Hotel industry struggles to provide service with a smile

Updated: 2011-03-04 10:40

By Eric Jou (China Daily)

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BEIJING - Long hours, nasty patrons, no tips - that was the life of 24-year-old Lin Na as a receptionist at a four-star hotel in Fuzhou, capital of East China's Fujian province.

"It was a hard job, dealing with people and smiling all day," said Lin. "It didn't pay well and there were no real benefits. I am glad I left."

Out of concern for her privacy, Lin asked to have the name of her employer withheld. Drawn to the hotel industry in college, Lin graduated with a bachelor's degree in hotel management from a college in Fuzhou in 2008 and found the job at the four-star hotel through a friend. After five months of what she calls suffering, Lin quit.

"I originally joined the hotel because I thought it was a place where I could learn and further my career," Lin said. "However there was very little chance for growth there and the work was very boring and tedious."

Lin's story is one of many telling signs of worker dissatisfaction in the hospitality industry and a major reason for a labor shortage in hotels across China. Experts say many hotels lack trained skilled workers at front desks, in hotel restaurants and wait staffs.

With China's rise in consumer affluence, expectations of better service in industries such as the hospitality sector are rising. The nation's class of nouveau riche has also created an influx of mid- to high-end hotels.

But in the land of cheap labor, Kevin Murphy, managing director of Asiawide Hospitality Solutions, said the hard part is finding skilled labor and retaining them.

"Reports on recruitment for the opening of new hotels in China still confirm that thousands of hopefuls turn up for screening and interviews," Murphy said. "While there is no denying many of those may be under-qualified, inexperienced or untrained in aspects of hotel operations, any labor shortage affecting hotels seems to be more relevant to skills and training to be learned than the availability of the numbers to fill the positions."

Murphy said the high turnover rate in China's hotels is an industry problem that pertains to both local and foreign brands, though domestic brands carry a heavier burden because they have yet to establish themselves.

According to Asiawide Hospitality Solutions, China's hospitality industry is in need of more than 400,000 new rooms at the budget and economy level, which equates to more than 220,000 new jobs in the industry.

According to the China Hotel Association, salaries in the industry range from 1,000 yuan to 3,000 yuan, which is $152 to $456 a month depending on the city.

The problems in China's hospitality industry start from the ground up. Vocational school students and college students studying hospitality are moving on to different careers after graduation, another indication that hotels are suffering from a lack of skilled and trained staff.

Li Zhou, an associate professor at the Shenzhen Tourism College of Jinan University, said that nearly all of her graduated students take on jobs unrelated to what they studied in school.

"Our graduates will not go to the hotel industry, but into other service intensive industries such as finance and communications," Li said. "Our students have a strong sense of service that is valued by employers such as Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and HSBC."

Another reason for the drop-off in staff quality and numbers in the industry, according to Wang Zhenhui, deputy director of the China Hotel Association, is the stigma associated with hotel work. Wang said that Chinese parents often disapprove of their children working in the industry and believe the work to be more suitable for the lower class. Students themselves see the work as too labor intensive with little reward and low monthly salaries.

Li echoed Wang's sentiments, saying that her students' career paths and ambitions are undermined by traditional views by parents and friends, even though views on the hospitality industry have changed in the last five years.

Murphy blames the attrition on the industry and hotel owners who are new to the services industry. He said that the expansion and over-development of high-end hotels without proper training and planning creates a dearth of well-trained staff.

"If you are drawing from a local labor pool then obviously when you are bringing in jobs for the first four-five star hotel, you are unlikely to find highly trained experienced personnel," Murphy said. "More time and more money needs to be spent to train locally hired people. It's not just in service but in other levels: understanding of the standards, deliveries and attitudes that are needed to ensure guests have a worthwhile experience."

Harry Tan, CEO and chairman of the Days Inn China, and Murphy both said the industry is reliant on vocational school and college recruits to fill positions because students from those schools are better trained and are surprisingly cheaper despite the supposed cheap labor of migrant workers.

Hiring locally is a favorite path for hotel chains, which often seek locals who have experience in the industry. Tan points out migrant workers, despite being cheap, come with more costs. The costs include room and board as well as training. This becomes more apparent as more branded hotels move toward second- and third-tier cities.

Murphy, like Tan, agrees that what hotels need to do to retain staff and raise profits is to adapt to the needs of the staff. That starts with more training, support, or reasonable wages and rewards. Rewarding good service and providing on the job training are just some of the methods being discussed in the industry.

Wang also said that one of the reasons for the talent gap is that "it is highly competitive compared to previous years".

"With hotel sales declining and salaries being low, foreign hotels can more easily pay more money to attract better staff," Wang said.

Tan said at the Day's Inn, they are facing the same problems that the industry is battling, namely increases in wages. Ultimately, he believes that the Day's Inn and other foreign brands have an advantage over domestic hotels.

"The chain hotels are still having the upper hand because we attract younger people. When young people join hotels they want to join international chains," said Tan. "In that aspect I don't see any of our hotels facing an emergency shortage of labor where they cannot operate. On the other hand, the training programs are important so we can increase the quality and productivity of our brand."

The opportunity to work in a new enterprise draws a lot of recruits because most of the new operations are built by major operators, most of whom are foreign. Langham Hotels International opened a new Beijing Capital Airport hotel, which claims that it is having little or no trouble in the recruitment field.

Helen Chen, human resources director of the Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport, said the six-month-old hotel hasn't had any real problems filling positions, especially since Langham is an international brand.

China Daily


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