Danny King
Danny King

Leave it to the head of one of the hotel industry's most polarizing companies to give voice to one of the sector's universal challenges.

At last month's Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) in Los Angeles, Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger, who regularly recounts that he started his hotel career as a 17-year-old bellman at San Francisco's Fairmont, complained, "It pains me that our industry hasn't done a very good job attracting the next generation of hoteliers. We have to make this an exciting, worthwhile industry. We need to find great people who do great work."

Talk to either a currently or formerly tenured management executive from Marriott International's Ritz-Carlton division and there's a pretty good chance that person will invoke that brand's motto: "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."

With the U.S. economy approaching what some economists consider full employment, however, many panelists at ALIS either bemoaned the challenges of attracting the workforce required to maintain record-high U.S. hotel occupancy rates or proposed technological or occupational solutions to that challenge.

Unlike many hospitality industry discussions, talk about the workforce-shortage illustrated the complexities of the issue, running the gamut from politics to technology to philosophy. While the experts offered little in the way of long-term solutions, their discussion revealed a variety of attitudes toward the subject.

Many industry executives and analysts are trying to take an opportunistic view by discussing how some hotel companies are redefining hotel jobs as a way to not only pull people from a tighter workforce but also attract a more personable employee.

For example, Ron Swidler, principal at hospitality design firm the Gettys Group, said that a growing number of hotel operators are designing lobbies to eliminate the traditional front desk as a way to force a more intimate interaction between guest and staff, and they are tweaking their hiring model as a result.

For some operators, that means following the lead of Los Angeles and New York restaurateurs who have long depended on a labor pool of unemployed and underemployed actors to work as servers.

"Look at [microroom chain] CitizenM," Swidler said, with its desk-less lobby layout. "They don't hire people from the hotel industry, they hire actors. It forces people to feel like they're on stage. You're taking a job and making it much more interesting."

Other hotel jobs are more nebulous but similarly more personal and less mechanical. Marriott vice president Lauren Chewning spoke of the growing number of "salons," in which urban hotels hire actors and other artists to visit the properties and engage and socialize with guests.

"You are offering a job that's much more interesting to people," said James Biggar, executive vice president at HHM Hospitality. "They're much more guest-oriented and less transaction-oriented, so you'll get a better-quality employee."

Other hoteliers took a less sanguine approach to the labor issue, and, while not calling out President Trump by name, expressed concern over the administration's stance (or stances) on immigration policy and its impact on a major chunk of the hospitality labor pool.

"If you want to build a factory or new offices, you still need people to do it," said Michael Barnello, CEO at LaSalle Hotel Properties. "We have a country that's not so open to immigration."

With a labor shortage in mind, the sector's largest trade group used the conference to trumpet a program that prepares young adults for hotel jobs.

Last fall, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) launched a project in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., that the group said targets the approximately 6 million unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds who are no longer in school.

"These are partnerships with community-development organizations," AHLA CEO Katherine Lugar said. "Our need to groom that talent pipeline is crucial."

The labor issue illustrates the flip side to an economy where fully employed leisure travelers and, to a slightly lesser extent, businesses continue to feed record-high occupancy rates, but where labor can account for more than a third of a full-service hotel's operating expenses. Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department said January unemployment reached 4.1%, a 17-year low, while average hourly wages rose 2.9% from a year earlier (hotels account for about 2 million of the 16 million Americans working in the leisure and hospitality sector).

With that in mind, the hotel industry could be in the process of emulating the travel-distribution model, in which more services are automated and fewer are handled by people.

By the end of the decade, the percentage of U.S. travel bookings handled by people (travel agents, travel management companies, central reservationists and walk-ins) compared with computers (OTAs and supplier-branded websites) will approach a 50/50 split. That lies in stark contrast to a 60/40 people/online split from a decade earlier, according to Phocuswright.

While some in the industry are decrying either the challenges of finding good labor or the depersonalization of hotels, others say many of the issues could be solved by technology.

So while Marriott's Chewning touted salons as an additional way to personalize service by engaging guests in hotels' public areas, she also pitched her company's use of artificial intelligence-powered chatbot services, which enables guests at its Aloft brand to have their texted requests either answered or properly passed along by a service called ChatBotlr.

Marriott has also made chatbots available for Marriott Rewards members on Facebook Messenger and Slack, enabling loyalty members to research and book stays. Paradoxically, Marriott last October also added a chatbot specifically to help potential employees do virtual job searches at the hotel company.

Meanwhile, Destination Hotels and Thompson Hotels parent Two Roads Hospitality has joined the growing list of hoteliers who are employing virtual reality to complement hotel employees' efforts to sell bookings. In Two Roads' case, virtual reality is used to show off meetings spaces, said marketing chief Sherri Gilligan.

Fittingly, ALIS started off with a vision of hospitality's future as articulated by a panel that focused on building robots that can supplant harder-to-fill, lower-end jobs by performing tasks ranging from guestroom deliveries to testing on-property WiFi strength and cleaning rooms.

Steve Cousins, whose company Savioke makes the Relay-branded delivery robot that's in some 75 hotels around the globe, insisted that his product was all about augmenting the existing hotel staff to prevent some low-margin services from disappearing. He assured the audience that the company's goal was not to replace workers.

Cousins specifically discussed how, instead of eliminating in-room minibar service, which often either operates at a thin margin or loses money, the hotel could use a robotic device for restocking. He also attempted to allay fears of depersonalization, noting that a fully automated hotel "is not an experience we strive for."

"If you try to make it look like a small child, you have this weird, 'What is this?' thing," Cousins said. "If you get too close to [the robots looking like] people, it starts to get very creepy."

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