331 | Breaking Away: How to recruit and retain young hospitality professionals in a post-pandemic industry

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IT’S AN EXPERIENCE: New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality’s innovation hub is set to open for the 2021-22 academic year. The Hospitality Innovation Hub has numerous components, including this Experiential Learning Lab where students will learn current operating systems such as property management, customer service and revenue management with the goal to be able to critically evaluate them and develop new solutions. Freedom to innovate is important to young professionals who plan to build a career in hospitality, say educators.

Educators say new wave of grads wants more say, freedom to innovate, workplace flexibility and on-the-job recognition

‘Young professionals have a desire to have a voice. They want to be heard. They want to know that their thoughts and opinions can create impact … within their work environments.’

Ashli Johnson, VP of education, AAHOA

As associate dean and clinical professor at New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, Nicolas Graf has a vision of the future of the hospitality industry.

And it’s taken a tangible form through his brainchild, the school’s $1 million Hospitality Innovation Hub.

It’s a new technology-focused program that gives students as well as industry leaders and investors a place to create and introduce modern tools and practices that will make hotel operations more cost effective and profitable.

Meantime, Ashli Johnson, recently joined AAHOA as vice president of education. She has led and taught hospitality management programs at such schools as University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management and University of Central Florida Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

One of Johnson’s goals at AAHOA is to educate owners as well as up-and-coming hoteliers on how to build a modern workplace culture that encourages employees to stay and thrive.

“Young professionals have a desire to have a voice. They want to be heard. They want to know that their thoughts and opinions can create impact on their work environment or within their work environments,” Johnson said.

BREAKING AWAY: The U.S. hospitality industry is struggling to attract or keep bright young talent in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Episode 331 of Lodging Leaders podcast explores what it will take for owners, operators and others invested in the industry to find, hire and hang onto the best and the brightest who will help build modern and sustainable hotel  business models.

New Learning Space

In February, NYU’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality announced the rollout of its Hospitality Innovation Hub, saying innovation in hotel, restaurant, event and travel sectors is more critical than ever as the coronavirus crisis eases, business resumes and industry stakeholders are eager to shape a post-pandemic enterprising environment.

Nicolas Graf is the school’s Jonathan Tisch chair and developer of the program. He says the HI Hub will not only help students, investors and leaders envision a new tomorrow for the industry, it will influence what it will look like.

Even before the pandemic struck, Graf and his team were developing HI Hub. But the coronavirus crisis created an urgency in getting the multi-faceted program up and running.

“Pre-pandemic, myself with my faculty, we were looking at what should the Tisch Center be and become in the next five years,” Graf said.

Over the past 20 years, the hospitality industry has slowly adopted technological programs and solutions, but advancement has been incremental and uneven, Graf said.

“It hasn’t been something that hotels had to massively invest in. They gradually invested in more capabilities and some hotel groups were maybe more aggressive than others. But, essentially, working in a hotel remained the same with a few new technologies.

Running the operations remains very much labor intensive with very little technological innovations,” he said.

“We thought that to differentiate the Tisch center, to support our student placement in the industry, we thought that giving them a technological edge would be good, would be valuable them for the students and for the employers.”

TESTING GROUND: NYU Johnathan M. Tisch Center’s Hospitality Innovation Lab features a “prototyping space” equipped with coding and virtual reality equipment that enables students and others involved in the school’s entrepreneur programs to test ideas and concepts.

Various Parts

HI Hub has three components. First is its Experiential Learning Lab where students can learn current best practices with the goal of being able to critically evaluate them, identify pain points and come up with innovative solutions.

For example, students will learn how to operate current tech systems such as property management, point of sale and revenue management.

It gives students a competitive advantage when they graduate and seek jobs. And it allows them to develop more efficient solutions.

This leads to the second layer of HI Hub – the Prototyping Space, which has coding and virtual reality equipment. It gives students and start-ups involved in the HI Hub’s entrepreneurship programs the tools they need to develop and rapid-test their ideas.

Third is a Co-Working Lounge, a gathering and brainstorming space for students, faculty members, industry guests and investors.

In addition, the lab is opened to early-stage start-ups through its Incubator Program, a co-working and collaborative space. The Tisch Center will select the incubator participants that can compete for cash prizes, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.

HI Hub also is open to two other programs.

A Venture Capitalist and Early-Stage Investor Club will launch in September.

And an Accelerator Program for late-stage start-ups is expected to launch by 2024.

Businesses in the Accelerator Program will support Tisch Center students by offering applied research projects, internships and jobs.

The pandemic forced the school to temporarily close and halt development of HI Hub, but Graf said the program is on track to open for the 2021-22 school year.

It’s turned out to be perfect timing.

DIGITAL ACCELERATION: BDO USA, a business tax and financial adviser, reported that while many U.S. companies were adopting digital capabilities pre-pandemic, the crisis has dramatically accelerated planning and spending in technology adoption and adaptation across industries. This chart is from a May 2020 report.

Need for Speed

The pandemic, Graf said, has heightened companies’ realization of the need to modernize practices and they’re willingness to invest in technology.

“Companies face an acceleration of probably a decade in terms of the need of adopting new technologies,” he said.

“The role of innovation and technology is only going to increase. Companies that were maybe a little reluctant in investing in new technologies and being more innovative, now they no longer have incremental adoption of technology, but kind of a real disruptive adoption of technology.”

Hoteliers are rethinking how to use a property’s space using technology to promote co-working or small meetings and hybrid events.

Hotel owners and operators also are faced with a labor shortage, which Graf believes will continue to be a problem for “years to come.”

“We were facing a labor shortage pre-pandemic. We’re going to continue to face it post-pandemic and it’s exacerbated for the frontline workers.

“We need to better market our industry. We need to do a better job at telling the story of people starting as a front desk clerk and ending up as a general manager or in a corporate office. There are plenty of good examples of people who made a wonderful careers in a relatively short period of time.

“We also need to become more productive. We need to find efficiencies. We need to find ways to leverage technology so that we reduce the amount of repetitive tasks.

“We need to elevate what entry positions are. We need to pay them better. We need to give them a faster track to general manager positions or to regional headquarters positions. “

Key to keeping new graduates and young professionals interested in careers in hospitality is the freedom to innovate. To expand on what they’ve learned and to challenge long-held best practices.

“In talking to our current students, they still have the passion that brought them to this industry in the first place,” said Graf.

Corporations need to re-invent workplace cultures that support innovation and differences among the rank-and-file, including seemingly small things such as rethinking the employee uniform.

“The current younger generation wants to be able to be who they are without having to fit into a mold,” Graf said. “It used to be what people were fine with and what customers expected years ago. But I think even customers now want to see people for who they are; That sense of ‘I want to have genuine service with people who actually care about me and care about themselves and are proud of who they are.’”

Companies, he said, need to be “more willing to be flexible in terms of working hours, in terms of uniforms, in terms of supporting innovation and new ideas” and allow employees to test new ideas without fear of retribution if they fail.

“It has to be that genuine sense of ‘We want to do business in a different way. We want to do better.’”

Graf is among the first to admit that convincing staid hospitality enterprises to think new thoughts and come up with innovative ways to do business is a challenge that the pandemic did not make any easier.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be complicated. It will take time because most of the groups for years have developed standards. They have developed standards of service, standard-operating procedures, brand standards. And this is essentially what they’ve been selling to owners, whether franchised or managed. They’ve been selling a business model that has proven to work for many, many decades, in some instances.

And now all of a sudden they have to kind of allow the younger generation to sometimes challenge some of the standards and sometimes break them. So it’s going to be difficult because it took decades for these companies to build a culture of standards. And so to somehow allow the younger generations to think differently is going to be a challenge.

“But I think it takes great leaders to make some of these changes and find the right balance between standards and centralization versus innovation and de-centralization. Because you need to decentralize, if you want to allow innovation to come from within.”

THAT WAS THEN: Ashli Johnson posed for this photo in 2018 when she was named associate dean of University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management in San Antonio. She joined AAHOA in February as vice president of education.

‘It’s that simple’

Ashli Johnson already has had a storied career in hospitality management and education. But, actually, she’s just getting started.

Earlier this year she was named vice president of education at AAHOA, which is dedicated to providing its hotel-owner members with continual learning opportunities as the industry evolves and expands.

She also is founder of HLT 100, a non-profit organization that helps minority hospitality students and young professionals find internships and jobs and develop skills that lead to leadership.

Johnson knows the struggle hotel owners and operators face in recruiting and retaining young talent. But she also understands the flip side of the issue.

“When working for an employer in which they feel like (they’re) just given demands, given directives and expected to follow or execute on with no level of flexibility without asking for their opinion on it, without soliciting feedback, they’ll leave. It’s, frankly, that simple,” Johnson said.

“Young professionals want to know that: ‘Not only am I learning and growing in this environment, but I am making a contribution, not only to my own career trajectory, but I am also making a valued contribution to my team and to my organization.’”

Johnson says the pandemic’s impact on the career trajectories of hospitality students and young hoteliers is mixed.

The young professionals who are members of AAHOA, draw from the business legacies of previous generations who “have laid a very solid foundation for them.”

“They are motivated to get back out there, get back to work. I don’t see an exodus or a loss in interest from our young hoteliers at AAHOA at all,” she said.

“It speaks to the legacy of ownership that exists within AAHOA. And so that demographic of young professional is very different from a college student that has selected to study hospitality and build a career within the industry. They’re focused on a very different portion of the business.”

Hospitality students and recent graduates are more entrepreneurial minded than previous generations, Johnson said. The biggest barrier to business ownership for next-generation hoteliers, especially minorities, is access to capital.

“If there is not, uh, some clear framework that has already been established, it’s very difficult for a young person whose family is not already in the business to break into ownership,” she said.

“The pandemic has negatively impacted the perception of the hospitality industry for hospitality students and recent hospitality graduates.

“Educators probably have an even more difficult job today to not only share what opportunities exist within the operation but to share all of the opportunities that exist in what I like to call the business of hospitality.”

The industry’s opportunities and rewards are uneven when new employees are recruited by stories of travel and living in exciting places but find out hospitality is “infamous for low wages, for no insurance, for poor work-life balance, for 50 and 60 hours a week with very little appreciation or value communicated to staff,” Johnson said.

“Recent grads, young people that are in the industry, have had time throughout the pandemic to sort of reassess where they are. What’s important and how they can build a life around a career that previously was just not possible in hospitality.”

Not every hotel employee wants to be an owner. But many do want to have a sense of ownership in their work. It’s important that employers allow staff members to embrace that concept of contribution and accountability on tasks they’re assigned to fulfill, Johnson said.

She believes one of the keys to retaining young talent is to help them understand in real terms how they’re contributing to the hotel’s business.

“If they don’t understand the business that we’re running, it makes it very difficult for them to absorb directions and move accordingly.”

When Johnson worked as a manager in operations, she traveled to different hotels to visit supervisors and the staff. “Talk to any front desk agent, probably even a front desk manager or supervisor, and they would not be able to walk me through a P&L with confidence,” she said. “Without that level of understanding about the business and the finance portion of how their role contributes to the bottom line, it creates a sense of distance from the ownership. ‘I don’t feel like I’m really a part of this team. I just show up here with my uniform on and my name tag and I complete my job duty.

‘I don’t understand that when I don’t collect a room key from a guest as they’re checking out that that could impact my bottom line. I don’t understand how the loss of linen impacts this business. I don’t understand how me staying on the clock 30 minutes longer could negatively impact the entire operation.’

“Without taking some time to help them understand how our business is built and scaled, they’ll certainly never understand how their role contributes to whether our business succeeds or otherwise, and that’s a really crucial puzzle piece for younger hospitality professionals.”

It’s easy for a recruiter from a competitor to steal employees away when the current employer is not helping its staff members learn how to build a career.

“Without offering some direction, some coaching and mentoring, I think we’ll continue to see young professionals leave this industry in large numbers,” Johnson said.

Along with growing young professionals into leaders, Johnson reminds owners and operators to continue to educate and guide those who’ve made it to the upper echelons of management. They need attention, too.

“When most people leave a job they are leaving a person, not the organization. It is crucially important that we are investing not only in our team members but investing in building better leaders,” she said.

“Oftentimes, particularly property level leadership or departmental level leadership, they are so extremely overwhelmed that they barely even have time to really understand their job function.

“That leaves very little time, space and opportunity for you to start thinking strategically about how to grow and advance your team.”

When a bright talent in the front office believes no one has noticed their work, taken them under wing or spent time outlining the opportunities for advancement that exist in the company, they’ll eagerly entertain an outside recruiter that details a path to career growth, Johnson said.

“It’s very difficult to reclaim someone’s attention after someone else has already said, ‘I can make your dreams a reality. And I’m showing you a clear path on how to get there.’ They’ll leave every time.”

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