From its beginnings, hospitality was built on people. From a warm smile greeting you at the concierge to room service and cleaning, everything we’ve grown to expect from hotels would be impossible without hundreds of individuals. If anything, this importance can be understood financially. According to one commonly cited statistic, even small hoteliers devote around 30% of their costs to paying workers, while giants like Hilton or Marriott employ armies stretching into the tens of thousands. Read the rhetoric of the major industry players, meanwhile, and you’ll soon hear a paean to their staff. Radisson, for its part, proclaims that it’s “committed to giving opportunity to people all over the world,” whereas IHG offers would-be employees a “journey” towards a better tomorrow.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that not all workers are convinced. Between massive redundancies during the pandemic – to say nothing of the ‘great resignation’ that followed – hotels have found it increasingly difficult to secure staff. According to one recent survey by AHLA, 91% of American hospitality professionals are finding it hard to fill vacancies, a situation mirrored in Europe. Nor do the difficulties stop with hiring managers. From housekeeping to kitchens, a lack of trained personnel is impacting every facet of hotel life, with predictably negative consequences for paying customers too. Nor is all this very surprising.

Between historically low wages and a high-stress working environment, hotels are not always the first place jobseekers think to send their CVs.

Yet if the scale of the problem is inescapable, so too are attempts to fix it. In the first instance, that involves improving pay and conditions, with hoteliers hoping to lure staff away from other corners of hospitality. That’s shadowed by advertising campaigns, with industry insiders encouraging workers to try their luck in the sector.

“The lack of available labour is forcing hoteliers to take on less business than they normally would in order to maintain the same high levels of guest services.”

Chip Rogers

And across it all is the rising tide of digitalisation, new machines that promise to improve customer service even as staffing levels stay low. Not that even the most technically-advanced properties can hope to survive without some human workers to help things along.

Shortage circuit

No area of hospitality has avoided staffing challenges. Quite aside from that bewilderingly high American survey figure, that’s clear enough from the statistics. Across Europe, WTTC reports that there’s a 22% shortfall in hospitality workers, a figure that rises to as much as 40% in the UK from research by Koozai, a situation that’s persisted since the pandemic. And it’s 2020’s cataclysm, in fact, that starts explaining the industry’s current woes. With occupancy rates collapsing to just 11% in some places, according to Statista, operators everywhere were forced to furlough or sack literally millions of workers. Across the US, for instance, hospitality would ultimately cull some ten million jobs in 2020 alone, as rooms remained empty and workers were left with little to do.

Yet if Covid-19 began hospitality’s march towards a staffing crisis, it’s presumably not the only factor at play. Apart from stubborn holdouts like China, after all, lockdowns are now a thing of a past, even as guests return in huge numbers. For Liang Yu, a professor of hospitality management at George Washington University, that apparent disconnect can be understood in a single word: wages. He describes hospitality as “one of the lowest paid service sectors in the economy,” while countries like Britain employ upwards of a quarter of hospitality workers on insecure and badly paid zero-hour contracts. It hardly helps, Yu continues, that hospitality is often such a demanding sector to make a career in. “Workers have to regulate their emotions on a daily basis when they go out to work,” he stresses, “even though they may have something bothering them at home.”

Whatever the causes, at any rate, it’s clear that the impact of these shortages are increasingly stark. As Chip Rogers explains, that’s anyway apparent for hoteliers themselves. “The lack of available labour is forcing hoteliers to take on less business than they normally would in order to maintain the same high levels of guest services,” explains Rogers, CEO and president at the AHLA. And in cases where operators are less scrupulous, trying to welcome the same number of guests with workers inevitably causes issues too. From waiting longer for room service to only getting your room cleaned once every few days, Yu says that some of the austerity measures imposed during the pandemic look set to stay.

Ruled by robots

If you take a trip to New York, you might notice something unusual. Travel to the Moxy, a slick Marriott property near Times Square and you won’t be welcomed by the usual coterie of receptionists and bellhops. Indeed, you won’t necessarily get a flesh-and-bone interaction at all. While a manned customer service desk still exists, you’ll actually check into your room via a machine, a so-called contactless arrival kiosk, which apart from issuing keys in less than a minute can also disinfect itself. Initially introduced to please germ-conscious guests during the pandemic, the machines have actually been deployed in more recent times too and now grace Marriott hotels as far afield as Florida and Louisiana.

Nor is check-in the only area where new technology is transforming the hotel experience. Some operators, like Hilton, have recently introduced automated pancake machines in the breakfast hall, while IHG has developed a platform to capture guest requests on the cloud. As varied as these efforts are, however, Yu says they all have a shared purpose, noting that they ensure hoteliers can run their hotel with fewer workers. Certainly, this makes intuitive sense: those check-in kiosks mean you can hire fewer receptionists, while a pancake machine saves you a chef.

Even better, Yu suggests that guests are broadly receptive to these innovations, thanks both to Covid-era distancing rules and the broad spread of digitalisation across society. “Guests are very savvy technology users,” he says. “Your home is probably a smart home.”

Not that technology is a silver bullet. For if new equipment is one way of combating the staffing shortage, operators are also looking to encourage people to work at their properties. “Hotels,” notes Rogers, “are offering potential hires a host of incentives to fill vacancies.” That’s obvious if you speak to AHLA members, with one September survey finding that 81% have increased wages, while 64% are offering greater flexibility with hours. That’s echoed by better training, Rogers continues, with Radisson now offering expert-led hospitality training videos among other educational titbits. That’s surely just as well: apart from the general battle to find staff, operators are equally struggling to secure people with the correct training. In the UK, to give just one example, hoteliers have resorted to hiring people without even looking at their CVs – probably fine for a receptionist, but more problematic for managers or chefs.

Openings for business

As that previous point implies, moreover, not even a technological revolution can completely remove so-called human capital from hospitality. Beyond the practicalities – a robot can hardly be expected to cook a steak or clean a shower – Yu argues that customer expectations are important here too. For while we may all be comfortable ordering food on an app, part of the joy of staying in a hotel is that luxurious human touch. “Hotels have their iconic concierge,” he says by way of example. “Everybody knows ‘Peter’ or ‘Charlie’. And that’s part of the experience that we all enjoy.”

It matters, too, that there are so many more options for careers in hospitality – even beyond the current staffing crisis. Though Yu believes that the acute shortage is passing, Rogers stresses that increases in travel and hotel demand are “creating the need for more staff, and this is leading to historic career opportunities for hotel employees”. In the US, Rogers notes, there are more than 115,000 hotel jobs currently open from sea to shining sea, a proportion matched across the Atlantic.

It makes sense, therefore, that industry groups are working so hard to promote everything a life in hospitality can offer. Known as ‘A Place to Stay’, the AHLA’s contribution is a multi-channel advertising campaign active across 14 American cities. Promising to shed light on the dozens of career options available to eager young professionals, Rogers is especially keen to stress the industry’s inherent flexibility. As he puts it: “The message we want to get across to job seekers is that if you have a skill, it’s likely transferable to the hotel industry.” With wages rising and conditions improving, it’s probably a message that workers are interested in hearing.