In spite of the countless innovations in the hospitality industry the most crucial interaction is the human one, writes James Stephen. But do educators, recruiters and employers need to change their approach in the face of the exponential growth taking place, especially across Asia? 

From free wi-fi to loyalty programmes, executive lounge access to heated robot toilet seats, it’s often hospitality’s more eye-catching stuff which gets the attention. Which makes it sometimes easy to forget about the industry’s single greatest commodity – its people.

With hospitality in the region traditionally enjoying organic growth, this is not entirely surprising. Things aren’t a problem until they’re a problem. The unprecedented explosion of the middle class across Asia in the past 15 years, however, with dozens of properties opening every day, and the jump in international tourist arrivals – almost 280 million in 2015, making Asia-Pacific Pacific second only to Europe – has changed this.

The upshot is that there is now a huge demand for talent at all levels, which, combined with a gradual localisation of management positions, is forcing recruiters, finally, to rethink their strategies. But is this too little, too late? And crucially, is the industry doing enough to cultivate its future leaders?

Demand outstripping supply

While Kimy Chen, President Southeast Asia, Cachet Hospitality Group (CHG), a lifestyle hospitality branding and management company with properties across China, Thailand, Mexico and the U.S., is optimistic, she adds that with Asia’s booming tourism industry expected to set records with international tourism and revenues this year, employment is increasing and hospitality education in Asian countries has to work hard to produce the number of skilled graduates needed.

“Tourism industry leaders and educators need to focus on the quality and development of the workforce. Employees should be provided with opportunities that increase the levels of satisfaction among international tourists. With such an exceptional pool of hospitality graduates, we are confident that industry standards across Asia will grow dramatically in line with guests that demand it. Asia is where the industry is thriving and the education and training standards here are equal to what you would expect worldwide.”

Chen says that on a global level Asian hospitality is still a young industry and it is not clear yet as to what extent the number and quality of graduates will be required.

“If there is a potential shortfall, we doubt that these positions would not be filled by skilled, competent leaders. Over the past decade we have seen a shift from employing westerners to fill key positions to now where the main focus is employing Asians with the same, if not better qualifications.”

And she has advice for the industry’s recruiters. “Hiring the right talent takes patience and is crucial to building a thriving business. CHG promotes a good blend of hiring seasoned professionals and fresh graduates. Professionals come with technical expertise and leadership skills which allow them to build and manage a team effectively. We coach, develop and promote internal talent and also hire key external experts with requisite competencies.

“Turning a job into a meaningful career is the way to ensure long-term financial security as well as professional and personal fulfilment for every staff member. Company culture and people development is the most critical area in today’s competitive business landscape. Customer loyalty plays a huge role in long-term growth and profitability, but our staff are the face of the company as well as a trove of useful customer insight. Investing in your employees always translates into bottom-line benefits.

“When we create a culture in which employees can reach their goals and know that their thoughts and insights are appreciated, it boosts productivity, morale, and engagement and gives employees feelings of significance, community, and value. When employees are satisfied and engaged, the result is deeper customer connections and an elevated customer experience.”

Brand awareness

Darryl Agon, Managing Director with Hong Kong’s Agon Hotels and Resorts Ltd, agrees more emphasis is being placed on training staff on their brands’ DNA.

“In the days when I was in operations, focus on training seemed mostly on tasks and customer relations. But now, educating about brand ethos has become much more important as an overall compass to tie all training objectives together. This allows staff to associate their own personalities and values with their brand and may have a positive effect on retention in the longer run, since staff feel more purpose in their tasks and understand the underlying rationale for their methodologies.”

Agon makes the point that this more purposeful training fosters greater teamwork and belonging, which accentuates the importance of strong brand building in all aspect of operations and customer and staff touch points. And he adds that schools should focus more on educating the mindset and mentality of the students in the areas of being a business partner regardless of their specific job function.

“Educational institutes should develop programmes to train students about the service attitudes they need in order to be successful in the industry and discuss the importance of hospitality and service mindsets.”

Skills to succeed

Fabienne Rollandin, Executive Director External Relations, Glion Institute of Higher Education in Switzerland says that while there are many fine institutions preparing the required talent, she also believes that education providers need to adapt their curricula to stay relevant and equip students with the right skills to succeed in this dynamic industry.

“The hospitality industry is already experiencing difficulties finding and retaining qualified talent, while the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) expects the sector to generate an additional 90 million jobs by 2027,” she notes.

Based on the unique Swiss model of education, Glion combines practical and theoretical courses with industry internships. This approach not only transmits the necessary technical and managerial skills, but soft skills such as communication, problem-solving and cross-cultural competencies. These soft skills are transferable to any other client-facing role and required to deliver the high-level service and unique customer experiences that brands are seeking to create.

Rollandin adds that in 2016, the total contribution of travel and tourism to direct and indirect employment in the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 160 million jobs, or 8.7% of total employment. This is expected to rise to 215 million jobs in 2027, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

“In order to address this skills gap and provide the human capital the industry so desperately seeks, companies, academia and government need to work hand in hand. Only with a common approach and strategy can we devise the right training programmes and career opportunities to motivate young people to join the dynamic and exciting hospitality industry.”

Prof Brian King, associate dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, suggests that while a massive expansion of hospitality and tourism education has accompanied the growth of the industry itself across Asia, different countries vary considerably, depending on the level and stage of their industry’s development.

“China, for example, has massive provision of hospitality education, there’s a mismatch because the propensity of graduates to leave the industry. There’s more work to be done to align programme provision with industry needs. In the case of Japan the industry has been quite domestically oriented, but inbound tourism is now really taking off so an expansion of educational provision is needed, with a more international outlook that caters better to overseas visitor needs.”

He adds that many hotels depend heavily on interns who may account for 20-30% of headcount (e.g. in China).

“To improve retention rates, industry leaders need to ensure that interns have a good experience. Many hotel operational requirements follow well-established work patterns – front office, F&B and housekeeping for example. Other roles are undergoing transformation. New recruits need good technological skills, though effective verbal and written communications also remain important.

“Firstly the industry needs to embrace a new generation of transformational leaders, and most will be locals rather than western expatriates. Industry leaders will also need to demonstrate a capacity to inspire the ‘Millennial’ generation of recruits. Because hospitality is a 24/7 business, employees should be passionate about service and stay motivated.”

He concludes that the accommodation sector will need both inspired leaders and good processes that build a committed workforce.