The pandemic has transformed the hospitality industry, particularly in Asia. Most countries across the region have been keeping their borders closed to non-essential travel for almost a year now, which means that international guests are a rarity and hotels have had to shift their focus to the domestic market as their dominant revenue stream.
Some innovative solutions have popped up, such as renting out space to local artisans while others have involved a simple re-think of how they are marketed, but both rely on having regionally focused and imaginative employees.
Of course, it is one thing to need these employees and another to find them. At LHC International, I have seen how these criteria have become more important to many of our clients in the region. Recently, for instance, we have conducted searches for a hotel general manager in Hong Kong and a senior sales & commercial director at an international luxury brand in Thailand. In both instances the clients wanted to prioritise local talent above international candidates.
This is not a new trend. The cultural background and language skills of local candidates have for a while now been perceived as a big benefit when it comes to serving local guests, be it a domestic traveller or corporate client. In addition, the pressure from key business stakeholders and owners on cost optimisation and restructuring has turned the hiring focus of hospitality companies more towards local staff.
Conversations with clients and hospitality experts within our network in the region suggest that this trend has been steadily increasing for some time, but, as with many trends in our industry, the pandemic has accelerated it. With such a strong dynamic change and increase of demand for local talent within management roles, the question is whether there is enough local talent with adequate experience available?
Local talent, specific skills
One of the ways to address this is to open up opportunities for candidates that may not have the experience, but that possess the potential. This means that companies need to balance the highly skilled, experienced profile they would like to hire with the fact that there is great talent which they can help grow into a role by investing the time and resources to ensure sustainable long-term development.
Ryan Chen, vice president of business development with Far East Hospitality, shared the group’s strategy with me. "Pre-Covid, during Covid and, I’m sure, post-Covid, we will always have a focus on recruiting local talent,” he said. “We believe in the quality of people in our region. What the pandemic has done is to expedite demand, so it means that we as a business have been ready for this for a while.”
A similar approach is taken by Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.
Ungkhana Tosilanon, senior assistant vice president and head of group hotel HR told me that the brand has "always invested in a person's development, both financially and time-wise".
“It is really important that our employees grow their career with us and step up into leading roles when they are ready. Where key positions are vacant, our priority is to recruit locally. We look for a positive attitude and a vision aligned with ours, and if they’re local, then we’re definitely interested.”
She also shared the story of one employee who was responsible for leading tours in one of the Banyan Tree properties. “She started off as our trekking agent taking care of the check-in process, but we saw that she had potential, so we encouraged and supported her with career opportunities and the necessary development training. Now she is the general manager of one of our hotels in China. That shows how we nurture local talent that in turn nurtures our business.”
Growing talent from within is part of the strategy to secure the best talent for other hotel brands too. Suratsawadee Sirikasem, vice president of human resources at Absolute Hotel Services, says “The strategy has always been to localise as much as possible based on talent potential. When it comes to looking for people to develop, we always look to the existing talent pool. This is not about nationality, but about the fit within the organisation. Our position is that we can learn from each other.”
The cultural background and language skills of local candidates have for a while now been perceived as a big benefit when it comes to serving local guests. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Space_Cat
The efforts and resources of hotel brands to invest in local talent to grow them into managerial roles, will not, however, entirely solve the shortage fuelled by the increasing demand. Equally important will be each country's support with regards to education, infrastructure and the promotion of hospitality as a career path. “The key is to make the hospitality industry an attractive career decision,” said Absolute Hotel Services' Suratsawadee.
Rethinking how roles are defined and even described can help with this.
“We like to see ourselves as a forward-looking business,” Far East Hospitality's Chen said. “Some roles are not attractive to local talent, where industries such as IT have a higher profile and command much more respect, so instead we are integrating them more with customer facing roles.”
This has led to some interesting developments. “With the global heightened focus on hygiene, the role of the person who welcomes the guest can be redesigned to be partly responsible for the housekeeping function, showing them that the room has been sanitised and cleaned because they were responsible for it. In this way, we attract local talent by combining the customer facing role with the operational role.”
New talent for new times
Estimates are that trading numbers will not return to those seen before the pandemic until as late as 2024. From my point of view, this means that the focus on localism will face no challenge from reopened borders for some time yet. It does suggest, however, that owners and operators should think about recruiting and investing in current but also future business leaders with the experience to prepare for a transition to more profitable times and for when international travel resumes.
“The Covid pandemic is going to stop one day,” said Banyan Tree's Ungkhana.
“And one day international guests will come back. That means that the local talent we are recruiting now will need to become international as well. People who can serve Thai guests perfectly will also need to be able to serve international guests with no language or cultural barriers. All that will matter to us is that we have the right blend of approaches and skill sets.”
We do not know when tourism will be back, but hotels need to be prepared. Brands need to think about hiring strategies, especially balancing out international and local experience, as well as how they move staff around to increase their exposure and experience.
A Russian native with more than 12 years in the travel and hospitality industry, Victor Mogilev has lived and worked in Asia for over a decade. He is currently the managing director of LHC International.