What's Behind The Smiles - By Joseph M. Gravish

Betty's worked hard for the ABC Hotel Management Company for more than 25 years. She's long past the usual retirement age and she finally has to leave. Work and age have caught up with her. Her department gave her a nice farewell luncheon, flowers, and lots of hugs.

HTrends During over two decades of service Betty has never been offered one paid day-off of any type and no benefits whatsoever. Nada. Zilch. That's gratitude for you.

There's a growing uneasiness within our workforce, particularly among non-union hotel companies, especially considering the many labor union negotiated successes this past year. But, as usual at year end, some employers will simply do little more than sprinkle a little holiday cheer around by hosting a company party, giving employees a turkey or a gift card, and maybe even rewarding them with a small monetary bonus. It's often too little too late - not unlike putting soothing ointment over a sucking chest wound.

The good-bye gifts are fine, and the year-end parties are enjoyable and appreciated. But look also at all the industry advertising media featuring supposedly happy employees with smiling faces and perfectly aligned, gleaming white teeth. Just maybe our workers might better appreciate a dental plan, or health care benefits, or an above poverty-level wage, or an annual merit pay increase, or better working conditions. Despite impressive recent industry revenues and positive future growth projections, from where I sit the service industry as a whole provides fewer quality of life benefits and an average wage far less than other competing industries. Yet hotel management demands our front-line staff root out every opportunity to create best impressionable memorable moments, day-in and day-out, without exception, regardless of their personal work status.

Meanwhile, national and regional hotel associations continue to work hard and bankroll efforts designed to counter government initiatives mandating higher minimum or living wages even though recent ballot box proposals requiring this be done so were overwhelmingly successful.

Isn't the industry tired of this two-sided charade? Isn't it time to change?

Hotel industry leaders should decide it's no longer worthwhile to whine and cry aloud about the lack of adequate numbers of workers or the poor quality of job applicants. Hoteliers have the ability to heal themselves. Their time would be better spent adapting to the conditions which would improve the image of the industry and permit it to compete and grow in the future. Maybe paying their human capital assets so little for so many years (knowing that many of them may have qualified for government subsidies for the poor, and pushing their employees' health care burden onto taxpayers like you and me) has come back to haunt them.

I'm reminded of a quote from the French playwright Moliere 'There's no praise to beat the sort you can put in your pocket.'

Let's reflect as we prepare and finalize next year's budget. Will your compensation philosophy acknowledge the changing realities and capitalize on the opportunity available? If your property made little or no profit this past year how much of your labor budget can you really cut without further degrading service? If your property made a decent profit, will any of that profit find its way to your front-line staff next year? Why not? If your property made a significant profit in 2006 why isn't an above average portion of that profit being returned to those that created it?

My worst fear is that nothing will change - that budgeted monies will go to necessary infrastructure improvements, some to accommodate ever-increasing amenity creep, and only just enough to meet brand-mandated employee training programs. The direct connection between quality, well-trained, respected, satisfied and loyal employees - and higher profits - will be quickly forgotten. The bean-counter mentality will return. The big picture will be ignored, once again.

Hoteliers need only look into the mirror to find the reason for massive governmental wage intervention. This industry, and others like it, has not enjoyed the most favorable public reputation. How many young adults, perhaps your own children, dream aloud of a career in hospitality? Given a choice would you encourage your son or daughter to aspire to become a hotel general manager? A recent Business Week profile of best places to launch a college graduate's career failed to list any hotel-industry employer. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Very few hotel companies have made any 'best' lists - ever. If this list had been expanded to 100 employers would any hotel company be on the list? I'm hopeful - but not optimistic.

The hotel industry can't hide behind the cute advertising smiles any longer. The public and most lawmakers have noticed. There's decay aplenty. It was, sadly, inevitable - but also preventable. For too long, too many hoteliers have ignored their social responsibility. As Madame Marie Curie said 'You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us... share(s) a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.' To be specific - our smiling employees.

Joseph M. Gravish

(The concept and some verbiage used in this article was based upon an 'Our View' editorial column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 7, 2006 titled 'Behind the Smile'.)

Logos, product and company names mentioned are the property of their respective owners.