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Masters of workforce: Park Plaza and Four Season on how to unlock workforce potential

By Adam Dattis|Nov 18, 2023|8:04 pm GMT

“We focus a lot on the balance between high touch and high tech,” Park Plaza’s Director of People and HR Technology, Elsa Millansky said on the second webinar of our Masters of Workforce series. I sat down with both Elsa and Mathias Cocuron, Regional Director of Finance at the Four Seasons, to discuss how hotels can engage employees to drive memorable guest experiences.

“Everybody is so unique and their expectations are so different that you need to cater for a lot of people with a lot of different requirements,” continued Elsa. “We need to create a guest experience that can cater for a lot of different needs, different generations, and different styles.”

The Four Seasons has taken a similar approach. “One of the big platforms we’re using is guest recognition software,” agreed Mathias.”These systems allow us to track, record and pass on the preferences of our returning guests, whether they’re returning to the same location or a property in a different country. That makes it easier for our team on the ground to deliver the best possible experience. It’s really important to understand how you provide the right technology to your employees to make their lives better, and how that fits with your labour model.”

Catering to a multi-generational workforce

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Take a look at the expectations and characteristics of the four very different generations that make up today’s workforce.

Hiring for potential

Guest experience is heavily reliant on staffing correctly. Fourth’s research shows that 9% of roles in hospitality are currently vacant. How has that been experienced throughout the industry, by both lifestyle and luxury brands?

Mathias spoke for the luxury end of the sector. “Obviously we go through waves as an industry. I think the pandemic was sort of a big game changer for many hotels. And then we had the B-word, which brought with it staff shortages. We’ve seen a lot of luxury hotels last year and still this year that have been capping the inventory or closing rooms because they don’t have the staff to deliver the service. It’s detrimental for any hotel in the luxury segment. Four Seasons is lucky enough not to be understaffed any more, but we’ve had to focus a lot on recruitment.”

Elsa agreed. “There were a lot of benefits and positive learnings from the recent COVID crisis, I also think it made us look at the workforce differently. At Park Plaza, we were in a good position because we started working towards our strategic workforce planning in anticipation of Brexit.”

As far back as 2016, Park Plaza was considering the talent pool and adopting a new approach to talent in response. “We centralised our recruitment offering,” explained Elsa, “We gave all our hotels a team of experts to turn to for recruitment, a team constantly thinking about talent attraction. I’m very pleased and proud to say that we are running at 5% vacancies, I think that’s a great achievement for our team.”

Part of Park Plaza’s strategy has been to hire for potential, rather than experience. In a market where 91% of hospitality leaders are concerned about filling roles, it’s a smart move.

“It definitely broadened our talent pool,” says Elsa, “But it creates more challenges for management because they need to onboard and look after a group of people that have a different set of life experiences and skill sets, but not necessarily hospitality experience. Or in many cases this is their first job, so we need to also work with them on some basic life skills. And that obviously had an impact on our learning and development team and how we create programmes that allow for these things to happen.”

Convert candidates into team members swiftly through a seamless onboarding experience.

Elsa also highlighted that many of these new starters lack experience as a guest in a four star hotel. “So we need to create an opportunity for them to experience what that looks like so they can better understand what we want them to deliver.”

Confidence comes with training

Four Seasons has also had success with a more flexible approach. “It’s a very competitive talent market,” Mathias points out, “But we’ve certainly learned a few things through the pandemic and we’re much more flexible than we have ever been – we use our workforce a bit more efficiently.

‘The attitude towards work has changed as well. Traditionally departments were very segmented, evening dining room staff wouldn’t help with banquets. Now, we have a food and beverage division and everyone works across all areas. Staff observe and train a lot more – we spend much more time on training. That’s great because it brings extra motivation. If staff aren’t trained, firstly, they don’t deliver the right product or service and secondly, they’re demotivated because they’re not confident. Confidence comes with training. I think usually people don’t want to assist in another area because they’re not confident that they can do the job. When they have the confidence that they’ll succeed, they’re much more open to it.”

Enable staff to pick up extra shifts across multiple locations quickly and easily with shift pooling, increasing flexibility and shift fulfilment.

Unlocking potential

Park Plaza also focused on increasing flexibility within the workforce. “We want to create opportunities for people to learn and work in different areas of the business,” says Elsa. “We need to have a specialist knowledge in some roles – if I want to book an experience in London I want a concierge that really knows the market – but in many other areas, we want people that are flexible.”

Mathias agrees, “Staff nowadays are like guests, they’re much more difficult to retain. We’ve worked hard to make Four Seasons an employer of choice, and we’re doing really well at retaining staff. The main reason for that is that employees see a future for themselves with us.”

He explains, “In the past, hospitality was seen as a career and there were lots of different skill sets with industry experience. Now, it’s difficult to find the skills you need, or you find the skills but they are at a very high price. So, you spend much more time bringing in talent that are not necessarily from the industry. We’re trying to get back to that focus on hospitality as a career. We have a really strong intern programme that allows people to transfer between teams and departments, see the various facets of the hospitality industry and ultimately decide whether they want to have a career.

‘This isn’t just limited to interns, we’re allowing a lot of employees to transfer from department to department. In my accounting team, I have a laundry supervisor that transferred over and a valet attendant who is now part of our revenue management team. We spend a lot of money finding people outside and recruiting outside but sometimes the right people are actually already in the business, they’re just in the wrong department and they have the potential that we need to unlock.”

It’s an approach that echoes Park Plaza’s ‘hire for potential’ strategy. “Looking at potential instead of skills really changes the mindset of hiring managers,” explains Elsa. “It can take people in different directions, they might not succeed in one role but they have the potential to be fantastic in other departments. The options for individuals’ careers are endless, and we have a massive commitment to career development and professional development.”

Looking ahead to next year

What do Elsa and Mathias think will characterise 2024?

Elsa admits to being an optimist. “I do believe that as we become more resilient and we learn to live in a changing world, we’ll feel more confident dealing with challenges,” she says. “From an industry perspective, I think staff attraction and staff retention will remain a key focus, as will creative strategies that value people and make hospitality a great place to work. I think technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics are here to stay and I think they can bring great, great opportunities.”

Mathias thinks 2024 might still be rocky, “I think we will go through a rough time next year. I think we are better prepared than we ever were because we have flexibility, and we’ve learned some important lessons, but there’s still potential for a bit of stress from geopolitical issues. I hope Elsa will be able to invite me for a drink in a few months and say her view for the future was right!”

Pessimist or not, he’s still bullish on technology. “I think technology is something that can help me and my team – everyone – to improve staffing and guest experience, and allow us to deliver quality. There’s a lot of discussion at a company level now of how we can eliminate some of the mundane activities that are bogging us down and what we can do differently through technology.”

Watch Episode Two of the ‘Masters of Workforce’ webinar series, featuring Four Seasons and Park Plaza.

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