HDC panelists home in on labor crisis solutions

NASHVILLE — The second day of the Hotel Data Conference, held virtually and in person at the Omni Nashville, examined a range of issues facing the industry. The Labor in Crisis panel addressed the ongoing lack of workers looking for jobs in hotels, calling on the heads of several management companies to offer ideas. 

Moderator Sean McCracken, news editor at Hotel News Now, began the panel with some sobering statistics: The U.S. Department of Labor reported 92 million open jobs at the end of early July, with 1.2 million openings in the accommodations and food services sector for an opening rate of 9.1 percent, a 90 percent increase since the beginning of the year. At the same time, the accommodations and food services sector recorded 5.7 percent quit rate, which is the highest of any sector, with the overall quit rate in the nation only to 2.5 percent, itself a record high. 

But somewhat ironically, this is all happening at the same time as jobless claims are declining. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that jobless claims fell to 375,000 from 387,000 the previous week. In comparison, the number of applications reached 900,000 in early January, according to the Associated Press.


Stanley Kennedy, COO of third-party management company Remington Hotels, said the biggest challenge is trying to source individuals to come back into the industry, which may not seem as luxurious as it once did after the 18-month downturn. “We have to re-establish this whole sense of the hospitality business,” he said.

Chris Cheney, VP of hotel performance and analytics for hotel owner, operator and developer Stonebridge Cos., noted that hotels are no longer competing with their peers for labor, but are competing with retail, restaurants and any business that wound down at the start of the pandemic and is now ramping up again. “It's a big hole for all of us to climb out of, and it's not just our industry,” he said.

Philip Bates, managing partner and CEO at owner and management firm TMC Hospitality, said the mass exodus is forcing the industry to rethink its labor models and operating structures as a whole. “Because there are so many job offerings in the industry, finding good people, retaining good people and getting them to be enthusiastic to do a good job is part of the challenge,” he said. 

Kennedy argued that furloughs, common at both the corporate and property level during the height of the pandemic, broke the sense of trust and loyalty hoteliers had with their associates. That, in turn, gave them a reason to reconsider their careers in hospitality. “They can’t depend on us to give them that steady income that they once thought they had," he said. "Somehow, we have to re-establish that sense of trust between associate and operator.” 


Finding a fix to these problems will be a challenge in and of itself, Cheney said, because each worker has unique needs. “Everybody has gone through such a wholesale paradigm shift over the last year and a half," he said. "Life changed for everybody in some way.” During the downturn, people studied and learned new skills, he said, “becoming a more well-rounded individual to try to elevate their career [or] maybe take a different career path.”

Others might need help with childcare, while other workers may have moved to a new area and are still deciding on next steps, he added.  

“It comes down to technology and operating structure,” Bates said, noting that TMC does not manage big brands and can be more flexible in that structure. “We use technology wherever we can to take bodies off of the property. And then the bodies we have on the property, we try to make them all entrepreneurs [and] think like an owner. You have a clear path to rise.” For example, a hotel’s food-and-beverage managers should be running the restaurant, hiring the staff and getting a share of the profits—but the hotel should equip the managers with whatever they need to succeed, which leads to more retention," Bates said. 

Stonebridge has found success adding mid-level management to hotels that haven't had it before, Cheney said—“maybe a hotel had a GM and an AGM; now we're going to go another level and add an operations manager, some additional management levels and F&B.” These new roles promote the idea that team members are on a solid, attainable career path accessible to anybody at any level in the organization, he said. 

Higher Learning

Colleges and universities  also can be a good pipeline into the industry. Stonebridge maintains “very good relationships” with several higher learning institutions around the country, Cheney said, particularly in markets where the company has assets. Team leaders either go on campus or meet with students in virtual classrooms, he said, sharing real-world examples of people who have been through career growth in the industry—some of whom are alumni who have risen through the ranks within the organization.

This can be a win-win for the school, he added, especially if enrollment in the hospitality program is down. “Let's talk about how we can get people not in the hospitality-specific program interested in hospitality, because there are a plethora of career paths you can take without ever setting foot in a hotel in our industry,” he said. While the company’s leadership appreciates team members who have hotel-level experience, they also want workers with experience in finance, accounting, revenue management and data science. “It doesn't have to be born out of a property-level position," Cheney said. "There are things we can do to tap into other degree programs to let people know this is an industry you can build a future in, even if you don't want to be on property.”

While individual companies reaching out to colleges is a good start, Kennedy called for the industry to pull together in a bid to attract more workers. “Through the educational institute with [the American Hotel & Lodging Association], you know, combine that effort with the college universities and hospitality schools [and] business schools.” The industry could work together with universities, community colleges, trade schools and even high school career counselors to build a sense of excitement about hospitality, he said: “We're kind of scattered as we do this and we're a bunch of individual companies but I think if you put the power of the brands, the AHLA [and] all the management companies together to go out and start this whole recruiting effort, I think we can actually start to energize more people getting in at an earlier stage, so that we can continue that progress toward filling all these future positions.”