Destination development is not just about the hardware but also the software. In this guest post René J.M. Schillings of TOP Hoteliers spells out the issues behind hotel recruitment and staffing of large hotels in new destinations. Having personally experienced the issues described in this article I have to say this is an excellent read for anyone involved in new hotel and emerging destination development. This article first appeared in Asian Hotel & Catering Times.
Our industry is not short of mega-projects which require the hiring of 1000’s of people to open and staff a new hotel or resort in areas where there was ‘nothing’ yet before. We regularly see those announcements of proudly announced new mega-resorts, newly identified tourist areas, locations earmarked for Casino & Gaming development. These are seldom organic developments but spearheaded by local government who have discovered the attractions of the Tourist Dollar. Tourism in general is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide and has a proven success in many locations to bring employment, investment, infrastructure and tax money to regions previously underdeveloped or with declining other industries. The slogan ‘build it and they will come’ may refer to the potential tourist, visitors, the heads in the beds. It does not necessarily apply to all the staff that is going to service these visitors and operate the hotels, the restaurants, and other facilities constructed with heavy investment. Should you require 100.000 bricks to build the hotel, then you can find a supplier who can make & deliver 100.000 unique bricks. But can you find a supplier for 5.000 people, who are all unique and have their own wishes and desires beyond having a job that provides an income? Where does the Human Factor in mass-recruitment end and Human Trafficking begin ?
Beyond the logistic and technical challenges to build a Tourist Oasis in a Tourism Desert, the HR challenge is one of the most under-estimated undertakings, leading to high-staff turnover, costly mistakes, and sometimes personal drama’s that could easily be prevented. Such could be prevented by recognizing different stages of Tourism Destination development and the hiring processes that go with it.
Phase I – The ‘Hype”
A new destination is advertised as soon needing 1000’s of people. The hiring campaign takes the shape of a sales campaign to attract people. Due to the rush, at rank & file level literally everybody who has 2 hands and 2 feet and can speak a bit of English will be hired, as long as they are willing to come. At Management Level due to the high expectations that the new destination to be the next Vegas or Hawaii, top managers from around the world are head-hunted to come and bring in their expertise, often with very lucrative salaries.
Phase II – Reality sets in
Soon it turns out that most of the rank and file finds out that the promise made turned out less glamorous. Besides the people that shouldn’t have been hired in the first place because they are not suitable to the jobs, the ones that are really good are leaving soon too because good jobs can be gotten in other places too and thank you very much to the resort for training them and adding some experience to their resumes they are picked up by the hotels in existing locations who also still and always need good rank & file staff. At the level of the management, many have run into difficulties with location, culture, the massiveness and the still infantile state of the organization, the market and the other staff that they soon move on too.
Phase III – A new direction
Especially when international brands move into new locations they bring with them ideas and concepts as well as management styles that worked very well elsewhere and copied into the next destination. When this leads to disappointing results, soon it is concluded that more local touch and understanding is needed. Expatriates are to be replaced by more locals, and there is a shortage of good ones, if at all present and available. More than once the public also seems to have different tastes and needs for which the original concepts and plans need to be adjusted. Soon also comes the realization that with a transient work-force hotels have a constant struggle to bring in outsiders and it is a permanent recruitment mission.
A logical step to resolve this is the creation of home-grown Tourism or Hotel & Catering Training Institutes and Schools or Universities. But what we see is that these initiatives seldom leads to the local population enrolling and while these schools make an effort also to attract outsiders with the thought of getting them ready for the local needs, they are in fact training people who will thereafter go work elsewhere. Especially when jobs elsewhere not only pay better, but also provide a better life after work. Thus we see that Tourism & Hotel Colleges in Hainan and those created in Zhuhai and Zhongshan with the purpose to supply Macau with hotel staff are first of all struggling to find students, and see their graduates being hired by hotels in the UAE, cruise ships that sail the whole world if not all the hotels in all of China who are in dire need of staff as well.
Phase IV – Stability and Balance
Like all settlements and developments, time will solve many problems. Learning from the past is a natural adjustment and gradually the tourism destination will better understand itself and knows what works and what doesn’t especially due to the experience of those who did stay longer. Eventually there will be those who came to work there who actually have found their place and become long-term residents. With a better understanding of who to hire and what to check before hiring as well as no longer a massive need but rather a normal need for regular staff turnover the destination has matured. For any ambitious employee looking for an opportunity it may be harder to get into the destination but a much safer place to go, without risking disappointment or an early end to the dream
The life –work balance
The Tourism Industry is not unique in the history of mankind when massive numbers of people are required to relocate to come where the jobs are. Aren’t the Overseas Chinese Diaspora the descendants of Chinese who went overseas looking for better prospects in life and ‘good’ jobs overseas, and wasn’t there a trek to the West in America in search of Gold, Land and Opportunities and a new life, not to mention the stream of immigrants that arrived in the New World. In today’s world there are transient work populations, whether that is those who work in hotels in the UAE or most hotels in Western Europe being 70% staffed by immigrants from Eastern Europe or Southern Europe and Mediterranean countries.
A big difference lies on whether these people are on the move in a transient state, or a more permanent move, to settle the rest of their lives in a new land. When the development is part of an organic growth then besides the hotels & resorts there would also be a more wholesome development of a city or community structure. Beside a job people also need a community that provides things like schools, hospitals, shopping & retail and transportation links to other cities and countries. And these are developments that hotel & tourist attraction operators seldom have influence on, and is also certainly not their role to provide or stimulate these. And these are the missed opportunities the local governments, with their ideal for job creation, often miss the point.
The tropical island of Hainan, a province of China is a good example where a region of China that was behind in development compared to the East Coast of China sought to benefit from it’s natural resources of beaches, year-round-sunshine and plenty of empty plots was destined to become the ‘Hawaii of China’ and destined for major Tourism and Hotel Development. Especially in the small town of Sanya the best plots on beaches were sold to hotel developers and the hotels were built, but without having a local population able or even interested to work in those hotels.
Many a hotelier had been recruited to this tropical paradise however most certainly do not see this as a destination for life. Going with a commitment for 1-2 years, few actually manage to make it that long. And while the hotels are very good and the sun indeed does shine year-round, life in Hainan is still a far stretch from Hawaii, or Phuket or Bali for that matter. Phuket and Bali have better managed to create a community of semi-permanent residency not only by hotel & tourism workers but has an organically grown a community for who these islands are now home. Life beyond the work comes with a good mix of local nationals and expatriates who build a permanent community where people like to live for longer than 2 years, if not into retirement has certainly less difficulties attracting talents and keeping them. Because besides the job there is a life-style and there are schools, hospitals, a life beyond the resorts. The balance between work and private life shifts in a life-time, from being a fresh graduate to becoming a middle-manager or senior executive will weigh differently over time and stages of life.
Attracting talents seems so easy, like a sales campaign. Put up adds claiming to look for 1000’s of people and promising a great career opportunity. Like a trade show the hotels would go on recruitment trips to poorer areas where young people are keen for adventure and a better life. What would be nicer than to work in a 5* hotel in a foreign location when you grow up in some village in Asia where job prospects seems bleak if you are not willing to do the same job your parents did and generations before you. A 100 years ago ‘snake heads’ would come into villages of China and promise a golden future in America. The term ‘snake head’ is still commonly used today in China for what is now called Head Hunters and Recruitment firms. For more senior positions, Executive Search Firms may be engaged who with a promised fee are expected to sell experienced hoteliers the new job as well, and too often without a profound understanding of the challenges ahead when the recruiter also is being hyped and sold by fantastic websites of hotels yet to be built.
While a 100 years ago those who bought the promise of a new life found themselves stuck for good in a new job / country that was after all not as golden as promised, today people are more mobile and connected. The can get out when they want to. It is essential therefore when recruiting on such massive scale for mega projects to be more in tune with the reality. To either not over-promise when hiring, or just accept that turnover is a fact of life in hotels and especially when the location does not lend itself for people to stay very long anticipate this. Retention of staff can be improved by offering superior facilities like staff dormitories and there are companies who have found their edge while competing for talents by realizing this. But too often lessons learned from past projects are not transmitted to new projects. Hotel companies should have experience with locations like Macau and Hainan or Maldives and transport best practices to new locations. However they seldom do and that is why we can see a repetition of past mistakes when whole new regions are going through the same development stage.
Past & Present examples
Looking back at a decade of strong development of hotels & resorts as part of the general growth of the tourism industry, significant lessons can be learned from locations like Bali, Phuket, Maldives, but also more recently Hainan and Macau. The latter is slowly entering a more stable phase where however the completion of Macau is not finished for another decade and it is typical to observe that the earlier hotel-casinos have learned from the past and became more stable, the new openings still seem to be going through the same growing pains, even when the largely take management from the existing and already established hotel-casinos.
It seem that Hype over-rules Reality and Experience. Especially when every next new opening is said to be bigger and better than what is there before. And while Macau has also better managed to create a community and a life beyond the work, this is where Hainan for example still lags behind while more and newer, bigger resorts are still under construction. Understanding the phases other locations went through would help the next new locations a lot to prevent making the same mistakes. Currently there are 5 new ‘Sanya’s under construction in China alone with exotic names like Changbaishan, Xishuangbanna, Lijiang and Jiuzhaiguo which may soon become household names like Maldives, Bali or Hawaii, or Rocky Mountains and Aspen. Outside of China, Vietnam and Cambodia are seeing a very fast development of tourism destination, driven mostly by the same need by local government to develop a region and promising job opportunities for the local population. Behold the day when North Korea really opens up for mass-tourism !. It is going to be a new modern wave of mobile workers, going where the best jobs are, and for those working in hotels a hotel career may seem like a world of opportunities. Matching the right people to the right places and understanding the location and level of development of the location is going to be of ultimate importance to those recruiting the talents needing to ensure not only that they will come, but that they stay long enough to make a difference to the destination, if not to their own career and life experience.