already an important topic before the pandemic,” West said, “but since the pandemic, it’s been exacerbated because we really do need to retain that talent and make sure people are developing and growing within the industry. For us, communication is really key in regards to finding people who have ‘the juice,’ which is the passion and drive to go the extra mile and be successful in the industry.”

West said that communication strategy involves an ongoing effort to inform employees about the tools and resources his company offers to help them achieve their goals. Real Hospitality Group regularly updates its internal learning-management system, providing training tools such as online modules, a calendar of instructional webinars, and classroom sessions.

West travels to different regions of the country to teach quarterly classes in supervision and leadership to help employees learn managerial skills, covering topics such as performance management, company culture, improving the customer experience, and interviewing job candidates.

To create a solid relationship between mentor and protégé, West recommends a longer timeframe – Real Hospitality Group offers 12-month mentorships – to serve as a bridge between employees’ current positions and the roles they desire, giving them on-the-job experience in a job function or department with which they may have no familiarity.

Mentors should meet with employees on a regular schedule to review a competency checklist that spells out the skills they’ll need to move up and to create a plan to develop those skills. Front-desk associates interested in sales and marketing, for example, may be partnered with regional sales directors to shadow them on the job, accompany them to industry events and complete cross-training exercises.

“It requires a commitment from both the associate and the mentor,” West said. “They’re putting in a lot of time. That mentor will work with the general manager to put that plan together, so that employee’s development isn’t one person’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s all about working together as a team to develop that associate.

“Our mentorship is 12 months, for example” West said, “but that doesn’t mean the mentor stops being a resource after that time. It often becomes almost a lifelong relationship in terms of mentee and mentor.”

“One of the things we want to get out there is that hospitality is a career,” West affirmed. “It might take you in a lot of different directions; that’s one of the great things about it. It’s so flexible. You’re never pigeonholed into one thing, and I think that’s really important for people to know.

“And it’s important for associates to know this is possible career for them,” he added. “I think companies in the hospitality industry have realized that to build bench strength and reduce turnover, they have to become more proactive. That’s why a lot of companies have decided to develop more structured [career-development] programs.

And, according to West, many properties also understand they need to identify their best leaders and be able to utilize their skills to mentor the next generation of leaders.

In preparing the next generation of supervisors, one challenge for employers is that the best entry-level workers don’t always make the best managers. Being the best housekeeper or front-desk associate, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll excel as a housekeeping or front-office manager. But if hoteliers never give star employees a chance to shine, they risk losing them, according to Doug Meyer-Cuno, author of “The Recipe for Empowered Leadership.”

“You have to come up with ways to attract people to the industry because you’re competing against everybody else, not just your own industry,” said Meyer-Cuno, a business executive turned consultant. “The company needs to create a pathway to success – moving up the chain – and that has to be an intentional process from the management team, top down.”

Meyer-Cuno said the answer for hoteliers is to start small, giving top employees a taste of responsibility and evaluating their performance. Find a low-stakes project that needs to be completed and empower a promising employee to supervise it. If the employee succeeds, then find another project that involves a bit more responsibility.

Conversely, if the employee fails, work with him to identify the reason. Based largely on the worker’s effort and attitude, a skilled manager should be able to determine whether that employee is worth giving another shot or if it’s time to cut bait.

“You give them the guardrails to work within and let them go do it, and you see how they do,” Meyer-Cuno said. “As long as you give them incremental bits of growth, you’re going to help mature the person into a manager over time.”

Managers should meet individually with employees quarterly or every six months to talk about their job satisfaction, goals, and opportunities within the company, Meyer-Cuno said. For large hotel companies, he said, making it easy for employees to relocate for promotions will help keep more talented workers in the fold.

To the extent possible, managers should establish key performance metrics to evaluate the job performance and progress of employees, he added. Maintenance workers may be evaluated on their response times, for example.

“We’re measuring their success based on what we ask them to accomplish, and that one-on-one meeting holds that person accountable to it,” Meyer-Cuno said.

“When you do that, you will recognize the ambition, the drive, and the self-motivation of that employee, and you will be able to measure whether that employee has the skillset and talent to go up to the next level. Are they able to pivot and respond to criticism that will help them become a better employee or are they just ignoring the advice you give them?”

Even without a formal mentoring program in place, hotel executives can help their best employees develop simply by “making themselves available,” according to David Salcfas, general manager of The Algonquin Hotel Times Square, a Marriott property. Part of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, Salcfas also started his own company, iYou Hospitality Consulting,
last year.

Salcfas said he speaks at career fairs and has worked with community colleges and universities on programs that steer graduates toward careers in the hospitality industry. But the most talented people sometimes come from within. Several years ago, he noticed a pastry chef who was especially personable and professional and had made a real connection with a soon-to-be bride during a wedding tasting event.

At the time, the company was looking to create the new position of social catering manager, and Salcfas saw a top prospect right in front of him.

“I knew this lady had talent beyond the pastry department,” he said. “She’s got the ability to connect with people, to sell something, and to bring true value to the experience of the guest.”

Salcfas said he allowed the worker to shadow him to learn about the sales process, including prospecting and booking business, and today, she’s the director of catering for a major hotel brand.

“That’s just one example of sourcing talent, redeploying, and then mentoring them along the way, and I still act as a mentor to this young lady today,” Salcfas said. “I put myself out there, and I wish more professionals would do that.”


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