”New Normal” seems to be an over-used term these days. In my opinion, many best practices, which should have been regarded as norms in the hospitality industry, were pushed to the back burner prior to the painful COVID-19 lesson. What was then deemed to be important but not urgent now takes the front seat when the pandemic has hit and survival mode set in. I have always been an advocate of productivity inclusion as a core practice in hospitality design and operations. There is no better time than now to revisit what should always have been included in sustainable standard and practices in the trade.
The hospitality industry, though some may argue to be a discretionary business, has enjoyed decades of healthy growth. For example, hotel brands from around the world have been experiencing rises in both occupancy rates and average daily rates, with the growth of globalisation and increase in leisure travel. Today, hospitality contributes 10% of global GDP, supporting one in ten jobs on the planet1. Yet this trade is constantly confronted by many vulnerabilities – political, climate, pandemic and economic factors included. Never before 2020, however, was the entire hospitality trade put to the test in the most critical issue of redundancy, from the corporate to operational levels, when business took a deep dive to its bottom as cities and countries locked down, with no sign of recovery in the near future. The crisis has forced hospitality operators to frantically identify roles that are essential for business continuity and sever the remaining ones which are now deemed optional.
Layoffs and furloughs became inevitable as labour cost is the single largest expense on any financial statement in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, management and human resource departments are under increasing pressure to cater to the wellbeing of the remaining employees – to motivate, train (for example, in new hygiene procedures) and retain them during and after this challenging period. These knee-jerk reactions, however, while necessary, are none other than a plaster approach which will not eradicate fundamental HR flaws that have been eroding the profitability and survivability of the industry.
While I am in no position to oppose job creation, I am advocating less dependency on foreign labour as a way to avoid the same predicament in the future, and to combat the labour crunch when business returns to a more acceptable level in Singapore. Here are some potentially controversial yet pragmatic thoughts on productivity enhancement for hospitality owners and operators to consider in preparation for the new normal.
Photo: Louis Hansel / Unsplash
1. End-to-end planning and integration
It is traditional industry practice for hotel developers or owners to first build a stunningly designed hotel and later run an open tender to select an international brand to operate it. The business development team of each bidding hotel brand would then build a ‘promising’ business projection to ensure the deal would be signed based on the aim to add a new property to their hotel collection after generating a great amount of publicity. After the Hotel Management Agreement has been signed, the hotel brand would assemble an operations team to fulfil the terms of the agreement.
Often, the operation team would inherit a hotel with design limitations that hinder operational efficiencies, and which would require additional manpower to compensate for these deficiencies. Have you ever been in a beautifully designed restaurant but had to try very hard to catch the attention of its servers because they were always too busy doing something else? In many cases, this happens because workflow efficiency was not part of the design consideration for the dining facility, as priority had been given to aesthetics.
If the operations team had been involved in the design process, the problem might have quite easily been solved by incorporating clearing stations in the design of food and beverage (F&B) outlets to reduce the time needed to bus dirty cutlery to ‘back-of-house’ and allow tables to be reset more efficiently. This would allow servers to have more time to attend to diners’ needs, in turn increasing guest satisfaction. This would also help reduce employee fatigue, leading to higher job satisfaction.
Now that the pandemic is forcing everyone to slow down and look for ways to survive this and future crises, there is no better time to call for better collaboration, communication, organisation and integration amongst all stakeholders in the industry – proprietors, designers, architects, engineers, operators – right from the planning stage to minimise design flaws, improve operational efficiencies and increase productivity.
Boracay Island, Philippines
The resort island reopened after months of lockdown to domestic tourists on 1 October amid the pandemic, in an attempt to revive its stalled economy. Photo: Michael Wels / iStock
2. Run a business, not busyness
International hospitality brands create sets of service standards and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) with the intention to create memorable experiences for their guests and set themselves apart from their competitors. Some even include very stringent grooming standards and comprehensive performance targets for their staff members. Hotel staffs are put through vigorous training and re-training to uphold such standards. ‘Mystery shoppers’ are also deployed to audit compliance with these ’commandments’.
When more standards are created, rightly or wrongly, more tasks need to be completed and more ‘busyness’ created in the operations. Have hospitality operators ever taken stock of the many standards they have created, and examine how many of them truly attract return business, sustain customer loyalty and create incremental revenue? Or are they there just because everyone has them, or because they have ‘always been there’? One very good example of ‘less is more’ can be found in the farm-to-table social movement in restaurant business. The simple emphasis on putting simple but freshly sourced local ingredients on the plate and not having complicated sauces clouding the mind and taste buds presented diners with such clear palates that their sense of taste was ‘shocked’ back to the basics. The fact that a tomato could taste like a tomato suddenly became talk of the town, which should have been the right approach all along.
Similarly, going back to the basics and reexamining what today’s customers really want would clear the confusion of ‘busyness’ in the hospitality industry. It would open up a whole new dimension in which a simple and more sincere approach could indeed be the most authentic way to undo the noose that is strangling many modern hospitality businesses.
3. Quantity does not necessarily translate to quality
A hotel has to fulfil many stringent criteria to be rated 5-star,2 including manpower criteria. Here are some examples:
- Standalone concierge staff available at least 16 hours a day,
- High staff-to-room ratio – ideally above 2.5
- Multilingual staff
- 24-hour reception, room service, valet parking, butler, doorman
- Nightly turndown
Many hospitality outlets often go above and beyond minimum criteria to include a higher staff count, because they can afford it and because they feel this will lead to better service. Nevertheless, a higher staff count does not guarantee better service. Many of us have encountered dining experiences in F&B establishments with many waiters and waitresses but still offering very poor service. Clearly, adding undertrained and inattentive servers who are poorly supervised and coordinated is more likely to make the customer experience worse rather than better in any restaurant.
Here is some food for thought:
i. Enlarge roles – On the one hand, management and workers’ unions should work together to create meaningful and integrated roles that are well remunerated. On the other hand, staff members should be expected to be multi-skilled and able to handle multiple tasks, according to business volume and guests’ needs rather than administrative or departmental needs. Put oneself in the shoes of a guest – is it not comforting and personable if a single host can handle your check-in, check-out, concierge, transfer, F&B and other needs during a hotel stay, instead of having to deal with multiple parties? This also has the added benefit of minimising the risk of cross-infection at a post-pandemic workplace.
ii. Stay Nimble – Maintain a minimum fixed headcount according to basic business needs, and a pool of variable labour (casual, part-time, seasonal, contingent, and so on) to supplement manpower needs when business volume increases. By keeping the workforce optimal and flexible, businesses will be in a better position to weather the ups and downs of the hospitality market.
iii. Reward better – It is a known fact that hospitality jobs are lowly paid in comparison with those in other industries — A ‘champagne job with Coca Cola pay’ is not hyperbole – it explains the high staff turnover in the hospitality industry, generally 30% annually on average.
While increasing the basic wage can be a stretch when business recovery is slow, hotel operators can supplement basic wages with generous performance-based incentives to retain passionate talents who are capable of generating organic, sincere and uncompromised guest experiences.
This can go hand-in-hand with the two suggestions above to maintain a happy team of star employees who could in turn help improve profitability.
In order to achieve better productivity in the hospitality industry, it is extremely important to digitalise so that information can be communicated to everyone in a timely manner for the execution of planned procedures and unplanned changes. Every staff member, regardless of their physical location and role, should be connected electronically so that guest expectations and requests can be promptly communicated and seamlessly met.
In the post-COVID-19 era, digitalisation of employee communications will also help to instantly convey protocol changes, keep morale up, and reiterate the need to observe safety guidelines.
5. Think win-win with your competitors
For the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2020, mooncake sales in many hotels in Singapore recorded historic highs due to high domestic spending. While Singaporeans have their individual preferences for a favourite mooncake brand, most are not aware that one single ‘cloud kitchen’ produces 90% of all the baked mooncakes in the market.
This production model creates a win-win outcome for all hotels due to its economy of scale, by reducing production and labour costs, which in turn generates higher profitability for everyone. Here is my proposition: consider applying the same mooncake production model for pastries, sandwiches, pastas, roast items and other food products, without compromising quality and brand uniqueness. If we stretch our imagination even further, the same concept can also be applied to the property maintenance and IT functions of the industry.
Most hotels have a big team of repair and maintenance workers standing by to change fused bulbs, fix choked basins or repair heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment. A pool of repair and maintenance workers could serve a cluster of competing hotels in the same vicinity, saving cost for everyone and helping to combat the labour crunch.
With most IT processes becoming subscription based and residing in the ‘cloud’, hotels’ IT personnel need only spend time on managing system upgrades (which are infrequent) and attending to guests occasionally when they encounter network connection challenges. A similar shared IT service team could be set up to serve multiple businesses at a lower cost while maintaining high and consistent service quality.
FINAL THOUGHTS: THE NEXT OPPORTUNITY
The recovery from any crisis, particularly this current prolonged pandemic, can take some time.
On the other hand, implementing the changes I have proposed above will require a mindset change, some political will, much determination and a significant amount of effort and resources.
However, the extraordinary situation we are facing has made it easier to justify and probably less costly to realise. For owners and operators of hospitality businesses who are able to face up to the challenge, seizing the rare opportunity to reimagine and redesign their operations will be a means of emerging from this painful period stronger than their competitors and more adaptable to future challenges.
A boost in hospitality
Initiated by the Singapore Tourism Board, the campaign SingapoRediscovers aims to give local lifestyle and tourism businesses a boost. Singaporeans are receiving SGD100 worth of vouchers each; and many hotels are offering staycation or even ‘workation’ promotions. Photo: Victor He / Unsplash
Image source: GTRIIP
AVOIDING THE HOTEL CHECK-IN QUEUE – DIGITALISING IDENTITY VERIFICATION
Almost all modern travellers have the experience of waiting in the check-in line at a hotel reception with much frustration. After a long international flight and a hectic taxi ride from the airport, all an exhausted traveller wants is a shower and a good meal in the hotel café, or to go straight to bed. However, all hotels require their staff at the check-in counter to confirm the identity of every single guest, and have them fill out registration forms before room keys can be issued, hence the labour-intensive checkin process and the long wait at hotel receptions, especially during peak arrival hours.
The hotel guest identity verification and registration process itself is questionable, too. After manual identity verification, many hotels photocopy their guests’ ID or passport data page for security and record purposes. Sometimes the passport is taken to the back office for photocopying. One cannot help but wonder what might happen to one’s passport when it is out of sight, or whether photocopies are appropriately handled after one has checked out of the hotel.
Seeing a business opportunity presented by these process shortcomings, GTRIIP, a start-up company in Singapore, has come up with a solution that digitalises identity verification using the ubiquitous smartphone.
Many travellers today make their hotel bookings on the Internet using their smartphone. The online platform developed by GTRIIP goes one step further by allowing hotel guests to undergo pre-arrival check-in by snapping a picture of their photo ID, completed with a selfie on their smartphone. The patented software does so by using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to match and verify photo IDs against a face. After paperless registration and self-checkin on the GTRIIP platform, hotel guests can go straight to their room and unlock it using their own smartphone and a digital room key, thanks to the innovative application of the Internet of Things (IoT) technology.
In Singapore, GTRIIP’s hotel customers are able to reduce check-in time by 70% through the use of its E-Visitor Authentication (EVA) system. Hotel operators in other cities of the world have also started to allow their guests to check in on the GTRIIP platform. This solution improves productivity and security without any major hardware investment since it cleverly makes use of the face recognition and other biometric functions of today’s smartphones.
Mr Maxim Tint, the founder and CEO of GTRIIP – from his office in BLOCK71, a technology startup hub set up and supported by NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore – told us that the GTRIIP solution, originally designed for productivity and convenience, has become a solution for social distancing after the COVID-19 outbreak. Hotel guests no longer need to interact with hotel staff if they choose not to. “More hotels are showing interest in our products although most of them are suffering very bad losses during the global lockdown. In fact, many of them are taking this opportunity to revamp their operation and invest in facilities enhancement, in anticipation of a more stringent operating environment when economies finally reopen,” said Mr Tint.
By automating a highly repetitive process, GTRIIP’s solution is also a welcome solution to manpower shortages in the hospitality industry, especially in locations where waning workforces and high labour cost continue to be a business challenge.
WONG KWEE LIAN
Wong Kwee Lian has more than thirty years of experience in talent management, workforce planning, performance management, financial management and business transformation in the hospitality industry. She has worked with owners, CEOs and general managers of luxurious hotel chains to improve employee productivity and elevate business performance. Ms Wong was Vice-President of Human Resources of COMO Hotels and Resorts, and the Director of Administration of The Patina Capitol Singapore. Prior to that, she worked for Four Season Hotels and Resorts as its Senior Director of HR who supported twelve Four Seasons properties in China, India, Australia, Mauritius, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.