Hotel executives share strategies gleaned from the prolonged industry downturn
The fierce competition for workers facing hotels and other businesses carries a little less urgency at Phoenix American Hospitality, where wages and performance expectations have risen in tandem and employees tend to stick around.
W.L. Nelson, chief executive of Phoenix American Hospitality, said the Dallas-based company laid off several hundred employees due to the pandemic, and those who remained picked up the slack, sometimes cleaning rooms, manning the front desk, managing the breakfast area, and folding laundry during the same shift.
Those hardworking, versatile employees represented the cream of the crop, the ones most capable of carrying Phoenix American through a period of great uncertainty. So, Nelson decided to reward them for their hustle. The company increased its wages, 401(k) contributions, and other benefits despite the economic downturn. Turnover rates, he said, fell sharply as a result.
As the industry recovers, offering generous compensation is helping Phoenix American to attract new workers for its 17 properties, all select-service or extended-stay hotels under the Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt brands, Nelson said.
“I think we’ve cured our labor problem,” he explained. “In this industry, we talk about managing expenses, but we don’t often talk about how treating our employees just a little bit better than the market can have many benefits. There’s a productivity benefit that then circles back to a reduction in expense.”
During the past two years, hoteliers have needed grit, patience, and perseverance to deal with the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19. But they’ve also relied heavily on their ingenuity, changing the way they manage properties and serve guests. Here’s a look at four strategies that are paying dividends.
1. Recruiting Employees
Fouad Malouf, senior vice president of franchise operations for Red Roof, said that in years past, a job posting on Indeed often was enough to lure job-seekers, but that’s no longer true. In response to the labor shortage, Red Roof produced a webinar for franchisees providing a long list of online job boards and outlining a more robust approach to recruitment.
The webinar instructed hoteliers to contact their local unemployment office, Veterans Affairs office, and nonprofits to let them know they’re hiring. He said organizations like Catholic Charities, which is helping refugees from Afghanistan find work, and similar groups can assist hiring managers in casting a wide net.
“We’ve also looked at posting fliers in laundromats and other busy places, which is something we did in the past but had got-ten away from because of all the technology today,” Malouf said. “But you want to leave no stone unturned. We came up with a great list of resources for our franchisees, and it’s been helpful.”
Similarly, Malouf said Red Roof is offering a greater degree of workplace flexibility to jobseekers. In prior years, he said, a job posting may have called for a front-desk associate to work the traditional 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, five days a week. But that rigidity eliminates many potential hires who have family obligations and would be happy to work 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., he said.
“You have to offer that flexibility, and sometimes that means that owners or general managers have to cover part of that shift at the front desk,” Malouf said. “We’re hearing from people that flexible scheduling has helped.”
Elie Khoury, executive vice president for operations at Aimbridge Hospitality, said his hotel management company has taken a similar approach, allowing employees to use a smartphone app to sign up for individual shifts. In addition, the company is using staffing providers such as Instawork, which lets gig workers accept shifts according to their availability, he said.
Each gig worker who shows up is a potential full-time employee, so those who perform well are invited to apply for permanent jobs, Khoury said. Since these workers typically value the flexibility of gig work, Aimbridge emphasizes that the company can accommodate most scheduling needs, he said.
“It’s become a recruiting tool that helps us to broaden our reach,” Khoury said of Instawork.
The willingness to hire more part-time workers and offer flexible scheduling represents a “mindset shift” for Aimbridge, which traditionally had leaned on full-time employees working a fixed schedule, Khoury said.
“Morale is much higher now because they have a better family/work balance,” he said. “It’s also allowed us to improve our service because a happy employee leads to happy customers, so I think at the end of the day, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Times are tight for many Americans, so Aimbridge has partnered with PayActiv, a mobile platform that gives employees instant access to their earned wages. Workers still can collect a paycheck every two weeks, but if they need money right away to buy groceries or pay rent, they can transfer their earned wages from that pay period to their bank account, helping them avoid costly payday lenders, Khoury said.
2. Managing Labor
Throughout the pandemic, hoteliers have found creative ways to help employees become more productive. At Red Roof, for example, some franchisees have allowed the children of employees to watch television or do homework in vacant rooms so their parents can stay on the job longer.
That’s not an option for young children who need constant supervision, but it can help parents with older kids whose schooling has been disrupted by COVID-19, Malouf said.
In areas where Red Roof has multiple properties, employees are invited to pick up shifts at nearby hotels as their schedule allows. Associates appreciate the opportunity to make extra money, Malouf said, and giving workers more hotels to choose from makes it easier to accommodate their scheduling needs.
“That’s been most effective where we have a cluster of properties because transportation can be an issue for employees,” Malouf said. “In the past, you wouldn’t have thought to have your employee go work at another hotel, but today, sharing that labor force can be beneficial to both properties and employees.”
Red Roof is even designing hotels to make it easier for employees to navigate between different job functions, Malouf said. The company recently came up with a prototype for new properties under its HomeTowne Studios extended-stay brand that places the laundry room close to the front desk. The layout will allow front-desk associates to fold laundry during slow periods, he said.
“The worker doesn’t have to leave the front-desk area,” Malouf said. “If a guest wants to check in, they’re still right there to help that guest. Those efficiencies are going to go a long way toward having employees who can perform more than one task at a hotel.”
3. Embracing Technology
Khoury said most hotels managed by Aimbridge offered keyless entry prior to the pandemic, but now, guests can check in using brands’ smartphone apps, skipping the front desk entirely. Eliminating that step reduces the risk of viral transmission through personal interaction and lightens the customer-service load for understaffed hotels, he said.
Aimbridge also has increased its usage of QR codes in rooms and is introducing autonomous mobile robots to deliver food, beverages, extra towels, and toiletries, Khoury said. Using their smartphones, guests can scan a QR code and gain access to menus from the hotel restaurant or nearby eateries that offer delivery through DoorDash, Grubhub, or Uber Eats.
Customers can order food or coffee from their rooms, walk down to the hotel’s restaurant or coffee shop, and take it back to their rooms, streamlining the transaction for both guests and employees. Smart robots serve the same purpose, providing prompt service to guests while minimizing the demands placed on staffers.
“Technology has really allowed us to service our customers on the food-and-beverage side in multiple ways, and through these delivery services, we’re able to expand our menu beyond the four walls of the hotel,” Khoury said.
4. Sprucing Up Properties
At Phoenix American, large capital improvement projects were put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean properties were neglected, Nelson said.
The company took advantage of low occupancy rates to resurface and restripe parking lots; apply touch-up paint to rooms, lobbies, and stairwells; paint wooden baseboards; give guest rooms and common areas a deep cleaning; repair and replace PTAC units; and reapply caulking in bathrooms, he said.
“When you’re at full occupancy, which select-service hotels often are, it’s difficult to do some of those things,” Nelson said. “They get pushed aside because it’s not an immediate need for the customer. But we used the slowdown as an opportunity to really ramp up our hotel maintenance so that everything looks fresh and cared for – not necessarily new but well maintained.
“Fortunately, we have a good base of capital partners that we can call on as needed to do those sorts of things, because for quite a while, there was no cash flow at the hotels.”