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Savvy Staffing Solutions

Creative solutions for Texas hospitality staffing challenges aren't quick fixes, but they are effective

By Amy Durham

As in the rest of the country, Texas is facing a challenge that has lingered longer than most people expected. After all, the top 25 U.S. markets have rebounded to 99.1% for group business since 2019, according to third-quarter data by Knowland’s Hospitality Group and Business Performance Index. The projections for 2024 by Amex Global Business Travel show 77% of North American meeting professionals project a return to 2019 participant numbers this year. The question is, if people are attending meetings, why aren’t people available to staff those meetings? The biggest expense for the hospitality industry as a whole—including hotels, catering services, and meeting event suppliers—is labor, but this part of doing business is hampering the industry most. 

Wait staff prepare a group meal || Photo by Ekaterina, courtesy of Adobe Stock

Staffing shortages make a planner’s job much harder. Today’s planner might be doing the work of two or even three other people who would have previously been available as support staff before, during, or after a meeting. Planners are filling roles they are not specifically trained for and having to learn as they go. In other cases, planners might find themselves filling a role they enjoy, but still struggling with work overload and time management.

“I feel the labor shortage is still there and there will not be a lot of movement this year,” says Bobby Demby, founder of Dallas-based HBCUhotels.com, a site dedicated to obtaining group rates at hotels for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) athletic events. “I don’t see any progress until the summer of 2024.”

Demby isn’t alone in his prediction that the problem is persistent, and progress will be slow going. A December 2022 survey by Amex Global Business Travel of exhibitors and trade show companies worldwide showed internal management was the most common challenge they were facing. Whether you call it skills mismatch or staffing shortfalls, subpar internal management is not an easy problem to fix, nor is there a one-size-fits-all resolution. Getting to the core of these struggles to solve them will require more than simply opening a hotel ballroom for events again or returning a weekly staff meeting from virtual to in-person. 

The Causes

So, let’s start with what many people assume is the main problem: Staffing challenges were worsened by the pandemic. Countless skilled hospitality workers were laid off or furloughed in the last few years, and many did not return when in-person meetings began again. They have found other work in the meantime. 

But today’s problems don’t seem to be balanced on the pandemic fulcrum. In fact, most challenges facing hospitality staffing today were already brewing back in 2019, and the labor layoffs of recent years have only served to make them more apparent. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in November stated the leisure and hospitality sector had added an average of 41,000 jobs per month this year, down from 88,000 jobs per month last year. In other words, new job rates in hospitality are worsening rather than improving, even with the trend of increased event attendance. Employment in leisure and hospitality in November was 223,000 below its February 2020 level.

So, if the problems are occurring despite the resurgence of in-person event attendance, what are the solutions?  “There needs to be more competitive pay to employees in the industry,” says Demby, who points out that jobs outside the hospitality industry—such as retail, fast food, and transportation companies—are paying more. “Workers can make more money as an Uber or Lyft driver,” he says. A competitive hiring environment means more companies are vying for available talent. The pressure is rising for hospitality companies to offer competitive wages and benefits to attract and keep skilled people.

In addition to lower wages, burnout has become a widespread problem among highly trained employees. Reduced workforce sizes have increased the workload and demands placed on remaining staff. The American Psychological Association describes three symptoms of employee burnout: depleted energy or emotional exhaustion, increased mental distance or negative feelings toward work, and a reduced sense of efficiency. 

Burnout can also lead to high employee turnover. “There has been a departure of managers from our industry over the past few years, and many newly appointed managers are newcomers to the hospitality industry,” says Steven Moore, CEO at Actabl, a hotel solutions organization. “We are witnessing a 25%-35% increase in turnover among managers compared to the rates observed in 2019.” Moore says turnover within the first 30 days of employment has increased drastically in those years as well, requiring hoteliers to change their approach to retaining both experienced staff and new talent. 

Leadership turnover is spurred on by the loss of older generations—those who spent decades in the industry. They take with them skills and knowledge, much of which they gained on the job or in the field and can’t be replicated in a training video. Add to this loss of experience a new generation that has different values and priorities, and you have a fundamental shift in how teams function due to the needs of individual staff members. 

Where to Start

Solutions start with retention. Without the ability to keep existing staff, the stability necessary to hire can’t be achieved. Sharing roles is one possible approach that takes multitasking—in other words, juggling—and transforms it into something more like rotation. Staff members can rotate in and out of roles in a predictable and structured way. One employee who is usually tasked with guest registration might also serve in a concierge capacity, working the concierge desk twice a week instead of the registration desk. The key is to rotate in a way that doesn’t require consistent overtime. 

Cross-training programs can help increase the number of employees who can step into each other’s roles as needed. “Managers can also bolster coverage options by cross-training staff at nearby properties, widening their labor pool,” Moore says. The more skills they have, the better covered the company is if absenteeism or turnover becomes an issue. For the employee, cross-training also can be a path to promotion.

Increasing employee satisfaction and commitment to the organization are vital if retention is going to be successful. Moore says employee engagement programs that foster company culture, as well as employee recognition and team-building programs, are necessary to maintain motivation and loyalty. Of course, good pay is part of it, too. “Consistently assess and update compensation to align with industry standards,” Moore says. “Wage benchmarking can help leaders determine where they want to be positioned within their markets, ultimately aiding in attracting and retaining qualified staff through competitive pay.”

Ultimately, asking for feedback and listening to employee input might be the most valuable approach. Mentorship and coaching programs can encourage more candid feedback in a one-on-one setting and allow management to work together with employees on new ideas. Taking employee suggestions doesn’t have to mean throwing out the old for the new. A task force or special committee can function as a testing ground or research group to try new ideas before they’re implemented company wide.

How to Grow

Leaders being open to fresh perspectives and employee innovation is seen as especially valuable to younger generations. When recruiting employees, leverage social media platforms, network at industry events, and partner with educational institutions. “There needs to be more introduction to hospitality in the high schools,” says Demby. “This will draw more interest to the hospitality industry. Also, have more internship programs available for college students.” Internships offer a student real-world skills training, while filling a staffing gap.

Generation Z values global citizenship, sustainability, and diversity. A company culture that aligns with the values of new talent is more likely to land them. According to a Deloitte study, this generation is less likely than any earlier generation to choose a job they find boring that’s high paying over a lower paying job that’s more interesting and fulfilling. A company mission statement about impacting the community is one thing; actual community service days and ongoing outreach programs are another. Showing tangible evidence of diversity and inclusivity in the company culture will demonstrate security and respect to applicants.

Attracting top talent requires approaching the hiring process with the understanding that applicants might receive competing offers. How does the company stack up against others in terms of work-life balance initiatives, professional development, and remote work opportunities? Programs for mental and physical health, as well as generous paid time off, show prospective employees they are valued as people, not just job titles. Moore says it’s also important to incorporate technology that’s familiar and intuitive to younger people, such as mobile apps and gamification. 

The Role of Technology

Integrating technology solutions can enhance efficiency, streamline processes, and reduce the burden on employees. Rather than aiming to replace a role with technology, the goal is to free up the employee to focus on high-value tasks. Self-check-in kiosks, mobile apps for ordering services, and automation of certain back-office processes can give back much needed minutes or hours to an employee’s schedule. Robotics for room service, voice-activated room controls, and AI-powered security systems can all aid in decreasing demands on staff time.

Artificial intelligence (AI) can play a crucial part in filling staffing gaps through chatbots for routine customer service inquiries, reservation and information requests, and navigating a hotel’s amenities. “Consider adding in flexibility through app-based scheduling tools,” says Moore. “These tools allow staff to manage their schedules, swap shifts with co-workers, and pick up additional shifts. Employees receive further autonomy while helping hotels cover their labor needs.” Different AI algorithms can analyze historical data, seasonal trends, and event schedules to predict peak demand periods and enable sufficient staff and resources. 

Real-time AI monitoring of attendee activity and preferences can help adjust staffing on the fly, and attendee engagement and satisfaction apps like Bizzaboo enhance a planner’s ability to tailor meetings to stakeholders’ needs. For hybrid events, Hopin is an app that supports live streaming, networking, and data analytics for both virtual and in-person meetings. 

Ideas for the Day Of

The first thing to do when staffing shortages are an issue for an upcoming meeting is to communicate with the client. A planner can inform the client and even the attendees as the day approaches that staffing shortages are at play. This will go a long way toward fostering patience with delays or hiccups. 

The planner practice of having a backup for every vendor should also include having backups for the items that might be considered nonessential. For meetings that focus on priority outcomes, anything that contributes to those outcomes is necessary. Evaluate your setup and schedule, asking what the nonessential parts are. These things might be important, but if they were to go away, would the desired outcomes still be possible? For example, if a tour of the vineyard property where the meeting takes place is a great networking opportunity but not essential to the outcome, it could be replaced by a block of free time in the nearby town, which doesn’t rely on staff support. 

For food service, consider pre-plating or partially pre-plating meals so fewer staff members are required when it’s time to serve. In fact, the more tasks you can complete yourself or with the help of team members prior to the meeting, the better. Spending breaks at the meeting tying up loose ends means planners aren’t available to step in where needed to fill staffing shortages at hotels or with catering.

By getting out in front of potential staffing shortages, meeting planners can offset some of the negative effects that might usually play out. For hotels, caterers, and vendors, adapting an employee-centric approach and adopting new technology can create a less stressed, more skilled workforce. Addressing the staffing challenge in hospitality might be complex, but as the industry collaborates, innovative solutions arise, and hope is on the horizon. 

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