Chris Manley COO Stonebridge Companies

Team Member Retention in a Seasonal Market

Dave Farmer Uncategorized

Originally appeared in Hotel Executive in January, 2019

Occupancy and demands on team members in the hospitality industry tend to follow similar patterns, with certain seasons requiring enhanced focus. For some markets, occupancy soars with the start of summer. Others peak when the ski slopes open or are especially active during the holidays. Seasonality has a great effect on tourism in the hospitality industry, including an impact on associate retention rates for businesses, especially hourly team members. In today’s economy, general managers are in a constant battle to remain fully staffed throughout the swings of a seasonal market.

It is important for a hotel operating in a seasonal environment to understand and predict its patterns in order to strategically plan for team member retention.

Identify & Combat Threats

If a property is near a location that is considered a destination during a certain season, there is an undeniable need for additional team members to support the tourism influx. And aside from the obvious factor impacting nearly every company’s ability to successfully recruit talent – competitive wages – there are other numerous elements that can influence staffing levels. Identifying the threats specific to a property’s market is paramount.

The most apparent challenge in seasonal markets is the fluctuation in occupancy. It is during the tourism booms that the workforce is stretched and the pool of available qualified team members dwindles. Hotels need additional support most during these times, yet team members are most vulnerable to the potential lure of other employers who also need additional talent. Hotels can face similar retention challenges during slower seasons as well, which equates to a varying demand for hourly team members. Such swings in staffing demands can hinder a company’s retention efforts when additional support is required only in certain segments of the year.

Stonebridge Companies operates two hotels in the resort city of Glenwood Springs, Colo., a mountain destination during the summer months that is renowned for its hot springs. Though the town is small, the demand for hotels to accommodate the flood of tourists is strong, with more than 20 hotels in this small city comprised of fewer than 10,000 residents. Attracting and retaining talent in this market is especially critical, given the number of hotels competing for talent within a relatively small population.

While the slow season means a cut in hours for many positions, one key retention effort of Stonebridge Companies’ Glenwood Springs properties is to cross-train team members between the sister hotels. This allows the hotels to collectively provide additional hours for a qualified team member as available hours arise.

The housekeeping department can be especially impacted by the shift in hours between seasons, with the lessened demand often equating to one less workday per week for many team members. To mitigate retention concerns, Stonebridge Companies’ Glenwood Springs properties arrange “project days” to supplement the decrease in hours. These workdays are devoted to tasks that are hard to carve out time for during the busy season, such as deep cleanings or window cleaning. By offering these project days, team members can maintain hours throughout the low season.

During busy season, the lure of competing hotels is one of the largest threats to retention. However, other industries can also lure talent away from hotel properties. Stonebridge Companies’ properties located in Anchorage, Alaska, have worked to combat this issue. During the state’s high-tourism season each summer, hotels in the area are often competing with charter ships for staffing. Retail is another industry drawing talent, as it generally attracts a similar workforce with hourly, entry-level positions. Cultural efforts are key to supporting team members’ loyalty to the property in the face of such challenges.

Remain Focused on Proactive Solutions

With challenges being unique to each market, it is important to identify and anticipate the operational impacts caused by seasonality in order to create efficient solutions that retain talent. While wage variations among employers will always influence recruitment efforts, hourly pay may not be as impactful to retention as some may think.

The antidote to retention issues can lie in a property’s culture. With seasonal hotels, hiring qualified team members near the end of low-traffic seasons and focusing on cultural efforts to retain these team members through peak seasons is key. Seasonal markets naturally foster a larger pool of available workforce during off seasons, and focused recruitment in the month prior to the peak demand is crucial for creating a stable workforce within a market subject to seasonal swings.

Incentive programs are a great way to acknowledge team members’ hard work. Beyond providing a tangible benefit for remaining with a property, these rewards also provide meaningful, immediate and personal value for team members, giving them an emotional connection to the work they do and to their employer. Ensuring team members see that their efforts are both noticed and appreciated can elevate these incentive programs. There are a number of ways to publicly recognize hard work, not all of which involve a cash payment – from making an announcement during a team meeting, to doling out awards, to mentioning the team member in a company-wide email.

The more personal touches added, the better. Members of the company’s leadership mailing handwritten letters congratulating team members on their accomplishments goes a long way toward promoting a positive internal culture that is aware of and grateful for their inter-connectedness. The best acknowledgement many times comes directly from guests. Positive reviews with personal mention of a team member are a great opportunity to shout praise from the proverbial rooftops. These types of programs also encourage team members to go above and beyond in their roles, knowing that their actions are not only seen but appreciated, and in turn, cultivating a positive work ethic.

A team-minded culture also supports a feeling of ownership on behalf of the associates. When team members in all positions are involved in decisions, it creates a dynamic showing that no one associate is more important than another. Each team member is key to the hotel’s success, and ensuring the associates understand the crucial role they play is paramount to fostering an engaging culture.

Engaged team members can also become a hotel’s best advocate for staffing. Hotels may consider implementing a referral program providing a reward when a current team member draws a qualified candidate to the property, and additional rewards when the recruited team member is retained for a designated period of time. Chances are, the team member supporting a property’s recruitment has a like-minded network and will bring forward similarly dedicated candidates.

Such word-of-mouth referral networks have proven especially beneficial for Stonebridge Companies’ properties in Anchorage, which often seek to recruit team members holding a J-1 visa through the U.S. Exchange Visitor Program. These team members have been granted a J-1 visa for the cultural exposure opportunity within the U.S. while advancing their business-related or educational experience. The Anchorage workforce tends to be concentrated with candidates holding J-1 visas, due to the seasonal location and tourism-related jobs available. A number of factors make this segment of the workforce well positioned for hourly hospitality positions, as the candidates are actively seeking employment to support their program requirements and also have consistent start and end dates to help hotels proactively plan their staffing needs around these hires.

Career pathing is also critical for retention efforts. A new hire may begin with a housekeeping position and advance his or her way to head of the property’s housekeeping department, then service desk manager and even beyond. When team members see realistic opportunities for promotion, they are less likely to be swayed by short-term, monetary-driven opportunities with competitors when compared to establishing themselves in their current roles. By promoting internal advancement, motivation and drive are retention incentives that also offer stability and familiarity with the operations, team and processes of a property. Beyond increasing the quantity of support, this practice fosters quality, committed team members.

However, it is crucial for managers to identify team members driven by this career pathing mentality. Many team members may need to be introduced to the idea of career pathing, as they may not have previously considered hospitality as a long-term career. Managers should proactively discuss career advancement to open their teams’ minds to the possibilities. Mentoring from general managers also reinforces a genuine interest in team members’ success, and a willingness to invest in associates for their betterment and that of the larger company. These values foster a loyal workforce while also maximizing the potential of each team member. In short, a win for all parties.

And of course, any business will benefit from providing talent with a comfortable, supportive work environment where employees can have fun and enjoy what they do. From team rallies to annual traditions, fostering a positive culture furthers retention efforts, benefiting customer service and the business as a whole.

For employers aiming to decrease internal turnover in seasonal markets, implementing proactive strategies for retention will help maintain consistent operations and personnel levels throughout the highs and lows of these changing and challenging markets.