The high standards of service and courtesy shown by every member of staff in the world's best hotels can appear almost effortless. They are, though, the result of painstaking planning, meticulous attention to detail, and a constant search for improvement.
One person who knows exactly what's involved is Deanna McGonigal, director of human resources development for Marco Polo Hotels. She has overall responsibility for the group's HR and training policies, as well as for ensuring a comprehensive succession plan is in place.
"Our main resource is talent and, with new group hotels opening, we cannot allow things to lie dormant or simply operate on a day-to-day basis," she says.
Therefore, among Ms McGonigal's first priorities when she joined last year was the need to identify existing skills. With this information she was able to create a platform for future growth and development. Since then, she has systematically introduced key performance indicators and the "balanced scorecard" to measure levels of attainment. Besides that, there is now a job certification programme for each position. Under this, every employee is trained, or retrained, in their current job by a more senior member of staff. The aim is to achieve uniformly high standards of competence in all positions and in all departments.
"We have 900 employees, or associates, just in our three hotels in Hong Kong," explains Ms McGonigal. "We want everyone to be on the same page in terms of attitude, grooming and getting the basics right. After that, we can focus on further training in job-related skills or for more general development."
The opening of a new group hotel in Shenzhen in mid-September provided the perfect opportunity to put these policies into practice. A special task force made up of certified departmental trainers was put together. It included experienced staff of different grades — for example, a chef, and managers with experience of running the front office, club floor and restaurants. Each person was chosen as being able to strengthen a specific area pinpointed by the new hotel's general manager as needing extra attention.
The new full-time staff had been hired three to four months previously and had already been trained in basic job skills and proper etiquette — but that is not always enough.
"In some cases, it might be necessary to point out that guests appreciate a quick check-in and that front-office procedures should be flexible," says Ms McGonigal. "Also, some recruits may not understand the importance of a smile and a greeting. The job of the task force is to implement, reinforce and, if necessary, reconstruct the key service principles."
To get the message across, the trainers use a combination of classroom sessions, role-plays, observation and simulations, and are expected to take a hands-on approach. Generally, they are on site two to three weeks prior to opening and may stay on for a similar length of time afterwards.
"It depends how the general manager feels the new team is doing," explains Ms McGonigal. "Of course, when the hotel opens, it is a completely different scenario. It is not role-play any more and some staff may freeze when confronted with real-life guests."
When assembling such a task force, she emphasises the importance of being culturally sensitive and ready to adapt to circumstances. Consequently, the guidelines for looking after guests at a property in the Philippines might be a little more "relaxed" than in Hong Kong. This would reflect the guests' expectations and tie in with the concept of thinking locally, while still promoting the global Marco Polo brand.
Such task forces now play a vital part in internal training and enhancing competencies.
"Today the job requires more training and formalised qualifications," says Ms McGonigal. "The hospitality industry has become a profession like banking or IT. You can work your way up through the ranks with a structured career path and opportunities overseas, but you need the education as well."
Referring to the group's plan to open further hotels in China in the next three years, she says the problem for recruitment may be to get mainlanders to look at the hospitality industry in a different way.
"We hope that people in China now realise it can be very lucrative and that more of them will want to get involved," she says. "It is a challenge because there are still cultural differences and we need people to understand why to do things a certain way."
- Communicate career path to each individual
- Establish development and education plans for advancement
- Keep staff informed of opportunities for vertical and lateral moves
- Design a complete HR development plan
- Create a "talent library" with information about people working in the sector
- Aim to be a leading employer of choice