Labor issues require immediate action

Having just returned from two major industry conferences, one message is unmistakable: We’ve reached an inflection point in the industry’s recovery, and how hotels manage their operations in coming quarters may well determine the long-term success of hospitality.

All of the big-picture talk about personalization and pricing and distribution aside, a more immediate situation has presented itself: After 18 months of sitting at home, guests are coming back through our doors looking for relief—starving for an amazing vacation experience—and we don’t have the resources to accommodate them.

Hotels are struggling to find line-level workers. The American Hotel & Lodging Association says more than one in five direct hotel operations jobs lost during the pandemic—nearly 500,000 in total—will not have returned by the end of the year. GMs are checking guests in, cleaning rooms and performing many other line-level tasks while working incredible amounts of overtime. Other front-line employees are scrambling to handle responsibilities they haven’t been trained to perform.

The result is subpar customer service. Whereas prepandemic the industry discussion centered on “going above and beyond” to provide a personalized and memorable experience, many hoteliers today are at risk of dropping the ball on meeting their guests’ basic needs.

The signs of the problem have become unmistakable: There are long lines at check-in. Many food-and-beverage outlets remain closed. Housekeeping is a carefully allocated luxury. Inexperienced staff members are learning on the fly.

We all know the effects one bad experience have on a guest—they simply will not return to your property. But what happens when the fall-off in service is industrywide? At a time when alternative lodging sources like Airbnb and Sonder continue to grow in popularity, it’s possible that significant numbers of travelers could be discouraged from ever returning to hotels again.

Finding Solutions One Step at a Time

The first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem, and then it’s time to start taking incremental steps to improve.

Much has been said and written about leaning on technology to automate many of the manual tasks previously handled by line-level employees. This moment feels like the right time to start. In fact, it’s a necessary first step that will evolve over time and eventually lead us to a place where we need fewer employees to operate our hotels.

Asking hoteliers to invest in new hardware and software after one of the worst financial setbacks in their experience is a tough sell. But it’s almost table stakes at this point. If hoteliers want their businesses to survive into the future, adopting tools that increase efficiency is a must.

One important step is adopting self-service tools at the guests’ first point of contact with your hotel—as soon as they walk into the lobby.

From the guest perspective, first impressions are everything. Walking into a hotel after a day of traveling through airport security and a lengthy plane ride in a hot mask and then having to wait in line again at the hotel just to get your room key is not the first impression we want to create. 

Entering  the lobby can and should be a relief for travelers. They have finally made it to their destination and entered a place of peace and comfort. Everything that happens from here forward should be on their own terms.

Digital check-in should be quick, simple and straightforward. And it should work for 100 percent of guests on whichever device they choose. If they download an app ahead of time, they should be able to check in and receive their room key with a few taps on their own device. If they prefer not to download an app, they should be able to walk through the lobby doors and head straight to a kiosk where they can verify their identity, present payment and receive either a physical or digital key effortlessly.

Of course, allowing guests to handle the check-in process on their own not only makes life easier for them, it reduces the number of employees hotels need behind the front desk. It’s no longer inconceivable for hotels to get rid of the front desk completely. Short-term rental providers are doing it, and they’re managing just fine. But even if you’re not willing to take the full plunge, digital check-in will significantly reduce the amount of work your staff has to do to onboard a guest, freeing them up to perform other tasks throughout the hotel during their shift.

To be sure, technology isn’t going to single-handedly save the hotel industry from the current demand-labor imbalance. But it’s low-hanging fruit that hoteliers can tackle now with a reasonably modest investment. And rest assured, if you’re slow to implement new strategies to improve guest experience while maintaining low labor costs, your competition may not be. The table stakes are high, and now is the time for action.

Branigan Mulcahy is CEO of Virdee.