Last year, Nisha Sharma (name changed on request) gave her hospitality career a hard rethink. An organizational restructuring following the pandemic made her role, and that of many others, redundant. Moreover, the management was unwilling to offer work-from-home (WFH) opportunities. "After working for almost a decade in this domain, it was time to gain experience in other sectors and improve my learning curve," she said.
The story isn’t very different for Lizelle Fernandes (name changed on request), another hospitality marketing veteran with over 18 years of experience, who plans to shift from the industry. A key reason? A poor work-life balance. "While we were always a lean team, post-pandemic, every hotel wanted to drive business and marketing agendas like there was no tomorrow," she lamented. "The prevalent uncertainty has plans moving to top gear at the word go, and at times one just can't keep up." These are not isolated cases. The sector is staring at a massive talent crunch. According to hotelier-turned-consultant Natwar Nagar, founder, The People Network, the industry saw 25 per cent experienced workforce exit the industry since March 2020.
Dilip Puri, founder, the Indian School of Hospitality, added that the pandemic forced businesses to significantly cut down on the workforce. "As much as 21.5 million people working in the Indian tourism and hospitality sector lost their jobs since 2020, with the total estimated to be even higher if we account for the unorganized sector," he elaborated.
More With Less
By June 2020, it became clear that the pandemic would last longer than initially anticipated. Room occupancies crashed to 10 per cent at best, and zero at worst for most hotels, forcing them to fire or furlough employees as they restructured their businesses to reduce operating costs and stay afloat.
Nagar estimated that 60 to 70 per cent of the workforce in the sector across positions were impacted and were put on furloughs. The Oberoi Group reduced its staff manning by under 2,000 people, which is a 30 per cent reduction. In mid-2021, it had 4,500 employees as against 6,500 before the pandemic. Indian Hotels Company (IHCL) too reduced its headcount per room by 25 per cent. From 1.53 in April 2020, its staff-to-room ratio stood at 1.14 as of March 2021. Chalet Hotel’s staff-to-room ratio stood at 0.74 employees for the second quarter in a row in Q4FY21; this ratio was 1.18 employees to a room in December 2019.
This reimagined staffing ratio is reflected in declining service quality in an industry that is heavily reliant on people. Many hotels discontinued lavish buffet spreads as their understaffed kitchen and serving staff could not cope with orders. Similarly, they encouraged guests to eat at dine-in restaurants instead of ordering in-room dining, to save their serving personnel’s time.
Fortunately, hotels could propel this shift successfully due to the heightened hygiene concerns back then. Printed menus made way for QR codes, while robotic maintenance equipment helped the housekeeping staff clean rooms faster and more efficiently. With mobile check-in and check-out becoming the norm, the front task could double up to focus on other duties. People working on the concierge desks, spas, gyms, and swimming pools were redirected to other back-of-house divisions including IT, maintenance, and housekeeping.
Nagar recalled positions that witnessed a direct impact were in the field of sales, revenue, and development. The drastic reduction in staffing ratios resulted in the erosion of the employer branding value and weakened and damaged organizational cultural values. “Moreover, workers faced severe health and mental wellness issues due to a perceived lack of empathy leading to a desire for flexibility by location, by when they work, or how they work," he added.
The Worst Of Times, The Best Of Times
Ajay Bakaya, MD, Sarovar Hotels & Resorts, ruefully admitted that the company let go of more than 40 per cent of its staff at unit levels as hotels were shut. "We somehow managed to retain people at the corporate level, and Sarovar became a leaner, sharper, and more efficient organization," he added.
The hospitality industry traditionally sees relatively high rates of attrition. However, the pandemic caused these numbers to rise sharply. Leading companies tried to manage attrition rates through agile restructuring, constant communication, engagement, need-resolution, and training while keeping their colleagues' wellbeing at the centre.
According to Nikhil Sharma, regional director for Eurasia, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, a vital benefit of this HR restructuring was the opportunity to multi-skill staffers. "Many employees are now trained in different departments to help manage staffing levels, which has increased skills levels. Through having similar experiences, team members grew closer and became more resilient. A sense of camaraderie developed amongst the competitor set as organizations shared their learnings," he opined.
Operating during a global pandemic was a novel experience for hoteliers, and they had to learn on the fly. This included relooking their existing culture to make it more lucrative for people to stick around.
Hyatt Hotels Corporations, for instance, introduced the Pulse survey to measure colleague comfort and well-being and ensure that managers addressed colleagues' concerns. Feedback was taken on a real-time basis enabling managers to take necessary actions. "At the organizational front, we re-introduced our sabbatical policies and reviewed staffing levels and structures to meet operational gaps across hotels and teams," added Sunjae Sharma, MD– India & Southwest Asia at Hyatt Hotels Corporation.
During the pandemic, Radisson Hotel Group (RHG) attempted to save as many livelihoods as possible by making flexible working part of its new corporate hybrid structure. "People are our biggest asset, and at Radisson, we believe that 'We grow talent, talent grows us'," claimed Zubin Saxena – MD & VP-Operations, South Asia, RHG.
Trying To Roll With The Punches
The pandemic forced hoteliers to innovate and re-imagine their existing processes since these were likely to last beyond social distancing. Essential amongst this was centralization and clustering of roles.
Jaideep Dang, MD-Hotels & Hospitality Group, JLL India, explained, "This move allows for leaner organizational structures. It offers companies opportunities to combine tasks, skills, and responsibilities to deliver a superior hospitality experience around fewer and better-compensated jobs," he pointed out.
Moreover, select unit-level functions and positions were outsourced, while previously outsourced processes were reclaimed simultaneously. And most importantly, the traditionally tech-averse industry embraced digitalization wholeheartedly. However, these measures could not staunch the workforce shortage that the sector is staring at.
As people lost their jobs, they also lost confidence in the sector. Many opted for alternative career options for sustenance. Dilip indicated that while hospitality is catching up with digitalization, it remains a service-oriented sector with people as its biggest asset. "It is as important for the industry to have a workforce proficient in human skills as digital advancement and technical development. Lesser people in the workforce only puts a strain on the existing ones, who were not just underpaid, but also overworked," Puri noted.
In the short run, this move helped save costs for businesses. But in the longer run, the industry lost a lot of talent and was perceived as an underpaid and overworked industry. "Sustainability comes with upskilling of the workforce, paying them more, and improving the work-life balance," Puri claimed.
Bakaya agrees with him, adding that hotels let go lots of people during the worst time in the industry and their lives. While unhelpful, it could have left some resentment and disappointment. Many who have found alternative employment opportunities in retail and e-commerce sectors or have returned to their hometowns are unwilling to return.
in the Hospitality Industry survey, conducted by JLL and The People Network, estimates that the direct manpower requirement for hotels is 100,000 to 150,000 professionals, excluding the demand for ancillary and travel trade industries. The report also found that the maximum staffing shortage is in the F&B vertical (53 per cent), followed by Front Office (26 per cent) and Housekeeping (21 per cent).
Sunjae Sharma noted that with markets opening, industries and economies worldwide are grappling with high attrition rates. "That is true for the hospitality industry too, especially since it was impacted directly owing to travel restrictions and the lockdown. The post-pandemic resignation wave has prompted movement from one industry to another, and we're witnessing hospitality professionals seeking new roles. In India, there's been an increase in outflow of talent, especially to Middle Eastern markets," he stated.
Biding For Things To Get Better
Adaptability is critical for survival, and those seizing this opportunity further enable inclusive and sustainable growth of the sector. RHG's collective strength at a group level and its cluster manning approach through India Unification Plan have enabled solutions in managing labor costs to its hotel owners without impacting the employment of its colleagues. "I strongly feel that stepping up to understand and respond to changing consumer behavior and adopting new practices and ensuring flexible ways of working for employees have played a key role in the sector's ongoing recovery. Further, the World Travel & Tourism Council's latest Economic Impact Report (EIR) states that the Travel & Tourism sector will create nearly 126 million new jobs within the next decade. This marks a vast change in the sector's fortune, making us hopeful for the times ahead," said Saxena.
While the industry faces a challenge in attracting the right talent, hotels are slowly seeing a resurgence with time. A key business priority for most companies is cultivating the best people and building a culture of care and respect.
As hotel brands expand their presence across India, they also scale their teams. In the last four months alone, Hyatt hired approximately 1500 new colleagues across its hotels in India. Similarly, with 14,000 employees across the group and a robust pipeline of hotel openings, RHG is looking to create over 6,000 new job opportunities (across levels) in the next three years.
With travel gradually resuming and a robust development pipeline, Wyndham too has doubled its business development team and strengthened the commercial, operations, and IT teams. "We have also onboarded close to 500 members to manage our new hotel properties in Udaipur, Mohali, Varanasi, and Jaipur," Sharma revealed.
Sarovar is also hiring 25 per cent more people, and Bakaya intends to pay them better salaries, especially the supervisory staff, to make this a lucrative sector. Nagar agreed that onboarding newer employees would not come cheap. According to him, manpower costs could swing from 16 per cent to 18 per cent to upwards of 25 per cent to 28 per cent of total operation cost.
Wyndham too used the pandemic months to implement new initiatives that promote a healthy work-life balance, flexibility, and employee wellbeing to improve employee satisfaction. “We believe that our team members are our greatest asset and continue to invest time and resources into our human resources and ask for feedback from our employees to create positive working environments. Whilst the hospitality sector still has a long road ahead, we feel optimistic about the future talent of this incredible industry,” Nikhil Sharma said.
While speaking at an industry event recently, Patu Keswani, MD of Lemon Tree Hotels recommended that it is time that hotel companies start looking at non-traditional avenues to recruit people. “We should consider hiring people from different domains like airlines, retail, lifestyle and IT sectors, which are also service-oriented, instead of always going to hospitality institutions for talent,” he suggested.
While the sector gets back to pre-pandemic growth levels, professionals like Nisha and Lizelle and young hospitality graduates are finding more attractive sectors to work in than hospitality. The widening skill gap has resulted in a massive shortfall of talented employees, forcing organizations to rethink their plan to attract, develop and retain their workforce.