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Exclusive: Time for hotel talent and recruitment to take pole position

Op-Ed: JLL’s Ross Beardsell asks is a bumper Melbourne F1 weekend a return to the good old days?

A hugely successful Australian Grand Prix weekend in Melbourne had many tourism observers waving the checkered flag about a return to the ‘good old days’, but just as Charles Leclerc flew past spectators in a flash, so too could the ‘return to normal’.

Arguably, everyone in Melbourne was high on octane over the weekend, as hotels filled, restaurants buzzed and life came back to a city that too often resembled a ghost town in recent years, especially during the daylight hours.

It was commonly agreed that most hospitality businesses worked until they dropped because revenue opportunities have crashed out so often in the past two years. Unfortunately, while very welcome, a turbo-charged weekend shouldn’t paper over the most serious cracks in our industry.

And in pole position is the issue of human resources, both in terms of availability of applicants and skill levels.

The Australian industry may have been surprised that the region’s largest hotel group, Accor, took a highly respected step of employing an HR leader, Sarah Derry, to its CEO role as the replacement to a hardened operations man, Simon McGrath.

We so often say that the hotel industry is all about its people, but rarely in Australia, in fact, anywhere in the world, have major companies elevated HR leaders to lead the business.

Simon McGrath was passionate about his teams and their ability to deliver above-market results, and now Sarah Derry has been charged to take Accor forward to continue and further develop the Accor enterprise.

The only thing that matched the demand crisis from 2020-22, was the talent and skills crisis.

Even when hotels were allowed to welcome back domestic travellers, operators and hotel teams couldn’t simply press the pedal to the metal and revive the sleeping giant of hospitality.

While business and conference travel were left powerless on the grid, leisure business roared down the home straight to maintain pole position, only to find chicanes where they least expected. Everyone wanted to travel regionally or stay in cities on a weekend, but two nights don’t come close to equalling a week, and hotels simply couldn’t cope with the fractured demand.

The situation may have been easier if they had been able to access workers who were available, willing to work, and also motivated.

The statistics also showed that domestic travellers starved of Aspen, Ubud and the Riviera were happy to pay top dollar, but did we have the service teams to meet those luxury service expectations? I think most people in the industry would admit it was challenging.

A little while ago someone said to me they thought the reason why we were attracting so few recruits to our industry was that we had taken the ‘f’ out of hospitality. No, he wasn’t dyslexic, he was referring to “fun”.

Delivering memorable service experiences across the broad hospitality network should be fun, it should be energetic to target both school leavers and potentially, retirees looking for part time work.

We need team members who can bring their experience, and their enthusiasm.

One untapped resource is undoubtedly people with disabilities. There are many – but not enough – instances of hotels benefiting significantly from incredibly committed workers with some disability.

For the workers, it often represents an important opportunity to fulfil their wider ambitions of participating in the community. We just need to improve pathways for these people, and we need governments at all levels to translate soft sentiment into hard reality.

My colleague, JLL vice-president Asset Management, Vibhor Kalra and I have been addressing skills shortages issues with many hotels and industry bodies.

There’s a common agreement that we have to look beyond temporary fixes such as students and backpackers to solve the problem. Ideas have included developing programs for over 60’s to enter the hospitality sector.

I recall a few decades ago the Grand Hotel in Melbourne went out of their way to attract mature concierges because they actually knew Melbourne and their knowledge and skills were much-loved by guests.

‘Two Old Blokes and a Hotel’ – Sofitel Melbourne on Collins GM, Clive Scott and chief concierge, Terrence Murphy

Likewise, Sofitel Melbourne general manager, Clive Scott and Chief Concierge Terrence Murphy, with over 80 years of hospitality experience together, are not afraid to highlight the fact that experience counts with their highly popular podcast ‘Two Old Blokes and a Hotel’.

What is required is a government and industry-led promotional campaign to emphasise that mature workers are both wanted and valued, complemented by suitably structured TAFE courses, subsidised RSA courses and back to work programs.

The example of 91-year-old Bunnings employee, Harold, should be an example for our industry. He started with them at 87, bringing a lifetime of skills and living out his mantra that you’re “never too old” to contribute, and his team in Canberra (and customers) agree wholeheartedly.

Equally, at the other end of the age spectrum, governments at all levels need to develop campaigns to attract school leavers to service industries such as hospitality. Ideally, more hospitality and Cert 4 courses should be introduced at HSC level and more Vocational and Educational Training courses funded. So many of our industry leaders honed their skills at TAFE in the 1980s, but that vehicle for training and development has sadly diminished more recently.

That’s not to say that the industry itself should not take more responsibility for attracting, retaining and developing staff.

Hotel operators have been on the road holding recruitment drives across Australia and New Zealand with the goal of revitalising their workforce after COVID.

And at an individual level, hotels can work in their local communities to attract older, younger and disabled workers to their hotels, because those who are already living in the area are the best equipped to service the hotel.

The issues we have with hospitality talent are systemic, and there are no magical solutions.

However, if there is one benefit to come out of COVID it is that the industry has to radically upgrade its recruitment and development programs because while we have some stunning new hotel real estate opening, in the end, hospitality is indeed a people business and a hotel experience is only as good as the people who deliver that experience.

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