“The technology talent drain that has occurred in the industry is staggering,” said attorney Greg Duff, a principal at Foster Garvey in Seattle, where he heads the firm’s hospitality, travel & tourism practice. “It’s the biggest challenge I’ve seen during my career, and it’s something that most likely will linger long after the pandemic is over.”
Duff, who has served in both business and legal roles in the industry for more than 25 years, attributes the talent drain to two causes. The first – and most obvious – is the pandemic itself. “Whenever there’s a tragic event, the hospitality industry takes a big hit,” he said, recalling the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The second cause is more nuanced: the fact that thousands of jobs are available in the tech world, many of which pay higher wages, offer more comprehensive benefits and provide equity. “If I’m a talented tech worker and my skill set is transferrable to an industry that’s thriving, the decision to move on is fairly easy to make, especially during a time when the travel industry feels shaky and unpredictable.”
Hotel companies of all sizes are feeling the pain from the pandemic and its effects on the IT workforce. Jim Bina, director of finance at Rosen Hotels & Resorts, a privately-owned company that operates seven properties in the Orlando, Fla. area, has seen his company’s IT staff shrink by 30 percent. Moreover, it is taking longer than usual – often two to six months – to fill positions, even for well-paying jobs. “It’s just a very challenging time,” he said.
Bina, who oversees the IT and finance departments at Rosen, concurs with Duff that the pandemic has provided an incentive of sorts for many tech employees – some who have been in the industry for years – to go elsewhere. “As a result of feeling desperate, a lot of workers have turned to other markets and discovered some very attractive opportunities.”
Hotel companies of all sizes are feeling the pain from the pandemic and its effects on the IT workforce.
Dan Kornick, chief information officer at Loews Hotels, says his company has laid off approximately 25 percent of its IT department in the last 18 months. Similarly, hotel franchising giant Wyndham Hotels & Resorts has been forced to dramatically reduce its IT staff as well as third-party IT resources. According to Scott Strickland, Wyndham’s executive vice president and chief information officer, some of those employees won’t be replaced. “It’s safe to say that a significant portion of the cost take-out will be permanent, even when business returns to normal,” he said.
Hiring IT Staff:
Competing with the Tech Companies
Although COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on hotel IT departments around the world, there is a silver lining. “The pandemic has forced hotels to rethink how their IT departments are organized and come up with innovative ways to attract and incentivize staff,” said Greg Duff, attorney with Foster Garvey in Seattle and head of the firm’s hospitality, travel & tourism practice. “There’s no better time than the present to look at the workplace – including wages and benefits – in a new and different way.”
Since hotels are increasingly competing with tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft for top talent, he recommends taking a page or two from their playbooks. “View yourself as a tech shop,” he advised. “You may not be able to match these companies dollar-for-dollar, but you can look and act more like them.”
Tech companies, for example, are known for their highly collaborative work environments, which encourage employee engagement and enhance productivity. According to Scott Strickland, executive vice president and chief information officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, a collaborative culture also boosts morale. “At our company, it enables IT staff to see the results of their work and the positive impact it makes on guests and franchisees,” he said.
Another hallmark of tech companies is a flexible work environment. “Offer prospective employees the ability to work remotely, at least some of the time,” advised Jim Bina, director of finance at Rosen Hotels & Resorts. Likewise, provide training and educational opportunities as well as association memberships. “Give employees a chance to sharpen their skills and network with other professionals outside the office.”
Tech companies also entice prospective employees with interesting assignments that tap into their creativity. At Wyndham, the IT team is working on a number of cutting edge projects, including mobile applications, next-generation property management systems and innovative guest-facing technology, such as chat bot texting and digital room keys. “The projects we’re working on are as much fun as any you’d find in Silicon Valley,” Strickland said.
Finally, tech companies are known for employing the brightest people in the business, and hotels should follow suit. “Don’t accept mediocrity just to fill a position,”
Bina concluded. “Do your homework and hire the people who best fit your needs. They’re out there; it may just take a little longer to find them.”
Decision making grinds to a halt
As a result of IT department downsizing, a vacuum has been created that is causing both frustration and delays, with decision making grinding to a halt at properties of all sizes and configurations. “The employees who remain are wearing so many hats and are responsible for so many different areas that it creates huge challenges,” Duff said. “Decision making is often in the hands of people who are either totally overwhelmed or don’t feel comfortable with their recently assigned duties.”
In some cases, particularly when senior leaders are gone, newly appointed decision makers haven’t yet established relationships with vendors, which can cause yet another kind of problem. “Most vendors will step in and try to educate, but a few might get aggressive and try to push through terms or purchasing decisions that wouldn’t happen in the normal course of business,” Duff said.
Adding to the discomfort is the uncertainty about the future. “We thought we’d be back to normal this summer,” Bina commented. “Instead, we’re entering into fall, which should be filled with heavy group travel, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen next.” That uncertainly creates a paralysis of sorts. “Rather than make the wrong decisions, some properties are choosing to delay decisions or simply make none at all,” he said.
The IT department of the future
Even after the industry recovers and hotels get back to business as usual, many experts predict that the hotel IT department of the future will look vastly different from the one of pre-pandemic days. Many properties were investing in technologies that minimize the need for human staff well before COVID-19 hit. And more, the pandemic-driven increase in scope of responsibility for key leaders will most likely remain.
Also, prior to 2020, more properties were migrating to the cloud and relying on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions, and that transition didn’t come to a standstill. At Wyndham, for example, the move to SaaS-based solutions and cloud-based infrastructure and security continued throughout the pandemic, and it changed the IT department’s structure as well as its resource needs. “We now have fewer tech developers, network analysts and database administrators and more business-facing roles,” Strickland said. “This would have changed our IT organization regardless of anything else.”
Kornick agrees. “With an increased reliance on SaaS and the cloud, hotels will direct more resources to other areas, such as cybersecurity and the overall guest experience,” he said.
The challenge of finding top IT technology talent also will persist, even as vaccines become more widely available and travel picks up worldwide. “This pressure will continue – perhaps for years – simply because we’ve become so tech-focused as a culture,” Duff predicts. “Hotels must change their approach to hiring and retaining IT talent and find more creative ways to attract the best people.”
Bina agrees, noting that IT departments that want to compete effectively with other industries need to offer prospective employees more comprehensive benefits, including paid leave, paid training, continuing education, the opportunity to work remotely, and more. “The pandemic has permanently changed the workplace,” he concluded. “And while some hotels may think they can simply reduce the size of their IT departments and save money, that’s not going to happen.”
Keeping IT operations on track
So, what can hotels do to streamline IT operations until business as usual resumes? Following are recommendations from Bina, Duff, Kornick and Strickland:
Prioritize. Focus on the projects that drive the business. “You simply can’t do everything in these challenging times, so the key is to prioritize,” Kornick said. Similarly, Strickland advises IT managers to learn to say ‘no’ to projects that won’t move the business forward. “The leadership understands that cuts have been made, but they may need to be reminded occasionally.”
Implement a system of checks and balances. Make sure all signed documents go through a central source. “Centralized decision making can be valuable at times like this,” Duff said.
Seek outside help. Bina advises managers to utilize temporary staff, consultants and third-party vendors. “Using temp staff can relieve a lot of the burden from the IT department, especially during lean times.”
Automate where possible. Automating routine tasks enables IT departments to do more with fewer people. “The more processes you can automate, the more time your team can spend on projects that will have a positive bottom-line impact,” Kornick said.
Use a review sheet. Duff encourages managers to use a review sheet for all vendor engagements. “It forces the person making the deal to read the proposed contract and fill in the required information.” What’s more, it expedites the review process and provides a handy summary for senior leadership.
Reach out to colleagues. Employees in other departments may have experience with certain vendors and can offer insight or assistance. “A second opinion is almost always helpful,” Duff said.
Keep staff engaged. According to Strickland, keeping morale high is vital during down periods. “Employees need to understand the importance of what they’re working on and how they fit in.”
Listen to staff. Likewise, it’s important to stay tuned in to employees, some of whom may be overwhelmed by long hours and more job duties. “Take the time to listen to staff,” Strickland suggests. “If someone continually asks for help, they probably need it.”
Celebrate the victories. Duff advises managers to do what they can to create a positive work environment. “When you complete a project, broadcast that fact. If you can tell a good story, do it,” he said. “Everyone is tired of negative news, so celebrate the victories no matter how small.”