The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) released a study earlier this year, which found that nearly all of the survey respondents (97%) experienced staffing shortages, with 49% facing severe shortages. Across the U.S., over 130,000 unfilled hospitality positions remain.
While these numbers are concerning, many hoteliers took this opportunity to focus on their current teams and figure out creative ways to make it through the storm – and in some cases even excel.
We connected with Sandy Wieber, owner of Bayfront Marin House in St. Augustine, Florida, earlier this year. She shared how her team created a safe and effective workplace in the face of these challenges, with the help of Angie, our in-room voice assistants. What seemed like a negative turned into a hidden gift – not without smart planning from Wieber and her team.
Q: How are you using Angie to weather the current industry labor shortage?
A: Our labor strategy has always been to retain our current team. Our focus on the work environment has helped us keep turnover low. Although we worried about it at the beginning, using technology has only impacted our work environment in a positive way.
We have a diverse staff – some of whom were very high risk in the early days of the pandemic. We didn’t want to reopen operations without providing the safest workplace that we could. But we also had to acknowledge that our employees would not be happy providing a less-than-stellar guest experience; they are happy working in our business because they are proud of the level of service we provide.
Angie allowed us to do both: the technology limited face-to-face guest interactions, while still allowing us to be very responsive to our customers’ needs. That allowed our staff to maintain their own high customer service standards, while still prioritizing their health, as well as the health of our guests.
We had thought that the work environment would normalize in 2022, but it has changed drastically since 2019. We joke that guest behavior in 2022 is the best of times, the worst of times: while we have had some of our best guest experiences ever, we have also had some of the most challenging.
Guest behavior has a huge impact on the work environment. As an industry, we’ve seen employees leave hospitality because they did not want to be ‘beaten up’ by angry customers. Angie allows us to minimize the stressful guest interactions; it gives guests an opportunity to ask questions and get immediate responses.
We have tied Angie to our internal texting program, which allows us to respond immediately to any questions that are not pre-programmed. That allows us to avoid a lot of negative guest reactions—and happy guests mean happy staff.
Some of the changes we’ve made to our business—like delivering breakfast and happy hour to guest rooms instead of offering them in a common area—are more time consuming than they were in the past. So any time we can offload job demands, it improves the work environment.
Angie acts as a personal concierge, cutting down on the tasks our staff must complete. We want to create a work environment that is professional and happy, and not answering the same question multiple times helps free up their time to accommodate some of the new tasks we’ve added.
Finally, using Angie lets us easily see if there are any trends in guests’ questions. When we see many people asking the same question, we can brainstorm on whether there are better ways to share that information proactively. We want to make traveling as easy and stress-free as possible, and addressing frequent issues moves us closer to that goal.
The paradigm has definitely shifted—while I still believe that happy staff means happier guests, we have to consider that happy guests mean happier staff as well.
Q: What is the biggest problem technology has solved in the past two years?
A: For a business to survive, it is critical to focus on the customer of the future. We have spent a lot of time looking at ways to appeal to younger travelers—partnering with area businesses that appeal to a younger clientele, adding lodging options that are friendly to families with young children, making our facilities pet friendly, etc.
Our younger guests LOVE the ability to interact with technology. It is quicker than coming to the front desk to ask a question, and even quicker than a phone call. We have seen reviews from younger people who define the technology as great customer service, so it is obvious that they don’t require face-to-face interactions to build the customer relationship.
Even 2020 allowed us to look at customers of the future. We were one of the only businesses in town to put an emphasis on contact-free stays, and we had a huge number of new customers as a result. We are already seeing those customers return and refer us to their family and friends. I compare the cost of the technology to the cost of acquiring a great marketing list of potential guests; it has been a very cost effective way to find new business.
Q: How are contactless operations affecting your hotel right now?
A: We moved to contactless service as a reaction to Covid, but we are keeping contactless operations because it is a guest preference. Our guests want quick, easy responses to their service needs.
Using technology–like Angie, as well as our texting program–has allowed us to respond quickly to questions and requests. When someone tells Angie that they need more towels, we get an audible cue, and we then take the towels immediately. Many times, guests will be amazed when they answer their door, saying: “You almost got here before I finished asking!”
We make it clear in our guest communications that we want to interact the way that they want to interact; we are happy to meet face-to-face if that is their preference. But guests have clearly shown that they consider customer service to be a quick and friendly response to their needs—the medium used to respond to those requests is not the critical part for them.
Hospitality will always be a people-focused industry, and we worried about technology taking away some of the personal service people have come to expect, especially from a small property like ours. That concern has not become an issue at all—if anything, our customers appreciate the ease that technology adds to their experience.
Thank you, Sandy, for this amazing commentary and opportunity to learn from your team.