Bring the Glamor Back

Even though it’s been nearly a year since it first hit theatres, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece “The Grand Budapest Hotel” still remains top of mind whenever a friend asks for a movie recommendation. It’s funny, well-acted and beautifully shot, so what’s not to love? But more than that, the film is a tribute to a bygone era of travel and ‘Old World’ hospitality when guests were eminently respected for their individual preferences and experienced managers were revered for their wisdom and commitment to their craft.

I compare an everyday walk through the lobby of a branded, four-star property with those fantastical shots of Anderson’s titular hotel and my immediate thought is: we’ve lost something. Nowadays, we concern ourselves less with a sharp focus on developing strong person-to-person relationships and more with the multitude of number crunching tasks designed to squeeze as much profit out of our ever-dwindling margins. Yes, we should worry about our margins and cash flow, but there comes a point where we will lose sight of what made us ‘grand’ in the first place.

That grandeur comes many facets – a bustling spectacle of a lobby floor, opulent rooms with the utmost attention to detail, lavish amenities, exceptional food service, immaculate housekeeping and, above all, a team that cares. If each and every staff member loves his or her job, then all the other ‘material’ tasks will magically be completed faster and more effectively, whether it’s ensuring that a room is spotless before a guest’s arrival or filling up the bar on a week night to create a more social environment. It all boils down to hiring the right people and motivating them for consummate perfection.

Alas, it’s never that simple. I’ve spoken with numerous managers and owners over the years, and a common quality that they all possess is a high degree of scrutiny when hiring. Most senior-level employees in hospitality understand that this is a ‘people industry’ and that recruiting individuals with the right gung-ho attitude is essential for pleasant guest-staff relationships and ensuring healthy company morale.

But what happens when the best and brightest of our draft picks never even consider the hotel industry as their chosen profession? Service today is very casual in its presentation. My fear is that our craft has relinquished its classical allure, and therefore will fail to attract the brainy kids necessary to secure the next generation of internal entrepreneurship.

The Brain Drain

Put yourself in the shoes of a 2015 high school or college senior. This exercise has served me well in the past when assessing what marketing messages will impact the average millennial. Today it serves a different purpose. From this youthful perspective, evaluate what might incentivize a graduate to view hospitality as a viable career path (and not just as a summer job or intern ‘stepping stone’ placement).

What incentives did you write down? Next, take this a step further by contrasting the millennial lens on the hotel industry with that of the finance or medical streams. Specifically, attempt to answer the question: what makes hospitality better than these two career paths (or any other for that matter)?

Finance takes the boat when it comes to monetary compensation as well as any flashy ‘bonuses’ like expensive sports cars, plush Manhattan apartments and all other images of corporate excess. Hence, anyone who values having a thick billfold will gravitate to these sorts of jobs. Medicine, on the other hand, has long been upheld as a noble endeavor with directly quantifiable results. A patient is sick; you treat them in one way, shape or form, and the patient gets better. Ergo, young adults seeking meaningful employment via helping others are more likely to apply to medical, nursing or dental school than to request a placement as your newest desk clerk.

Any way to put it, a hotel organization’s pool of applicants is not the same as that for a hospital or a gaudy Wall Street hedge fund which may or may not go belly up within a year’s time. It also shares very little overlap with that for engineering, biology, philosophy, political sciences, economics or a host of other educational streams. In fact, there appears to be a significant brain drain occurring, whereby the best and brightest of the next generation of employees are quite unlikely to end up in hospitality. Worse still, this problem is of our own making.

We haven’t given today’s smart and savvy youth enough of a reason to proudly join our organizations and go through the decades of necessary field experience to earn their stripes towards a high-ranking and highly lucrative management position. What concerns me here is how this will affect the rate of innovation in hotels and their corporate entities over the next few decades. Imagine that instead of setting out to be computer programmers, stockbrokers, doctors, pilots or architects, we had a horde of off-the-IQ-scale intelligent twenty-somethings yearning for a placement at your property.

Make It Glamorous

One of the reasons “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has stayed fresh is that it makes being a hotelier appear cool. From the snappy white glove and purple morning coat uniforms to the perpetually charismatic actions of the film’s protagonist – Gustave H as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes – the film spotlights a career in hospitality as glamorous.

“Why do you want to be a lobby boy?” asked Gustave early in the movie. “Well, who wouldn’t at the Grand Budapest, Sir. It’s an institution.” replied Zero, the fresh-faced and wide-eyed trainee. As emphasized by this Lobby Boy character, beginning a stint in hospitality is not something one stumbles upon or settles into once several options have been exhausted. It is a job with responsibilities that actually matter and with a time-honored tradition that inductees should be thrilled to participate in. This one line of dialogue emphasizes that when you become an hotelier, you become part of something greater.

How can you make your hotel ‘an institution’ as Zero puts it? Glamour, prestige, acclaim – whatever word you use to describe this form of non-monetary incentive, we as an industry need more of it in order to build an empyrean reputation worthy of today’s astute teens. Or, to put it another way, we have to bring back the elements of hospitality that made it great during the film’s rose-colored ‘grand age of hotels’ in order to prevent any future brain drain from eroding the core of what our profession stands for.

Looking beyond yearly salary and other strict fiscal incentives, we must strive to attract new recruits by using emotional drivers and by promoting what is unique about our trade. Here are five ways to reinvigorate your efforts at ‘selling the job’ to today’s youth, in no particular order.

1. Personal Well-Being – A career working for a hotel organization is unlikely to be tarnished by a ‘burn out’ phrase as one hits the prime age of 30. On the contrary, hospitality offers (for the most part) a non-hostile work environment, albeit with long and irregular hours, and a large team of affectionate faces who are there to help you rather than compete with you. This goes for operations at the hotel as well as the corporate levels. Knowing this, a new recruit has many years of contentment at the office to look forward to. And yes, for those interested in lofty remunerations, inform them that senior managers bring home a pretty penny, too.

2. Promise of Steady Advancement – If you work hard, understand the business and maintain good standings with your coworkers, it’s hard not to move up the hospitality ladder. As well, given that hotel operations are as diverse as they come, there’s also the prospect of horizontal shuffling. If an employee isn’t happy working in sales, perhaps marketing or revenue management is more in line with his or her aspirations. Being a hotelier requires many hats and there’s never a dull day balancing all the different tasks that must be done.

3. Dynamic Work Environment – An office is an office, except when it’s a hotel where you are two hundred feet from a bustling lobby floor with guests from around the world shuffling about, attendants and porters in tow, eye-catching artwork festooned on two-story walls, and corridors leading off to meeting spaces with events in progress and restaurants with top notch cuisine. Additionally, working in hospitality encourages sophistication as you’ll come in contact with various cultures and languages, and get to try all the latest spa products or chef creations. Lastly, an occupation in our industry often entails assuming the role of community leader, requiring lots of socializing with neighboring businesses.

4. Pay It Forward – Working at a hotel can benefit new recruits in many ways, but it can also benefit those who are helped in the process – guests, other employees, casual visitors and the community at large. Like a nurse or doctor, being a hotelier means taking an interest in others’ wellbeing and doing your part to improve their livelihoods, even if it’s only by a smidgeon. Smiles, friendly handshakes, helping cart someone’s bags to a guestroom, polite conversations, making reservations, arranging for travel plans, recommending a local attraction – all these little things really do make a difference.

5. In-house celebrities – Hospitality is one of the few places where everyone has a moment in the sun, especially with the power of the Internet. Use social media to create in-house celebrities which might include your executive chef, a golf pro, the spa director, a PR manager or any other affable senior executive who’s eager to converse directly with consumers. In this sense, you will be indirectly proffering newcomers the chance to (eventually) assume a leadership role.

Beyond this, you must look for ways to reach today’s youth in order to express these five motivations as well as any others you know of. Think of it like channel distribution. Instead of trade shows, you send colleagues out to job fairs. Instead of sending available rooms to the OTAs, you post employment opportunities to LinkedIn or another specialized website.

If you are to take one thing away from this article – and from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for that matter – always remember that hospitality service is an art as much as it is an occupation. The more you can instill this sense of idealism in the young minds currently or soon-to-be evaluating career options, the better chance you stand at attracting the best possible recruits.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, originally published in Hotel Executive on April 5, 2015)