Stunning numbers reported in early October from a new survey by CGA and Fourth underscore the gravity of the staffing crisis in hospitality: one in 6 hospitality jobs are remaining stubbornly vacant, and nearly all (96%) of leaders anticipate staffing shortages.

The same survey indicated that of those same leaders, just 18% felt confident about their recruitment and retention over the next 12 months – a “dramatic collapse from the 67% who felt confident in the last survey just three months ago,” as reported by The Caterer.

These difficulties are compounded by the public’s enthusiastic return to travel, and the fact that restrictions are still in place means that UK hoteliers have a nearly captive audience – and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win loyal new customers – if they can muster what’s needed to deliver a great guest experience.

If there was ever an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot, this is the moment.

McKinsey’s recent study on the travel industry and customer experience found that customers are twice as likely to try new brands and experiences as a result of COVID-19. This is particularly important in the travel sector with its strong reliance on loyalty programs and suggests that travel companies that prioritize customer experience can gain loyalty, build resilience, and even future-proof their businesses.

The question McKinsey poses is this: Will travel players manage to reboot customer experience before travelers’ “honeymoon phase” comes to an end? Or will thinning customer patience shock the system?

This may sound good on paper but in reality, how can a hotelier capture this opportunity even as they’re struggling to retain people and maintain staffing levels?

It starts with perspective

Let’s think first about the guests, visiting the property in what may be their first trip since escaping lockdown. They’re thrilled to be out of the house and are looking forward to all the delights of a wonderful hotel stay: crisp sheets, glorious food, attentive service, and a relaxing atmosphere in which one’s troubles melt away.

On the other hand, let’s consider the perspective of the staff, some of whom are just coming back from furlough. They have had time to reflect, and it’s changed some of their mindsets. Furthermore, they’re going back to jobs that are often physically grueling – in fact, an article in BigHospitality recently called attention to the fact that on-the-job pain is causing 20% of current hospitality and retail staff to consider leaving their jobs.

Our guests and our staff are on a collision course – and when the guests show up starry-eyed, and eager for their luxury respite, well, your guess is as good as mine as to whether their expectations and the property’s reality will be aligned.

There are businesses in hospitality that are getting it right. A number are focusing on exactly the right things, and they will triumph in the months and years ahead. They are creating workplaces that will be the envy of the industry. I truly believe they will be the ones that don’t experience an issue attracting and retaining talent. This is the opportunity you have right now if you focus on the right things.

What hasn’t changed

What hasn’t changed is the definition of engagement, which occurs when staff are present, focused, and energised. Something else that hasn’t changed is the vital role purpose and belonging play in workplace culture. Happily, the proven steps you can take as a leader to create engagement and belonging haven’t changed, either.

The challenge for leaders is understanding your staff’s mindsets and identifying the gaps between staff needs and how the property can better support their employees.

The great news is that you have an unimpeachable source of insight right in front of you: your current staff – the ones who have stuck with you. Amongst them are your kingpins, your culture champions, and they understand your business.

5 actions hotel leaders can take immediately to capture opportunity

1. Connect with your current team around purpose. This is a hugely valuable group, amongst whom you will be your kingpins, and they’ll be able to help you understand to what extent at the moment they connect with your purpose, or whether that needs adjusting to make it more relevant to them. This is an easy area to create a quick win that will make people feel appreciated.

2. If you’re willing to accept the evidence that belonging is the number one driver of employee engagement, then you should also agree with me that people can’t feel they belong when they’re not cared for. Here’s another really easy win. Create a People Charter that defines the rights you believe employees have when they’re in your workplace. Then test that with your employees, against their perception of reality. It’s another easy win, and it will help you validate which areas are truly important to your staff.

3. Recruit around your kingpins. Expose candidates to the people who are proud of the property and want to be there. Their stories will resonate with candidates on a personal level.

4. Remember, despite how hard it is right now and the road ahead is bumpy – you have a unique advantage in hospitality: people need to come to work rather than working in isolation at home. So whilst other businesses in other sectors are struggling with the same problems as you, they’re having to try and build culture, whilst working with teams that are operating remotely and that’s tough, so you know the advantage that you have is you have people in your environment, every day, and that allows you to show humanity.

5. Reflect upon the skills you have in acquiring guests. In my conversations with many successful hoteliers, this has been quite insightful to reflect on. The tools and techniques you use to attract guests to the property are easy to repurpose and apply to attracting talent. In other words, you have the skills -just apply them to a different audience. And if you approach attracting talent with the same rigor and focus that you apply for attracting guests, you’re likely to see some wins.

As you can see, there’s some comfort to be taken in what hasn’t changed. The steps you can take to shift the current circumstances from being a staffing crisis to being to your advantage don’t require you to forge a new path.