What is the Future of Work in the Hotel industry? Time to rethink and do better



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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down in a way that few could have ever imagined, restricting individual movement and turbulently shocking our systems.  At the time of writing this article, COVID-19 has infected over 92 million with over 2 million deaths worldwide.

On the front line of the fallout is the global travel and tourism industry, one of the world’s largest with $5.7 trillion in revenue and responsible for an estimated 319 million jobs before the pandemic, or roughly one in 10 people working on the planet. According to the International Labour Organization, over 100.8 million jobs were lost worldwide in 2020, with the Asia Pacific region hardest hit with over 81 million jobs lost, followed by Europe with employment dropping by over 13 million.  

As a global expert on top level management searches for the hotel industry, the future of work raises more questions in my mind than I have answers. I am passionate to shine a spotlight on such a crucial issue that is uppermost on the minds of everyone in the industry, most of all the millions of people who have found themselves without jobs and have little prospect of finding the sort of work they are familiar with.

I am focusing first on luxury travel – a sector which I am better acquainted with and which has flourished exponentially in recent decades. It has given the international traveller access to an extensive selection of new destinations and incredible experiences to enjoy around the world. In my view, we should be proud and praise the hotel industry for raising the bar in architecture, design and increasing environmental awareness that created so many breathtaking properties, and coping with the ever-increasing high level guest expectation and demand for great service. The Ritz-Carlton Motto “We are Ladies & Gentleman serving Ladies & Gentleman” captured that so brilliantly, exemplifying the anticipatory service to be provided by all its staff members. It is also refreshing that great hotels have once more become the central hub in capitals around the world with their amazing public spaces, sense of place, excellent gastronomy, luxurious accommodations, stunning spas, excellent sporting & leisure facilities, event spaces and stand-alone restaurants and bars. They have become ‘the destination’.

This was not only good news for the guest, it also provided a fantastic platform for career opportunities at all levels.  Expansion created a multitude of high level leadership positions in corporate (CEO, CFO, COO, CMO, CIO, CHRO, CDO, CXO, CSO, etc.) and in operations (GMs, Executive Committee, Chefs, other Specialist Roles), career growth potential in the general employee level, and a myriad of support roles for suppliers and specialist consultants. The hotel industry also provided employment opportunities at a local level, brought money and new facilities to countries, interest in local food and crafts, kept local traditions and customs alive, and supported conservation of natural environments. Emerging markets worldwide benefited massively from high value tourist travel.  Take the Maldives, as a case in point, where tourism business has become the major employer and contributor to the country’s GDP growth.  

However, the legacy and impacts of these leaders and their hotel operations were not all positive.  Many also brought negative and irresponsible impacts that harmed communities and the environment – biodiversity damage, carbon emission pollution, competition with communities for energy and water, change in cultures and traditions, excessive waste, exploitation of women, children and animals, over-tourism, poorly paid jobs and more. Few have raised the bar on sustainability with accountability and transparency with no greenwash allowed.

For now, I fear the hotel industry will remain in a state of uncertainty and shock for some time. Things will eventually bounce back and there is already evidence of this in domestic markets, but for the long haul, the situation is clearly a major concern.  Even with an accelerated vaccine programme, I fear the clock is against us. For many hotels, there is a limit to the financial strain that they can take with occupancies at such an unprecedented low level. 

Furthermore, as a sector totally interdependent on air travel, it is terrible news to hear that airlines around the world remain in jeopardy, have suspended more flights to long-haul destinations, or have already collapsed due to the pandemic. 

More than ever for the future of work in the hotel industry, it is a case of innovating and embedding purposeful meaning into every aspect of daily work … or die. 

Let’s consider some of the factors:

REINVENTION – Niche areas could pick up quickly. People have a huge desire to travel after having been stuck in their homes for so long. In a September 2020 Kelton Global survey conducted on over 2000 Americans on behalf of Hilton, 94% of respondents – many of whom said travel memories are the fondest they have – plan to travel once restrictions and limitations are lifted with commitments to take that bucket list trip they have always dreamed of, to travel more than they did previously. 

BUSINESS TRAVEL – The traditional circus of conventions and events will stall having found a new space for itself online, although that does not mean an end to essential travel for work which cannot be carried out remotely. Even with the latest development in AI, we will still need boots on the ground. I have not seen a bridge being built remotely nor will Elon Musk’s tunnels under Los Angeles build themselves! Hotels will need to be savvy in adjusting their product to meet the safety standards travellers will expect.

LEADERSHIP – More leadership roles will pivot towards expertise in Marketing and Finance, rather than being dominated by generalist operators as has been the case in the past. 

TECHNOLOGY – We will embrace the digital world and use artificial intelligence in every way we can. I think people will expect hotels to get cleverer. Just consider how clever UBER has been at dealing with payment – a new generation of hotel guests will expect seamless check-in and check-out as a given. Even traditional guest services such as the concierge will need to adapt and have information at real time to add value or their role will be usurped by Amazon’s Alexa App.

GUEST EXPECTATIONS Anticipating guest expectations, particularly regarding all aspects of hygiene and cleanliness where retraining employees to new working practices will be a mammoth task. Advances in technology, such as  contactless check in and room entry, and new ways of greeting without an apology will be high on the agenda. I feel the traditional warm handshake and hug is a thing of the past. Smart solutions in all aspects of Food & Beverage service need to be thought through, as does room service.

INCLUSIVE LUXURY will need to be less stuffy and more accessible to all.

SUSTAINABILITY is defined as wellbeing for people and planet, and the goal is to support the Global Goals and be carbon neutral.  Hotels that are committed to sustainability are Forces for Good and they take responsibility for their total impacts on communities and the environment. In 2021, the post COVID-19 conscious traveller is sustainable minded, and they make decisions that enhance their wellbeing, and the lives of people and the natural world. They will scrutinise every aspect of a destination, business and supply chain. 

There is no magic wand that will find us jobs that simply are not there, and sadly, there will be many people who will need to apply their skills elsewhere. Fortunately, I believe the work is there. The wealthiest and royalty have frequently relied on hotel trained staff to run their homes and other sectors such as retail and healthcare offer plenty of opportunities as well. There is further hope for the year ahead with the World Travel & Tourism Council’s recent forecast that more than 100 million jobs could return to the global travel & tourism sector as the world recovers from the crippling COVID-19 pandemic; and a strong summer of travel is expected as the sector begins its road to recovery from late March onwards, with many major travel companies reporting a significant rise in forward bookings. 

I am confident about the opportunities that will come with recovery. While many of the graduates of 2020 from hotel schools may not see much light at the end of the tunnel right now, these next generation of hotel leaders are savier in technology and they will find a new way forward, join companies with a strong sense of mission and purpose, and they will help tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. 

On The Future of Work, the International Labour Organisation Conference (Geneva May 2020) prepared a fascinating issues paper addressing the challenges and opportunities for the automotive industry where skills are high on the agenda. It declares that in further developing its human-centred approach to the future of work, efforts must be directed to:

SUSTAINABILITY – Ensuring a just transition to a future of work that contributes to sustainable development in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. 

TECHNOLOGY & COMMUNICATION – Harnessing the fullest potential of technological progress and productivity growth, including social dialogue, to achieve decent work and sustainable development, which ensure dignity, self-fulfilment and a just sharing of the benefits for all.

ADVANCE LEARNING – Promoting the acquisition of skills, competencies and qualifications for all workers throughout their working lives as a joint responsibility of governments and social partners to address existing and anticipated skills gaps, pay particular attention to ensuring that education and training systems are responsive to labour market needs, considering the evolution of work,enhance workers’ capacity to make use of the opportunities available for decent work.

This human-centred approach to the future of work can be an insightful guide to help the hotel industry address its challenges and opportunities, and change for the better. I believe that hotel leaders need to urgently look at the bigger picture and their values, and both employers and educators will need to work even more closely together as they redefine the skills we need going forward.  

I challenge people to think deeply about this. Difficult times call for difficult questions and uncomfortable conversations.  I am excited about where this conversation may lead!  Time to rethink and do better.   Please join the conversation!




Mark Norris is the founder of Mark Norris Partnerships  


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