NEW YORK CITY — If there was a theme to the opening day of the 2023 NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, which started today at the New York Marriott Marquis, it was the state of the hospitality industry workforce. 

“If we're being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that as an industry, we are not accomplishing what we have set out to do just yet,” Jonathan M. Tisch, executive chairman, Loews Hotels and co-chairman of the board, Loews, said in his opening remarks. “I want to zero in on the obstacle that I think is paramount as we look to the challenges of the future, and that is—how do we solve the workforce challenge?” 

Tisch estimated that the U.S. leisure and hospitality segments have about a million and a half jobs open, with a million fewer workers today than before the pandemic—“despite a pretty miraculous recovery from the devastating impact of COVID-19.”

Questions for the Year Ahead

With that in mind, Tisch posed some straightforward questions to the attendees: “Are we providing the type of jobs that people want with the benefits that they value the most?” Flexibility, a better work-life balance and more opportunities for advancement and growth were all in demand before 2020, he noted, “especially amongst Gen Z workers, who are the future of our workforce.” Still, the pandemic “clearly changed” the entire culture as employers and employees worked together to find new ways of working, including remote and hybrid opportunities. “For many, flexibility is now an expectation, not an option,” Tisch said. “About half of non-office workers now say flexibility is more important than pay. Two-thirds of all workers chose a better work-life balance over additional compensation, and some of the great hospitality companies and the amazing organizations in our industry are responding accordingly.”

For example, rather than presenting workers with a schedule, hoteliers are collaborating with their teams to find a solution that works for everyone. Tisch praised initiatives from Marriott and Hilton for encouraging people to see hospitality “as a compelling and attractive place for talented and caring individuals.” 

Tisch also asked attendees if they were offering jobs and career paths that are “rewarding enough for today's purpose-driven workers.” Many workers want to know that their work matters, he continued, and that they are part of a company that recognizes its successes. “That includes making meaningful contributions to our society,” he added. As such, he encouraged hoteliers to ask themselves what steps they are taking to promote sustainable travel. “How effectively are we supporting the local communities where our properties exist? And what are we doing to make the workforce more diverse and inclusive? Employees that feel that their work connects the company's broader purposes are three times more likely to feel fulfilled with their jobs.” 

Notably, while artificial intelligence has challenged and changed the way any number of industries function, he added, “I don't think it can or will ever fully replace … the many roles for individuals who supply the human interaction that is critical to our industry.” That, he added, is what makes hospitality different from other segments of the business world. 

While the industry wrestles with these questions, Tisch emphasized the need to elevate the industry story of opportunity. “This will always be the strongest case for jobs that we offer, and careers that we started,” he said. 

Policy Update

During the Policy Update session immediately following Tisch’s remarks, AAHOA President and CEO Laura Lee Blake discussed the “mixed bag” of last week’s job’s report: “On the one hand, it looks like we've already added 339,000 jobs this past month,” she said. “But only a small number in the hospitality industry.” For the month of May, she said, hotels only added 1,300 jobs. 

In a bid to drive employment, AAHOA has been working in Washington, D.C. to “get the numbers up for the H-2B [temporary nonagricultural worker] visas.” Blake also noted efforts to create a new visa category for foreign workers. “That would be an H-2C visa and especially focused on the hospitality industry,” she said. “So there's a lot that can be done.” 

Andy Ingraham—president, founder and CEO of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers— said the industry as a whole must do a better job of attracting people from minority communities and make sure the industry provides upward mobility to these workers. “When we look at the greatest industry in the world—which is travel and tourism—we see, really, a lack of diversity at the top level,” he said, suggesting this could discourage young people—especially young People of Color—from seeking out a career in the sector. “We've got to make sure that young people, no matter what color they are, know that if [they] can join this industry at any level, [they] could continue to go up.” 

At the same time, Ingraham said many hoteliers “abandoned [their] employees” during the worst of the COVID downturn. While those employers may not have had a choice at the time, it left those workers with an unpleasant feeling about the industry. “We’ve got to go back and resell the dream that this is the greatest industry in the world.” 

Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, argued that the industry is already doing better than it was in certain ways. “The wages that we're paying now have advanced 60 percent faster than the rest of the U.S. economy since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. Much as AAHOA is looking to attract workers through expanded visa programs, he continued, AHLA is working with a number of members of the U.S. Senate to shorten the timeframe for asylum seekers to begin working in the country—currently six months—to one month.