How We Are Dealing With Hiring Challenges Right Now

Struggling to find people to fill your open positions – or that have the skills the job requires? You’re not alone.

“How is the recovery going for your business?” For every 10 people in the travel industry that I ask that question, I get 10 different responses — and 10 different predictions as to what might happen next. But just about everyone agrees on one thing: Hiring has become very, very challenging. The so-called “Great Resignation” is happening across industries (and across the globe, if unevenly), and even if it’s somewhat exaggerated, it seems to be hitting travel, restaurants, and leisure especially badly. And the problem is global, as far as I can tell.

In the U.S. the accommodation sector added 23,000 jobs in October — a huge jump from only 2,000 the previous month — but the unemployment rate actually rose to 12.9 percent, and the workforce overall is still down more than 8% percent from pre-pandemic levels. Worse, the “quit rate” in our industry has been about twice the national average.

We’ve all heard the anecdotes: Flights canceled due to labor shortages. Restaurant servers and hotel housekeepers fleeing their old jobs to work for Amazon. Resorts cutting capacity as they struggle to fill open positions. A shortage of travel advisors that’s hitting just as demand is surging. (The cruise business, for one, seems to be faring better, perhaps because it sources much of its labor from developing nations.)

There are many reasons this is happening, which we can divide into glass-half-full and glass-half-empty. Concerns about childcare, fear of contracting the virus, workers still living off government aid or accumulated savings — all these factors can either be addressed relatively easily or will resolve themselves soon enough.

But there are other, more entrenched, issues that will be harder to address. One is the desire for more flexibility: After so many months at home, spending time with family, rediscovering old hobbies, many people don’t want to commute to work every day. It’s one thing to accommodate that for your back-of-the-house staff, quite another for jobs that require interactions with guests or physical presence.

An even bigger shift is that people want something different from their lives. Maybe they’ve moved someplace more affordable and realized they don’t need to earn as much. Or they’ve rediscovered a personal passion that they’re turning into a vocation. Perhaps they’ve opened their own business, or shifted to freelance gigs, or retired early. Whatever it is, they are looking back at their old job and saying, no thanks.

And that’s not limited to those whose old job involved standing all day, serving with a smile, and eking by on low wages or, worse, tips. “It’s natural for people in the service industry who are no longer working their asses off to take a step back and reassess,” Elizabeth Harrison, CEO and Co-Founder of New York public relations firm H&S, told me. “But it’s surprising how many professionals making good money still took another look at what they were doing.”

In Europe, where furlough programs paid workers to stay home, some hoteliers have noticed a shift in attitudes. “After 18 months of getting paid not to work, it has been a real challenge getting people to come back,” said François Delahaye, COO of Dorchester Collection and General Manager of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. “They are less willing to jeopardize their personal life, working evenings or weekends.”

I’ve been speaking to Harrison, Delahaye, and other industry colleagues about how they’re tackling the current hiring environment. Here’s some of the advice they shared.

Make the jobs more attractive. That might mean raising pay, which some major hotel companies are already doing. Higher payrolls may be mitigated by rate inflation, but when guests pay more, they expect more — which in turn requires more and better-trained staff. Dorchester already pays more than its competitors, Delahaye told me, and it has a generous profit-sharing program. Still, he has raised rates and in turn increased salaries. “The challenge now is that we don’t jeopardize service.” And remember: For some employees, higher wages won’t cut it — especially when other, better-paying industries are calling. You may have to compete on benefits (especially childcare in the U.S.) and flexibility.

Improve training and offer real career advancement. “Training is key to helping your staff grow,” said Delahaye, citing Dorchester’s respected career development program. “Promise to improve their position over the years and show how they can make a real career within your organization.” Training is especially critical for new recruits, said Angie Licea, President of Global Travel Collection, the parent company of several premium travel agencies including Protravel, Andrew Harper, and Tzell. “Make sure your training infrastructure is robust enough to bring new employees up to speed as quickly as possible. Don’t just throw them in and expect them to swim.”

This is also an opportune time to recommit to your diversity and inclusion goals and address the so-called “leaky pipeline” that leaves many people of color stuck in middle management positions and unable to rise to senior ranks.

Widen your pool of talent. Many of your unfilled positions are probably translatable from other industries, especially those that are guest-facing. “Look for great customer service people first, then teach them everything else,” said Licea. “A good customer service person can make anyone feel comfortable.” Broaden the team that’s helping find new people, too, said Harrison. “Be creative about how you recruit, and who you are using to do the recruiting.” And again, this is another opportunity to widen your net and bring a more diverse workforce into the travel industry.

Be smart about timing. “Hire before you need to: if you think people are getting ready to leave or that your volume is going to come back,” said Licea. “Don’t wait until you need it — you’ll be too late.” On the other hand, resist what Harrison calls “panic hiring.” “Bringing in people who don’t align with your culture or paying them more than an existing employee who is doing the same job, is a recipe for disaster,” she said.

Manage your margins. Of course, increasing pay while cutting capacity and not having certain outlets open will erode your margins. It’s imperative to do this in a smart and measured way, and not let poor product delivery eat away at the confidence of your consumer (or their travel advisor). “Guests might grumble a bit at cutbacks in service,” said Jacqui Gifford, Editor in Chief of Travel + Leisure. “But most of them appreciate the fact that they can travel at all.” Gifford suggested looking at tech solutions as a way of easing that friction. For example, if you’re not offering daily room cleaning, perhaps enable your guests to text housekeeping directly when they need service. “That humanizes the job while potentially revolutionizing the way it’s done” — while also creating an interaction that’s less automatic and more sustainable.

Photo courtesy of Seabourn

Focus on culture and retention. Last year’s mass layoffs didn’t do much to inspire company loyalty. But retention is critical to keeping knowledge “in house” and maintaining relationships with clients and suppliers. To drive it, you have to walk the walk when it comes to culture. Josh Leibowitz, who started his role as CEO of Seabourn in June 2020, holds regular all-hands video calls with 1,800 employees. He even flew to Cyprus to play table tennis and sing karaoke with the crew on a handful of idled ships. “It was a highlight of my time as a leader,” he said. “They were so enthusiastic to have visitors, to spend time with us and share what’s on their minds. This is the time to be more present than ever.”

Showcase the potential of a career in travel. The culture needs to communicate a sense of possibility. “I see everyone on my staff as someone who might someday have my job,” said Gifford. “In theory anyone in your organization could become the CEO. We need to validate every job, treat people with respect, and offer everyone a path toward promotion. Culturally, that hasn’t always happened in hospitality.” Gifford, a history buff, recommends reading The Great Mortality by John Kelly, a history of the Black Plague. Among other impacts, the pandemic killed so many peasants that wages rose, land became more plentiful, and serfdom disappeared, paving the way to the Renaissance. “Looking at the past can be reassuring. People forget what comes out of times of great trauma,” she said. “I have to be optimistic. It’s an exciting time to be in travel.”  

What about you? Are you facing staff shortages, and if so, how are you overcoming them? Have you raised pay, redefined positions, offered more flexibility? I’d love to hear about your experience. Let’s keep the conversation going.