With U.S. unemployment remaining at record lows and
immigration reform efforts at a political impasse, the hospitality sector finds
itself grappling with a growing labor shortage problem.
According to the Deloitte 2019 Travel and Hospitality
Industry Outlook, the current hospitality workforce gap has reached
unprecedented levels, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that
there were more than a million job openings within the leisure and hospitality
sector in 2018 versus over 350,000 job openings in 2009.
The situation has been further exacerbated by the Trump
administration's tightening of immigration policies. Deloitte reports that
while immigrants make up about 13% of the total U.S. population, the segment
accounts for a highly significant 31% of the hotel and lodging industry's
workforce and 22% of restaurant employees.
Trade groups like the American Hotel & Lodging
Association (AHLA) have responded by stepping up their lobbying for immigration
reform on Capitol Hill, but with change unlikely anytime soon, many hospitality
execs are eyeing alternative ways to help ease the shortage in the near term.
Guy Langford, Deloitte's transportation, hospitality and
services industry head, said he believes that the hotel sector must get more
creative in "winning the hearts of employees" and remaining
competitive against other industries.
"When you look at what the hospitality industry is
doing now, much of it's centered on creating a much stronger emotional
connection to their employees, which goes a long way toward securing talent,"
Langford said. "Having the right culture and making sure you have a
clearly stated purpose is now really important. And that purpose has to be
greater than just delivering hospitality. It has to appeal to the emotions,
perhaps along the lines of sustainability, community or inclusivity."
One hospitality group that claims to have successfully
fostered a sense of workplace camaraderie and purpose is Margaritaville
Holdings. According to CEO John Cohlan, the brand's focus on building an
engaging corporate culture has translated into relative ease when it comes to
attracting prospective workers.
"I'm always stunned when we have our labor fairs
because of the number of people who apply," Cohlan told the audience at
last month's Americas Lodging Investment Summit in Los Angeles. "We have
an advantage on labor at all our properties because they're fun places to work.
When you come and apply for a job, we want you to be part of the experience.
And when people are being taken care of and tended to by someone who's having
fun, they have more fun."
In addition to improving workplace cultures, Langford
asserted that the hospitality industry needs to step up efforts to not only
find and hire employees but to retain them across a longer period of time.
"The reality is that there's a lot of transient and
hourly talent in the hospitality industry, and there's a lot of churn,"
Langford said. "Companies need to ask if there's a way to really keep
people. Can someone start at the front desk, work their way up to management
and then maybe even become a senior leader? Some of the industry's senior
leaders of today have taken [that path], and so it's about actually telling
those stories and getting that next generation to understand that hospitality
is a great place to start a career."
The AHLA has launched several initiatives through its
Educational Foundation to promote long-term career development, including a
program unveiled last year that enables participating companies to offer
employees no-cost and low-cost higher education degrees.
This January, the AHLA also debuted a "Hospitality Is
Working" campaign focused on encouraging workforce investment and
cultivation. As part of the campaign, the AHLA Education Fund has pledged
$500,000 grants to community-based organizations in Orlando, Dallas, Baltimore,
Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington to support the recruitment of 16- to
Brian Crawford, AHLA senior vice president of government
affairs, said the Education Fund "is laser-focused on addressing [the
labor] issue. We need more incentives for employees to stay within our
industry, so they don't go follow the next shiny ball."
Technology advances are also poised to help narrow
hospitality's labor gap. Langford said the increased adoption of concepts such
as mobile self-check-in, for example, could help streamline front-of-house
operations, enabling a reduction in staff without sacrificing service.
"When you're able to automatically check in -- instead
of having three people behind computers at a front desk, you might just see one
person in the lobby with an iPad ready to welcome you and ask if there's
anything else you need during your stay -- that can actually become a higher
value-add," Langford said.
Still, Langford warned that within the hospitality space,
technology needs to be leveraged in "a thoughtful way," adding that
the industry's reliance on human engagement isn't something that can easily be
digitized or outsourced.
"Hospitality is very much a person-to-person industry,"
For now, hotel executives appear to be in general agreement
on that front, with Elie Maalouf, InterContinental Hotels Group CEO of the
Americas, recently echoing Langford's sentiments.
Technology, Maalouf said, "has to increase productivity
and efficiency, but not at the expense of customer experience."
Citing his company's ongoing investments in modernizing
guest reservation and property management systems, Maalouf added, "We look
at technology as something that can enhance the humanity at our hotels, not