Training for keeps

How a new line of hospitality champions is learning the way of the industry, and how that industry is keeping their interest.

By Elaine Anselmi, Assistant Editor

A friend of mine booked into a hotel in Minneapolis this winter, on his way home from a ski race. When taking the reservation, the concierge asked his girlfriend what was bringing them to the area, and she explained the situation.

When, weary and frost-bitten, they arrived in their room, they found a complimentary recovery kit including bath salts, relaxing tea and snacks, as well as a celebratory bottle of champagne. The concierge had personally purchased the items and attached a hand-written note to each. The warm welcome after a cold day did not go unnoticed. The appreciative and satisfied guests left a card for the concierge and are sure to remember the service they were given without even asking.

It is this above and beyond service that starts at the frontline and goes back to the many people behind the scenes in the hospitality industry. It is this service that makes an award-winning hotel and a memorable experience for guests. And, it all begins with the right people and the right training.

 “We are the places to eat and places to sleep in the customer service industry. With that comes so many layers of customer service needs,” says Carol-Ann Gilliard, CEO of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL). “The people of tourism are a critical element of providing that positive experience because it’s the people you interact with in a destination that change your experience.”

A heritage interpreter in Wanuskewin Heritage Park: among the more than 40 occupations for which there are National Occupation Standards and 25 occupations available for Professional or Specialist certification.

A heritage interpreter in Wanuskewin Heritage Park: among the more than 40 occupations for which there are National Occupation Standards and 25 occupations available for Professional or Specialist certification.

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Learning to hire

In offering guests the sort of experience they will write home about – and not to complain about snarky service or bed bugs – the first step is hiring the right person. When it comes to frontline positions, in particular, there are basic characteristics that need to be there. 

“The basics of customer service are the basics of customer service,” says Gilliard. “We do all need to have those basic skills that make people feel comfortable and wonderful and send them away feeling they’ve had a positive experience. That formula doesn’t change.”

A welcoming and service-ready personality is a non-negotiable for most members of the tourism industry, says Jo-Anne Hecht, director of learning at the Ontario Tourism Education Corporation (OTEC). “In hotels, one thing that’s really important is that you hire for the attitude, not the skillset.”

She gives the example of one of her clients whose “non-negotiable” is that a staff member needs to be able to look someone in the eye and give them a handshake. 

“When a person comes in for the interview and doesn’t talk to anyone, doesn’t enter and say hello, they’re just waiting until the interview to let their personality shine,” she says. “If they come to the front desk and they’re not ‘on’ already, and only turn ‘on’ for the interview, that right away is a pitfall.”

She says that beyond that first introduction, behavioral or situational questions are a strong indicator of a candidate’s values.

When asked for examples of going above and beyond to assist a guest, Hecht says basic responses such as “A customer walked in and asked for food and I gave it to them,” suggests that the person doesn’t really know what above and beyond looks like. “They’re thinking reactive service is good enough,” she says.

Going above and beyond could include recognizing the specific need of a guest, perhaps a gluten allergy, and making a distinct effort to ensure that  food with gluten is kept out of their room and that gluten-free options are available to them.

The Canadian Tourism Human Resources Council (CTHRC) vice-president of communications, Jon Kiely, says that the industry needs to look at non-traditional labour markets to fill the present gap. “Thirty-five per cent of the workforce is between 15 and 24 years old,” he says. “That demographic is simply shrinking, so employers need to look at other demographics such as new Canadians, the Aboriginal community and mature workers looking at a forced retirement.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all as far as reaching people. That’s where employers have to look at different ways to get those people, whether through community organizations, band councils, or different vehicles.”

With a different labour market comes different challenges. One of the more evident challenges is the diversity and language barriers that persist in both hiring and training. This, along with other challenges within tourism and hospitality, has sparked a more diverse approach to hiring and training. At OTEC, Hecht says they look at practical issues with hiring such as candidates who don’t have references from within Canada. She says they offer resources to determine a person’s skillset without a local reference.

She says one issue that comes up in interviews is the use of complicated questions that use colloquial or slang terms, rather than the plain English that non-native speakers can understand. “One of the HR managers working with us said one question she always asks is how do you bend over backwards to assist guests?” says Hecht. New Canadians struggled with the question and its intended meaning until they changed the wording to, “Tell me a time when you did something very special for a customer.” She says this is a subtle example of a best practice in hiring.

Alternative programs

When it comes to hiring for attitude rather than skill, Adam Morrison, director of projects at OTEC, suggests that sometimes what seems like poor attitude can really be due to a lack of experience.

Various programs are offered across Canada to provide the experience and understanding needed to enter the hospitality workforce. “We’ve set up programs with local community partners that draws from lack of experience and barriers in the past,” says Morrison. “You work with them, let them build that confidence and sometimes, you find that the willingness is there and the aptitude.” Morrison says the programs generally include an orientation to the industry, a transferable skills assessment and then a process of narrowing participants down to specific occupations.

One of OTEC’s projects, based on the CTHRC’s Ready to Work model, is with the Metis Nation in Ontario  and takes place over a 10-week period in Midland, North Bay, Sault St. Marie and Thunder Bay. After the first five weeks spent orienting participants to the industry, cultural issues and communications norms are discussed and participants receive key certification such as WHMIS, food safety and service excellence. “There’s also occupational-specific certification programs,” says Morrison. “After 10 weeks they’ve studied all the standards for that role. “We’ve had a fantastic response from the industry to those projects. They are pretty new, pretty innovative,” he says. “There’s been a gap in the industry and it’s looking to engage new demographics.”

There are various stakeholders involved with funding these programs including the federal government, municipalities and the industry itself. 

The CTHRC’s Ready to Work program has several versions across the country. In Saskatchewan, Carol Lumb, director of STEC, says they have partnered with the CTHRC on the program since the early ‘90s.

STEC also works with secondary schools in the province on their Service Best program, that trains teachers on how to deliver their customer service program, as a part of the Canadian Academy of Travel and Tourism (CATT). “It helps them develop knowledge and skills in young people,” says Lumb. “A high percentage of young people’s first jobs will be in our sector. Very often schools can’t afford what we would charge for an industry workshop.”

Through the partnership, STEC is training teachers to facilitate the customer service programs. Lumb says they currently have more than 60 teachers in the province who are able provide the program and who do it through their regular class schedule as a part of their curriculum. “They’re able to break it up and deliver it regardless of the education system. They can make it work within that schedule,” she says.

CATT also offers a program in small Aboriginal communities where there isn’t a great deal of tourism. It’s hugely successful, from there we work with them to fill existing vacancies,” Lumb notes. She says students are hired from the program, and STEC provides mentorship to the employer and participant for six months afterwards.

Adaptability and diversity

“One of the most misunderstood elements of tourism is that people only see it as a customer service industry,” says Gilliard. “Travel and tourism is based on tourism planning, a business background, CEOs that run multi-million dollar corporations.”

Jon Kiely of the CTHRC says that getting over this perspective that all jobs in tourism are frontline positions is essential. “There are over 400 occupations in the industry that run the gamut,” he says. “We need to change some of those perceptions of what working in the industry means.”

With such a broad spectrum of positions and diverse population within the hospitality industry, an equally broad approach to hiring and training needs to be taken.

Gilliard says the focus at HNL for the last couple of years has been in building an understanding of the current needs of travellers in such a globalized world. “The world is changing very fast. Now you don’t just talk across a counter or across a desk,” she says. “You have to talk to travellers around the world through social networks. The front line of customer service is now online.”

In providing a service across various platforms, a mixed-approach to training takes this concept to heart.

“We’re trying to walk-the-walk in regards to flexibility,” says Kiely. “Sometimes you come up with things that are surprising – people wondered why we created online training for housekeeping. Out of any industry in Canada [housekeeping] has the highest percentage of English as a second language. There was fear that the computer would be the worst possible thing, but what that training video really allows you to do is have a lot more video and audio.” He says the housekeeping online training is now their best selling program.

Adam Morrison, director of projects at OTEC, says that accommodating departments that have a majority of non-native English speakers can include options such as making inventory controls and reporting more numerical instead of language-based. As well, he says advanced translating systems have been adopted by hotels.

In addition to alleviating some language barriers, Carol Lumb, director of the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council (STEC) says online training offers employees the flexibility of where and when they train.

“In Saskatchewan, with our labour force being so tight, finding people to fill positions is a challenge,” she says. “Where traditionally we could hold a workshop scenario, what we’re finding is employers need to backfill if they send someone to a workshop and that makes it almost impossible.” Since the training is still necessary, she says that online options make this scenario feasible.

One of the CTHRC’s newest training modules is a mobile platform in which training can be done over a smartphone in brief, five minute segments.

“Mobile is all about small bits. You don’t want someone to be typing an essay on the phone, so it’s about finding ways to do that online learning on mobile apps,” he says. For their first foray into mobile training the CTHRC is launching two courses: Customer Service 101 for providing quality service, and Building a Profitable Menu for food and beverage service.

They’ve taken pieces of training from the online version of the course and rendered the same content in a user-friendly way. He says options such as multiple choice are used because they only involve checking a box rather than writing.

Building these programs in-house for the emerit product line, has allowed them to boil down the large amount of information provided through the online segment to the most essential parts, Kiely says.

As a partner of many years with the CTHRC and their emerit program, Morrison says OTEC tries to be as adaptable as possible to the diverse needs of the industry.

Hecht says, while instructor led training is still their bread and butter, there has been a strong insurgence of blended learning that could encompass instructor-led plus coaching, informal learning or webinars. She says, “77 per cent of corporations right now are doing e-learning. Tourism and hospitality has been a little slower. In my opinion, I think one of the reasons is because people think you can’t get performance-based outcomes from e-learning, but we know that is not accurate.”

Morrison says another trend OTEC is seeing is flexible development packages that take into account employees who have been workplace trained, rather than formally educated in a post-secondary institution. “OTEC is working with the education system in Ontario, using emerit as a common currency,” he says. “Maybe people go straight into the workplace [from high school] to start their career, but start to earn credentials along the way.

“Everyone from generation Y to mature workers, to new Canadians: It’s not a uniform workforce and managers have to adapt to who they’re working with,” says Morrison.

Health and Safety Training

When it comes to health and safety, proper training is a serious matter. Barbara Malacko, executive director of the Alberta Hotel Safety Association says that this should be a focus during the orientation of every employee.

“One of the most critical things that an employer can be doing is taking a look at their orientation program. Not just going over the rules of the hotel and uniform and pay day program, but going through the possible hazards and what, as the employer, they’ve done to reduce the risk of that,” she says. “Things like emergency response, where the First-Aid kit is; some of those really critical ones should be covered off on the first day.”

She stresses that it is not just about telling, but showing the new employees and ensuring that they understand all procedures. You can give an employee a manual, but how many of them will read it?

“The biggest thing of testing the competency is actually watching them do it,” Malacko says. “If you do WHMIS training, for example, it’s a written exam to display competency. If it’s a housekeeper, displaying competency would actually be demonstrating it.”

Malacko says that some of the biggest risks in hospitality are back injuries, slips and falls and over-exertion. Properly training staff on body positioning, weight restrictions and proper stocking methods for carts can mitigate these risks.

“Show them how to do the job and then watch them do the job,” she says. “There’s that balance between production, individual safety and the quality to be in there. It’s about ensuring that we don’t forget about that individual’s safety.”

Listing step by step how to do a job is an important part of setting out any health and safety procedure, says Malacko. Putting any assumptions on staff, despite prior experience at another property, allows for varying interpretations of processes. 

“You want a step by step of how we do it at this property,” she says. “We don’t want to use language that is out of the ordinary – I don’t want jargon used in it. I want to use language that is familiar for everybody.” 

Investing in people

Gilliard says one of the hoteliers she is in contact with in St. John’s will wait for two to three weeks before ordering a custom-fit uniform for a new employee. The reasoning? “She’s been burned so many times and stuck with a  custom uniform that doesn’t fit anyone,” says Gilliard. The high turnover rate in the hospitality industry plays a role in a hesitation towards investing in, not only uniforms, but training as well.

“Other industries tend to invest far more financially,” says Hecht, citing a CTHRC finding that for every employee, the hospitality industry spends approximately $199 per year, significantly less than other industries. Again, this hesitation comes from a fear of investing in an employee’s training only to have them leave after a short time.

However, Gilliard says that the tourism industry needs to think on a long-term basis. Investing in training is one large factor leading to sustainable success in the long-term.

“People often say ‘what if I train them and they leave?’” says Gilliard. “This, versus, what if I don’t train them and they stay?”

Employee retention is a clear concern for operators and Lumb says that this is increasingly true with a shrinking employee pool. “We used to use the analogy that there was always a busload of people coming down the road needing work,” she says. Now, the flag of STEC’s 2013 catalogue reads: Recruit, Train, Retain.

“It’s the investment. Training takes time, but businesses need to schedule time for their teams,” says Morrison. “We need to budget for this, we need to understand the role of our employees in providing the service and seeing the connections there.”

Kiely says studies have shown an important factor in keeping employees on board is illustrating the opportunities for advancement within the industry, and showing how transferable their gained skills are. “Maybe it’s a part time job or summer job, but to show them that they’re learning valuable and transferable skills is really important to highlight in the process,” he says.

Lumb offers that an employee can be hired on as a food and beverage server, but the employer needs to take the opportunity to say, “this may, in your mind, be a summer job but in fact there are lots of careers that you can undertake while you’re here with us,” she says. “Even if you do change careers, the kinds of things you learn in our industry are all transferable skills: teamwork, conflict resolution, these things serve you well no matter what and I don’t think we take the time to share that.”

In society in general, Lumb says there is a lack of adequate respect for service providers. “I think on the interviewing and recruiting side of things, there is a need to reinvigorate the pride in being of service to others and then, as a general society, respecting that.”