Thriving in Place: Retaining Top Hospitality Talent in Static Environments

February 22, 2024 | 816 Views

Thriving in Place: Retaining Top Hospitality Talent in Static Environments

Patrick Yearout, FMP, CHT

Director of Innovation, Recruiting, and Training | Ivar's & Kidd Valley Restaurants

Growth and expansion are often major selling points used to attract ambitious employees to the hospitality industry. The promise of new hotel openings or new restaurant launches, and the increased opportunities created by this trajectory, draws in workers eager to learn, progress in their careers, and eventually move into leadership roles.

Expansion plans don’t always work out as intended, however – a downturn in the economy, issues with financing, permitting problems, increased competition, and any number of other factors can delay openings for months or even years. These obstacles can lead to dampened enthusiasm for the brand as an employer, and losing good workers due to a lack of career development opportunities can significantly impact operations and the guest experience, deplete your most important source of future managers, and run up costs to recruit, hire, and orient new staff.

So how can hospitality companies retain promising talent when the expected growth isn’t there? Increasing wages is certainly the easiest path you could go down, but there are other creative ways that companies can invest in their current team through education and culture-building activities that will keep them feeling valued, empowered, and connected even if higher-level roles are limited for the time being.

Here are 15 strategies you could pursue to achieve that goal:

  1. Cross-training – Cross-training employees in other roles is one of the easiest and most effective methods to help them continue gaining new skills. A restaurant cook could learn the ins-and-outs of the cashiering position, for example, or a front desk clerk at a hotel could lend a hand in housekeeping or events coordination. It may take a little scheduling juggling by the manager to allow for this type training, but it keeps staff members stimulated, exposes them to how other teams function, and prepares them to work in and/or manage different departments someday.
  1. Job shadowing – Similar to cross-training, letting ambitious employees shadow managers will provide insight into their higher-level responsibilities. During a job shadow, employees could help supervisors write schedules, evaluate job applications, interview candidates, assist with inventory orders, and gain exposure to other essential duties. These opportunities will educate them on the challenges their managers face and, if they perform well, could certainly be delegated to their routines moving forward.
  1. Projects – Offer employees the chance to lead or participate in projects outside their regular responsibilities; examples could include something new like organizing an upcoming community event, or taking on a big task that has been languishing such as updating outdated training materials. Projects like these help employees to build skills such as time management, leadership, and resource allocation, and at the same time improve their confidence in their abilities.
  1. External assessments – Sometimes it’s important to get outside your four walls and analyze how the rest of the world is doing, so managers could assign staff members such projects as secret shopping the competition, comparing benefits programs from nearby hospitality businesses, or reviewing their social media approaches. Tackling these mini-audits allows motivated individuals to learn new approaches to problems and deepen their industry expertise.
  1. Presentations – Ask your rising talent if they would be willing to deliver presentations at unit meetings, monthly regional gatherings, or annual company conferences. Employees could present details about the projects they completed (see bullet point #3 above), an external assessment they performed (bullet point #4), or on a new topic in which they have recently gained some experience. Presenting to groups of peers and executives allows them to demonstrate communication abilities while driving exposure for their efforts.
  1. Mentorship initiatives – Devise a formal mentorship program that pairs aspiring leaders with experienced managers. Arrange monthly one-on-one meetings (coffee chats, lunches, phone calls, etc.) focused on setting development goals, addressing challenges, and getting guidance on leadership competencies like communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution. If you want to add some structure to these proceedings, you could create clear career paths for each position outlining skills needed, typical timeframes, and milestones for advancing towards the next level so that the mentors and mentees have a roadmap to follow.
  1. Reverse mentorships – An alternative to #6 above would be to build relationships between generations of hospitality professionals through reverse mentoring programs. Experienced leaders, especially those less comfortable with emerging technologies, are matched with digitally-savvy junior employees who can share their expertise in areas like social media, guest engagement software, and virtual meeting tools. The result of these programs is that your leaders gain relevant knowledge while the younger team members feel empowered.
  1. Internal recruitment – Get in the habit of posting available management positions internally before looking externally to give qualified internal applicants first consideration. Even if current team members aren’t ultimately selected, going through the interview process itself offers helpful experience and visibility to district managers and directors who will be assessing their supervisory potential, and it can provide the team members with specific feedback on areas in which they need additional training or support.
  1. Tuition reimbursement – For top performers envisioned as eventual leaders, you can offer tuition reimbursement for advancing their hospitality education with degrees, certificates, and relevant training programs. This benefit can not only help to build retention among your current staff members who are seeking to improve their education and avoid taking out student loans, but funds allotted by employers on qualified tuition reimbursement plans is tax-deductible up to $5,250 per employee each year. It’s a win-win!
  1. Industry education – Budget permitting, send up-and-comers to multi-day industry conferences (like CHART!), seminars, and classes to sharpen their expertise and network. These events give exposure to cutting-edge practices, technology, research, and leaders to exchange best practices with...and scout as future talent! And if you do not have the money to send them to a paid event, ask if they might be interested in representing the company at a local hospitality gathering, training forum, or Chamber of Commerce meeting – these are usually free to attend and provide similar benefits.
  1. Professional development workshops – If external events are not possible, consider organizing regular in-house training sessions or workshops (either in person or available via Zoom) led by senior company managers or local experts to help employees broaden their skill sets, stay updated with industry trends, and feel more valued and engaged with their work. These sessions could cover a range of topics relevant to hospitality, such as customer service excellence, advanced culinary techniques, hotel management software, financial management for non-financial managers, and leadership skills.
  1. Online learning – Leverage e-learning opportunities to provide targeted development for your aspiring employees. There are a myriad of terrific digital platforms (especially from our CHART partners) that feature self-paced online hospitality classes focused on guest experience, financial analysis, people management, food safety compliance, and other topics that equip employees to take on enhanced roles when they become available.
  1. Recognition and reward programs – If you do not have them in place already (or maybe you do but they need to be re-invigorated), implement comprehensive recognition programs that celebrate not just years of service but also employee achievements, exceptional performance, and contributions to team success. These programs can include employee of the month awards, annual recognition events, public acknowledgments in company communications, and even performance-based bonuses or non-monetary rewards like extra days off, restaurant vouchers, or hotel stays. Such initiatives can boost morale, foster a positive work culture, and encourage employees to strive for excellence, knowing their efforts are appreciated and rewarded.
  1. Innovation teams – Set up committees where select employees from different locations meet periodically to discuss new ideas or propose solutions to company problems. Members might suggest ways to implement or improve sustainability practices, reduce turnover in entry-level roles, design new uniforms, etc. When ready, have these employees submit their innovation proposals to leadership for consideration along with the budget needed (and for those projects selected, these same teams could oversee implementation).
  1. Company growth involvement – Once expansion plans eventually restart, invite ambitious staffers to actively assist scouting locations, setting up spaces, developing menus, planning safety protocols, making vendor recommendations, etc. Their contributions will position them to help manage new venues and gain overall company familiarity.

Providing avenues for growth and demonstration of abilities pays dividends to an organization no matter the pace of external expansion. While promotions may be limited in the short term, the training, visibility, and relationship-building afforded through these efforts readies talent for bigger opportunities when they do emerge.

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