What does the post-pandemic future hold for the hospitality industry, where customer care plays a critical role in making or breaking a business? What if frontline hospitality staff are suffering mentally and physically, or that there simply aren’t enough hospitality staff to provide the thoughtful and attentive services, which the industry is famous for? The question is especially urgent for the hospitality industry in Hong Kong, which sees an alarming level of labour shortage, as a result of an evaporating talent pool and overseas talents being prevented from entering Hong Kong due to COVID-related flight bans.
To take a deeper look at how hotels and F&B outlets are maintaining staff and guest well-being while grappling with talent shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic, we held the Think Tank, “Building Resilience in Hospitality Through Employee and Customer Care” in April.
Dwindling Talent Pool
Labour shortage in the hospitality industry is not unique to Hong Kong. According to a 2021 survey by hospitality mental health organisation, The Burnt Chef, one in five hospitality workers was planning on leaving within the next 12 months, with the majority of respondents citing “work-life balance” as a reason for leaving the industry, and “feeling valued” as a change that could improve retention.
To be clear, talent retention has always been a challenge for the hospitality industry, where employees are more prone to stress and mental ill-health as well as occupational hazards. The pandemic in the past two years has exacerbated that, especially with the first quarter of 2022 recording a 97.4% year-on-year drop in tourism in Hong Kong. Not only did hospitality employees experience the anxiety of becoming infected with the coronavirus, they were also put through mental stress when they were furloughed, laid off, or rendered uncertain about their job security when the constantly changing restrictions were at one point expected to force up to one-third of all Hong Kong dining outlets and bars to temporarily or permanently shutter.
Amongst the participants at our Think Tank, representing hotels, F&Bs, human resources, innovators, and civil society organisations, 46% reported a decrease in qualified staff, 40% saw an evaporating talent pool, and 60% said that international travel restrictions were the main cause of the decrease in overseas talents entering the Hong Kong talent market.
However, some F&B outlets seem to have had a better experience in employee retention. “We have been relatively lucky. Our core staff were normally part-time heavy and tended to fluctuate with the peak times,” said John Lui, International Brand Director, Marketing, Food and People Development at PizzaExpress. “We took a strategic view to change into a nimble set-up so that it is heavier on part-time.” Believing that “currency is the people”, John readily admitted that PizzaExpress’s part-time-heavy staff mix posed a different set of challenges, such as maintaining the right levels of service quality standards and incentivising employees.
That prompted PizzaExpress to launch a series of all-encompassing wellness and CSR programmes, with the goal of creating future sustainability for the business and the people. Additionally, the company is also using new technologies to be more in sync with Generations Y and Z in all internal initiatives. “Culturally in Hong Kong, our sector is the least attractive to recent graduates,” said John. “We need to work even harder to overcome these setbacks. That work needs to come from the top, and now is the best time for that.”
Employee Care as Positive Branding for Talent Attraction
As shown in The Burnt Chef’s 2021 survey, a game-changing element for talent retention is for employees to feel that they are valued and cared for. From the discussions at our Think Tank, we learnt that hospitality and F&B businesses have introduced various such initiatives during the pandemic.
“When we first decided to have our properties listed as quarantine hotels, we took the time to explain to our staff what that entails,” said Teresa Poon, Director of Quality at Langham Hospitality Group. “We also ran open forums to take questions and gauge concerns from the team. It is very important to be transparent, and to help our staff understand that they’re not left to deal with the situation alone.”
In other hospitality businesses, employee care and engagement initiatives are more lighthearted but no less important. Marriott, for example, invited employees to participate in games and activities during work hours, said KK Kwan, Internal Communications and Engagements, P&S, APAC, at Marriott Hong Kong. The Peninsula, meanwhile, leveraged staff strength with cooking classes and cocktail classes with instructors, to create a sense of family and community, said Dominic Dubois, Assistant Manager of Corporate Responsibility Sustainability at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels. At Dorsett Hospitality International, team building activities involving games and crowdsourcing donation for charities were implemented, according to Natalie Ip, Head of Sustainability.
Key to employee engagement, as pointed out by Ada Yip, Chief Empowerment Officer of Urban Spring, is employee listening: “Find an anonymous channel so people can submit their feedback. We often overestimate how much we know about our people – their flexibility, mobility, health, and safety. Employee listening needs to be a continuous process until we can figure out the solutions.”
Guest Satisfaction and Mental Well-being
The pandemic has not only changed guest demographics, but it has also seen a decline in guest satisfaction. This is corroborated by findings by Neurum Health, an AI-powered digital well-being service provider that has partnered with Dorsett Hospitality International to gauge guest well-being. It found that quarantine guests usually experienced post-traumatic stress 10 days into the quarantine, and the effects tended to be long-lasting. Citing half of Millenial and 75% of Gen Z employees have left a job for mental health reasons, and that 73% of travellers see being mindful as important, Megan Lam, Co-founder and CEO of Neurum Health, stressed that the easy accessibility to practical support provided by her company can offer employers shared value opportunities – initiatives that benefit both the companies and their stakeholders.
While admitting that data privacy remains an issue, John agreed that telemedicine and remote counselling herald a new trend in healthcare, especially during the pandemic. “It will never replace human contact. When some of our staff passed away during COVID, it created a lot of sadness and anxiety. We wanted to take action from a company perspective, but it was almost impossible to do person-to-person.” Said Megan: “Technology is not judgmental and it is an easy stepping stone to break down barriers. The first step is to introduce and engage with people and to get through the first struggle.”
And then there is the generation-driven digital divide, as hotel representatives agreed that even getting more senior employees on board in utilising digital communication channels poses a challenge.
The Way Forward
So what can be done to enhance talent recruitment and retention, in order for the hospitality industry to provide the best quality of services possible? Participants at the Think Tank have floated several actionable solutions, which we at GREEN Hospitality have consolidated as follows.
Attract talent through key leaders in business leveraging personal brand
One way, as suggested by John, is to encourage more key leaders, who demonstrate their companies’ value, to leverage their personal brand on social media and share insights into their journey with the company to connect with candidates.
Here, GREEN Hospitality will coordinate with key leaders to develop workshops, so that they can learn to leverage their personal brand through storytelling.
Create a repository of solutions/tools/best practices for staff engagement and retention
Senior management is responsible for decision-making regarding resource allocation and policy implementation, which is why its buy-in and participation in employee-centric events is crucial. Just as important is senior management’s investment in these initiatives to enhance staff engagement and retention.
GREEN Hospitality will look to collaborate and create a repository of solutions/tools/best practices, which can be shared and used to convince senior leadership of the importance of staff engagement and retention techniques, to maintain employee satisfaction and well-being.
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This Think Tank was made possible by:
Venue Sponsor: Eaton Club
Content Partner: KOS International Holdings Limited
Content Partner: Neurum Health
We would like to thank all of you for attending the event:
Patsy Cheung, Director of KOS International Holdings Limited
Belle Leung, Consultant - Food & Beverages, Hospitality, KOS International Holdings Limited
Megan Lam, Co-founder and CEO, Neurum Health
Carmen Ng, Director of Sustainability, Langham Hospitality Group
Teresa Poon, Director of Quality, Langham Hospitality Group
Joshua Wong, Senior Manager, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels
Dominic Dubois, Assistant Manager, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels
Natalie Ip, Head of Sustainability, Dorsett Hospitality International
Ada Yip, CEO of Urban Spring
Jessie Yue Wright, Certified Counsellor, MindCare, Hong Kong Sports Institute
John Lui, International Brand Director, Marketing, Food and People Development at Pizza Express
Carmen Lai, Senior Human Resources Manager, Pizza Express
Kristine Nudds, Marketing and External CSR Consultant, Pizza Express
Charlotte Breyer, Chair of Board, Soap Cycling
Sindy Wong, Head of Tourism and Hospitality, InvestHK
KK Kwan, Internal Communications and Engagements, P&S, APAC, Marriott Hong Kong
Rebecca FH Chan, Senior Manager, Tourism and Hospitality, InvestHK
Joel Thomas, Operations and Training Consultant, Grassroots Initiative
*Acknowledgment & Disclaimer:
Some of these events are funded by the Innovation & Technology Commission of the HKSAR.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material/event (or by members of the project team) do not reflect the views of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Innovation and Technology Commission, or the Vetting Committee of the General Support Programme of the Innovation and Technology Fund.
在本刊物/活動內 (或由項目小組成員) 表達的任何意見、研究成果、結論或建議,並不代表香港特別行政區政府、創新科技署或創新及科技基金一般支援計劃評審委員會的觀點。