Brexit, working conditions and low wages: a look at the hotel staff crisis in Europe

“It’s been two traumatic years.” This is how the CEO of a hotel loyalty program sums up the COVID era. “But things are going well now,” adds another CEO.

Where are they? Just as hotel occupancy began to pick up earlier this year, another crisis hit: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Flight restrictions, inflation, rising interest rates, rising food prices and supply chain issues all followed. Add to that the airline and airport strikes — two gateways to the holidays — and you probably wouldn’t want to be CEO of a hotel right now.

There’s really only one item on this long list of challenges that hotel managers have complete control over: how they treat their staff. They can raise their rates to deal with any financial instability and most seem to be dealing with supply chain issues. But the responsibility to make hotel jobs fulfilling and fairly paid lies at their feet.

Hotel CEOs give us the view from above

It can be difficult to get a complete and candid picture of the state of an industry. But a roundup of fifteen CEOs from some of the world’s largest hotel groups is as close to the truth as it gets.

Their companies are all members of the Global Hotel Alliance (GHA), basically the SkyTeam or Star Alliance of the hospitality industry. 21 million members earn “Discovery” loyalty points by staying in the 800 GHA hotels in 100 countries. Thus, the information from their CEOs should be a reliable window on the situation of the hotels.

How serious is the hotel staff crisis?

Hotels of course want to paint a rosy image for customers, but one major hotel group has been outspoken. Accor, owner of brands like Mercure, ibis and Fairmont, needs 35,000 workers worldwide, CEO Sebastien Bazin said last month.

I heard of a great hotel in London which currently has a completely closed floor as they don’t have enough staff to clean and maintain the rooms.

A UK travel agency, Classic Collection Holidays, is going so far as to renovate its head office and offer its staff after-work benefits like paddle boardall with the aim of being attractive to job seekers.

As one general manager asked, “Where did all the staff go? »

The FMH does not exist in the hotel industry

During the worst years of the pandemic, many governments subsidized hotel businesses so they could continue to pay staff during their forced closure. Chris Hartley, CEO of GHA, believes it has given workers the opportunity to “rethink whether hospitality is a good industry. They might rethink work/life balance and ask themselves ‘do I want to commute to a hotel and do split shifts?’

After the government subsidies stopped, many employees quit and who could blame them? They said goodbye to long, unsociable hours and instead took jobs that would give them the privilege accorded to many other industries: working from home. For most hotel positions, this is simply not possible and never will be. The cook should be in the kitchen and the cleaner should be in the bedrooms.

Hotels no longer seemed like a job for life

Another question Hartley suspects hotel staff asked was “Is this a safe industry to build my career in?” When hundreds of thousands of hotels closed overnight in early 2020, it upended the lives of their staff. This made many think that a hotel job was a risky career path. If they considered it a career path in the first place.

Referring to the pre-pandemic period, Hartley says: “What I loved about countries like Spain Where Italy Where France was that hospitality was a career choice. While this was not the case in many other countries. In the UK and WEhospitality was something you just did when you [were] in college, because you needed a job.

If hotels want to retain their staff for the long term, they need to make the job seem like a viable and attractive career choice.

James McGinn has had a quarter-century career in hotels and “doesn’t feel like leaving yet”.

He is the Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, having started 25 years ago with the Northern Ireland hotel group as Quality Development Manager.

How do hotels make “lifers” of their staff, as McGinn calls himself? “We know that we are nothing without our colleagues,” he begins. “We need to create the right environment to enable us to be fully engaged every day. Giving [staff] the tools to do their job, the uniforms they are proud to wear, train them when needed, respect and care for them and their well-being, make them feel valued, share information with them, fully involved – in their work, their service and the hotel. »

It’s a long list but made easier by the fact that Hastings is a family business with no shareholders. “The landlords work with us, and they’re going in and out of the properties all the time,” says McGinn. Decisions can be made quickly and easily, reducing the bureaucracy that can frustrate staff in any business.

Hotel staff went home and did not return

In addition to employees who quit their jobs when asked to return to work, many have returned to their home countries during the pandemic.

Simon Naudi is the CEO of Corinthia Hotels, a Maltese company. “It’s very difficult to find people to come back to the industry,” he says, “because it’s an industry where, in some cases, you depend on migrant labour.

“We have Spaniards and Sicilians in Malta because there are more opportunities. They went home because of COVID, will they come back?

This is where the question becomes political. It was political decisions that shut down the travel industry during the pandemic, and now it will be political decisions that determine whether hotels can hire overseas. If immigration and visa policies do not support foreign workers, hotels will have to rely on domestic labor, where there may be a lack of enthusiasm.

Government policies play an important role in determining who is allowed to work in hotels

The UK may be just one of the countries affected by the staff shortage, but it is certainly the only one to have left the EU.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that Brexit was a big part of the problem in the UK. As one CEO said, “That’s what I hate Brexitbecause it was about the perception that the jobs were taken by the Bulgarians, which was a bit ridiculous, because they are the very ones who supported our economy and the hotel industry.

The UN World Tourism Organization supports countries in their tourism, as it is an important economic driver. They are currently encouraging governments to invest in their tourism industries by giving young people the opportunity to train.

Holger Schoth, 58, has worked at Kempinski, one of the world’s oldest luxury hotel brands, since he was 25. He says the hotel has always supported him in training and development, giving him no reason to go anywhere else.

Having worked in Kempinski hotels all over Asia, the Middle East and Europe, his career has also given him many opportunities to travel. “Thanks to Kempinski,” he says, “I was able to not only see the world, but really know it. Few people enjoy this privilege, and I have always been aware of it.

Dillip Rajakarier is CEO of Minor Hotel Group, which has 530 hotels in 56 countries, but with a large presence in Asia and the Middle East. Rajakarier was the only CEO I spoke to who is based in a developing country (Thailand) and it seemed to give him a clear vision of what it takes to make hospitality an exciting career choice for a young workforce.

Minor recently opened the “Asian Institute of Hospitality Management” with campuses in Bangkok and Chonburi in Thailand. Here, future hotel employees can learn from Les Roches, one of the top three hotel schools in the world. Rajakarier says they started this because “Thailand is such a big reception center. There was a lot of talent that lacked training, development, and the ability to earn college-level certificates. They can’t afford to go Swiss. Now in Thailand they can do it for almost a third of the price. Just as governments must invest in training, so too must businesses if they want to have high-quality talent to serve their customers.

Rajakarier also recognizes that staff, especially young people, want to travel – and what better way than to get paid to do so. Smart hotels give staff the opportunity to work at properties in different countries, making a career in hospitality glamorous and sophisticated, a way to broaden your horizons, live among different cultures and learn new languages . The customers you serve have traveled to your workplace, why shouldn’t you do the same?

Loyalty programs for everyone

A key part of Global Hotel Alliance is its Discovery loyalty program. This is great news for guests, who enjoy reduced rates and earn loyalty points every time they stay at a GHA hotel. But what about getting staff to be loyal to your company? As in many industries, if hotels don’t show their employees that they are valued and reward them for staying put, high turnover is almost inevitable.

Minor tackles this head-on, offering bonuses to staff who are still there after a year, and the bonuses continue to be paid out year after year.

Corinthia also appear to be taking the issue seriously, recently appointing a senior manager to focus solely on the personnel issue. CEO Simon Naudi told this director: “I give you two months to come back to me with answers and solutions.”

Incentives, training and involvement of staff in decision-making seem to be becoming the industry standard. But one key improvement is still missing: simply paying staff more.

Strikes by airline and airport personnel is in full swing across Europe. Hospitality workers might not be far behind if they don’t see their salaries increase.

About Elizabeth Smith

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