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How COVID-19 can stimulate healthier hospitality leadership

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Creative, cost-efficient business models will be needed for operations, sales, marketing, revenue management and distribution strategies. Trusted employees should be invited to contribute to management decisions; their perspective ‘at the coal face’ will help shape your recovery policy and make them feel more involved and valued.

Much has already been written about how travel and tourism will be irrevocably changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Optimists and realists alike are focusing on more environmentally friendly ways of reaching our chosen destinations, more sensitive ways of considering local culture and more sustainable, ethical methods of sharing and distributing the financial benefits of tourism.

But what about the hospitality and in particular the hotel industry itself? If there was ever a time for us to engage in honest, unflinching self-reflection, this is it. As travellers and vacationers are ready and willing to change their habits, so the hotel industry must look to reshape its practices for the future.

Responding to the crisis
Facing possibly the toughest situation it has ever encountered, the hotel industry now needs fresh solutions to these challenges. Management cannot simply fall back on “we’ve always done it this way”. In the post-COVID-19 marketplace, only different approaches and attitudes will succeed.

A new style of leadership
When the hotel sector goes back to work, the most urgent need will be to reassess staffing needs, operational procedures and ensure our guests return sooner than later. Ultimately, recoup lost income, re-establish cashflow and focus on the quickest returns on investment.

Operating structures will have to be pared-down and become more efficient. Leaner, more agile leadership with effective change management skills must create imaginative, practical plans to get businesses back on track.

Managers will have to adapt to the new situation with new-found agility. The days of a Hotel Manager shut away in a back office are over. They will need to be multifaceted: even more present throughout the hotel, taking care of guests and staff, mobilising their teams, coaching / teaching and leading by example. In this new climate of lower hotel occupancies and reduced income, one role per employee has become an unaffordable luxury. Staff will now need to be trained to take on a broader range of disciplines. Managers should emphasise the positive aspects of this: employees will enjoy more varied work and gain a wider range of experience to help them progress their careers.

Creative, cost-efficient business models will be needed for operations, sales, marketing, revenue management and distribution strategies. Trusted employees should be invited to contribute to management decisions; their perspective ‘at the coal face’ will help shape your recovery policy and make them feel more involved and valued.

It’s vital these new initiatives are communicated clearly throughout the business, to ensure they are adopted successfully.

Keeping your teams motivated
There are undoubtedly difficult financial decisions to be made, and it can be tempting to focus wholly on saving cash. But this is short-sighted. Hotel businesses which have laid-off the majority of their employees will find it difficult and expensive to recruit the skilled talent they need as the market recovers.

Conversely, firms who have furloughed as many employees as possible to give them some degree of security can expect greater loyalty and renewed commitment. Identify your core people and work hard to retain them.

Management who also display integrity and a sense of unity, for example by ensuring fair pay cuts during this difficult time, will be more highly regarded by the workforce after the crisis.

This is the ideal moment for top executives to show strength, empathy and vision. Employees will respond best to leaders who inspire through their energy, optimism and sense of purpose, and create a collaborative, environment that encourages and nurtures development.

Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, now is the perfect time to invest in your most talented employees, for example by encouraging and providing cross-training. In the hotel’s immediate future there will be fewer staff, and employees and managers alike must be ready to use new skills.

Mitigating the impact on employees
For hotel staff, the pandemic has bitten hard, and with countries taking separate routes to easing their lockdown restrictions, it is unclear when and how the worldwide travel and tourism industry recovery will kick in.

This leaves many employees worrying about their income now and their job security mid to long term. The situation is especially tough for those already on low wages, with few savings, yet the anxiety is also felt right up to senior management. Are their positions safe? Would they be able to find a similar role elsewhere?

Great C-level leaders and managers are those who stay connected and communicate regularly with their employees, sharing objectives and building that vital sense of hope for the future.

Part of the recovery process must involve making the workplace more attractive and productive. Ensure the work environment is balanced, with genuinely equal opportunities and fair rewards for everyone. Revisit how you evaluate performance; is it an objective and positive system? Failing to address these aspects could lead to your talented employees looking elsewhere. 

Image and perception
Hotel leadership responses to the crisis have varied. Many have taken positive action. In the absence of paying customers, some hotels have opened their rooms to help isolate patients who are not critically ill, easing the burden on hospitals. Or temporarily taken in homeless people, who would otherwise be especially vulnerable to the virus. Others have kept kitchens running, to help feed emergency workers who haven’t had time to source meals for themselves.

These positive actions, displaying a spirit of generosity will mean these businesses are better perceived by potential guests. Those who have been distant and unsupportive during the pandemic will find that empathy and integrity are important, and guests and employees have long memories.

Goodbye old order, hello new era
There is a broad consensus that the travel and tourism industry cannot return to how it was before COVID-19. The lockdown has given guests, hotel business owners, directors, managers and employees time to assess how we all live, work, travel and relax.

Personal well-being, work/life balance, the vulnerability of the planet and a stronger determination to protect it, will change how hospitality is perceived and must perform in the future.

Some hotel businesses, however, seem to have learned little from the experiences of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Those who cling to the old, pre-COVID-19 model are unlikely to prosper. Companies and leaders with the sensitivity and emotional intelligence to address guest and employee concerns, with policies that demonstrate fairness and diversity, will fare best of all.

The pandemic cannot be ignored or wished away. For hotel employees at all levels, it should be seen as an incentive to develop fresh skills and become more valued and marketable, as multi-functional, hands-on and strategically savvy individuals. For hotel owners and management, this is the start of a new era: the opportunity to learn from experience and use the freshly gained insight to develop more dynamic, creative, sustainable leadership that is fit for a brave new world.

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