Vaccines are on the way and every hotel is eagerly awaiting the day when we can ‘get back to normal’ in terms of seeing a steady flow of new reservations to bolster all-too-depleted business returns. Careful what you wish for, though. There is another scenario we must be cognizant of – that of being drastically understaffed.
Right now, we are very much still in the weeds of COVID-19’s evisceration of the hospitality sector. Properties are struggling to service debt while most people remain fearful of traveling, especially via international flights. Compounding this are the traditionally slower winter months for all of us here in the non-tropical destinations of the Northern Hemisphere.
I’m not stating anything new by describing this situation as one of the nights being darkest before the dawn. Spring and summer – that is, the transition back into peak leisure travel season – will be here soon enough. Then add to that all the consumers – transient, business and group – who have been holding off, patiently or otherwise, for governments and the media to declare the world safe for travel again. If the stars align and we reach both mass inoculation as well as dwindling coronavirus cases reported by the middle of Q2 or early Q3 2021, we may witness the V-shaped accommodations sector recovery we’ve all been yearning for.
If you look at a seasonal property, the traditional way of managing the ebbs and flows of occupancy, or vast swings in month-over-month occupancy has been to recruit more part-time employees based upon historical data and pacing. The pandemic has thrown that model pretty much out the window.
Here are several of the distinct labor challenges we face for the latter half of 2021:
1.     We have no precedent to accurately forecast well in advance when exactly this travel surge will occur, so we can’t start planning our recruitment drive
2.     Travel behavior in 2020 has seen a vastly decreased L2B cycle, and this trend will likely continue into 2021 with many staffers brought on for shifts at the last minute3.
3.     Furloughing many of our team members at the outset of the pandemic has resulted in a loss of on-property expertise as well as a decrease in the overall labor pool as many of those furloughed have permanently exited the hospitality industry
4.     Hotels may be widely deemed as places of high contact and thus relatively unsafe for work, which may detract new candidates from entering the industry
5.     There is no going back to normal; contactless is here to stay, and as such all guest-facing operations will come with a myriad of new SOPs that may slow down service delivery as well as require additional resources devoted to onboarding
Taken together, these five factors may mean that we are largely unable to effectively manage service delivery if demand heads in the direction that we all want it to go. This is especially true for housekeeping whereby – in advance of a busy late summer weekend, for instance – we may be incapable of finding enough room attendants to turn inventory on time for check-in.
Given these potential labor issues, the only way to smoothly transition back into a high occupancy scenario is with technology to automate many of the basic tasks so that the staffers you do have aren’t overwhelmed and can focus on safely servicing guests. With what’s anticipated to be a very quiet Q1 2021, now is the time to revamp your tech stack while you have no other more immediate concerns – that is, dealing with customers.
Here are some ways that technology can help, for which I’m sure you can research capable vendors:
  • Management software that can automatically connect various departments with messaging apps for a seamless communication stream from guest request to service rendered
  • Digitized training including contactless checklists for easier onboarding and accountability
  • Smart analytics tools to granularly define the temporality of customer behavior (for example, when are people calling, what’s the most likely arrival time, when are maintenance issues most common and so on) to better forecast labor needs as well as upsell opportunities
  • Outsourcing your phone reservations or customer inquiries to a bespoke call center that can handle any surge in call volume without requiring you to increase your own labor requirements
  • Using forward-looking market data analysis so that you have at least some idea of when this V-shaped recovery will occur
  • Mobile check-in, check-out and folio settlement platforms to thereby reduce the overall burden on the front desk
  • Housekeeping optimization software to reduce the load on managers or supervisors and to identify time-saving opportunities
  • Secure payment platforms that can ensure contactless transactions without introducing a bunch of additional labor steps or cybersecurity vulnerabilities
  • Online and automated networks for hiring and verifying shift-based employees
  • Developing an internal bulletin board for your team to share news that may hint at a recovery so that the entire organization can prepare itself
  • Keeping the culture strong by using videoconferencing platforms, but not too often as to overload people with too many meetings
To close, know that many of the suppliers who can help in one or more of the above-mentioned utilities are selling their products on a SaaS model (think monthly subscription). Hence, they may be willing to give you upwards of two quarters for free after installation because they also recognize your organization’s tighter-than-tight budget and the lack of revenues during the opening half of 2021. I encourage you to examine your options as now is the time to build the tech-first hotel prior to the next wave of travelers.