Rooms full but jobs vacant at local hotels

by Ella Lee

Brenda Chan, human resources director, The Excelsior Hong Kong

As tourism booms, new hotels keep opening, but the hospitality industry now faces a shortage of talent

With tourist numbers hitting record levels, the hospitality industry is seeing an almost unprecedented level of investment. New hotels are going up not just in Hong Kong, but also in Macau and across the mainland, and it seems all the major international chains are keen to get a slice of the action. However, one problem looms on the horizon: as more hotels open, there are simply not enough talented professionals to fill all the available positions.

Brenda Chan, human resources director of The Excelsior Hong Kong, admits that if hotels can't find good-quality employees, it is bound to have an impact on service levels. At present, trained professionals with three to five years' practical experience are most in demand.

"The kind of people needed could be section heads in food and beverage or front-desk deputy managers," she explains. "Their value lies in their technical know-how, as well as their soft skills for motivating staff and managing customer relations." Ms Chan emphasises that such expertise can only be acquired through on-the-job experience.

New challenge

What causes a particular problem for her is that, with its long-established reputation for having well-trained staff, the Excelsior is a target for headhunters, competitors, and other businesses engaged in the service sector. In the last twelve months, a number of employees have left for more senior positions elsewhere. Ms Chan says that, in some of these cases, it was particularly difficult to retain the individuals concerned because no suitable opportunities for internal promotion existed at the time.

Nevertheless, Ms Chan tries to see these developments in a positive light. "Someone who moves on may benefit through getting a different kind of exposure," she says. "Also, if they are wanted by other hotels, it proves the quality of our people." Even when employees are leaving, she makes a point of maintaining good relations, since it is not unusual for them to rejoin at some point in the future.

Because of the keener competition, the Excelsior's rate of staff turnover increased to above 20 per cent last year. As a result, the hotel has made holding on to good staff a top priority and adopted a new approach. "We are now focusing on more open communications between staff and management," Ms Chan explains. "We have to listen to the full range of opinions and understand different viewpoints." She adds that there is a new emphasis on the concept of internal clients and on applying management theories which fit the context, rather than following the textbook approach.

This has led to better recognition of good performance and closer attention to staff welfare. For example, there are now monthly award presentations made to staff who have been praised by customers, and special prizes are given to the employees of the year. Cooking, yoga and fitness classes are organised as a way of promoting a sensible work-life balance.

Creating culture

Although many of the Excelsior's staff have been with the hotel for over five years, the effect of the market changes means there are now far more recent recruits. Ms Chan says this has led to the need to have a corporate culture which creates a sense of belonging for the new generation, as well as the long-serving members of staff.

In common with other hotels, the Excelsior is always keen to take on graduates with potential. Ms Chan generally recommends that they start in an operational role on the front desk, in food and beverage, or housekeeping, in order to learn things from the bottom up. "It's a must to understand how the operation works and to speak the language," she says. "If you're good, your ability will soon be spotted." Everyone in the HR team also has experience in different areas of operations.

Ms Chan notes that the work can be hard and that it requires dedication and application to succeed. However, the most important quality in the hotel business is to be able to offer "service from the heart".

In general, She believes that the newest generation of recruits tends to be "book smart" rather than "street smart". "They have opinions and good social skills, but in practical ways, they are not as good at dealing with people, facing challenges and adapting to change," she explains.

Holistic HRM

  • Open communications
  • Caring culture
  • Mutual respect among colleagues
  • Emphasis on work-life balance and staff welfare
  • Recognition of staff performance
  • Coaching and advising as equals

Taken from Career Times 07 April 2006
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