Building a winning team

While the world may be queuing to work in the Middle East hotel sector, human resources strategies are often stretched in recruiting, training and retaining the right people. Kathi Everden reports.

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By  Philip Fenton Published  March 12, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|Overseas trade publications now frequently cite Dubai as the top of the league in destinations for expat hotel workers, with other expanding locations such as China, South America and the Eastern European bloc trailing in appeal for both management and staff positions.

Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman certainly figure on the radar screen, but Dubai remains the honey pot.

But with the majority of hotel workers solely seeking monetary rewards, management of resources and striking a balance between investment in training and retaining staff provides problems of a different ilk to those experienced elsewhere.

And with the fax machines of new hotel properties humming with CVs, HR takes on a new dimension – where successful solutions can have a financial as well as an operational impact.

HR manager for Dubai’s Wafi City – and responsible for restaurant, spa and facilities management staff – Annette Ralph emphasised the point: “With the cost of visa processing now more than US$1,000 per person, you have to make sure you get it right first time – hotels and restaurants cannot afford to maintain the high staff turnovers that have existed before,” she said.

“Each staff member is a sales and marketing tool, so investment in their training and development is essential – but you have to remember that salary is the incentive for more than half your staff, with only up to 40 percent actually looking for a career.”

It’s a situation the major hotel chains take on board, particularly as tighter regulations regarding employment visas for certain nationalities in the GCC have forced hotels to look farther afield for staff, according to William Costley, general manager of the Hilton Baynunah in Abu Dhabi, with special responsibility for HR in the region.

He said that while Asia represents 65 percent of Hilton International’s team members in the GCC, with the Middle East at 25 percent, East Europe, South Africa, Nepal and Indonesia were the new hunting grounds, and that the issue of localisation, though in its infancy, “would not go away” and is something that the HR function would have to address.

“We have just finished an analysis of the ratio of our national employees as well as the various labour laws involved to help with new local staff quotas introduced in countries such as Saudi Arabia (50 percent) and Oman (75 percent),” he said.

“While it is still not culturally acceptable for nationals to work in hotels, this attitude changes country by country with national team members in every department in our hotel in Bahrain and Oman, for instance – in these countries, too, there are training and hotel schools.”

He stressed the major challenge for HR is to ensure succession planning, training and development and team member retention, and Hilton International had launched a global ‘Esprit’ initiation to help in these areas.

“This involved changing the language we use in hotels – from staff canteen to team restaurant; from back of house to heart of the house; from staff to team – as well as a first name policy that has had really positive results.

“Team members also have a choice of what to wear through the introduction of a Hilton Wardrobe, while on the training front we have launched the Hilton University offering e-learning opportunities for everyone.”

||**||Grand solutions|~||~||~|

Take one globe and a general manager with a passport and you have the beginnings of the Grand Hyatt’s recruitment strategy. The 674-room hotel in Dubai this month will have a complement of more than 1,000 staff when its opens this month, and general manager Peter Fulton has personally interviewed more than 95 percent of these.

His journeys around the world have taken in Eastern Europe, Australia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Morocco, Lebanon and Tunisia – and the final role call includes 51 nationalities.

“There is no cookie cutter approach for human resources at Hyatt, where each hotel writes its own training manual,” he said. “But we made several definite decisions – to be multi-cultural in our approach, and also to have a high proportion of Arabic speakers to maintain Hyatt’s reputation as a GCC friendly group.”

Some positions were filled from internal sources with staff joining from Hyatt hotels in Europe, Australia and a few who worked at the Hyatt Regency Dubai, and Fulton said the fact that the hotel was in Dubai was a major attraction.

“There is a general positive reaction due to the popularity of Dubai and we could cherry pick the people we wanted in most cases,” he said. “What we were looking for was people with character and those who could interact with guests – subservience was not a criteria.”

Fulton stressed that hotel experience was not a pre-requisite, with restaurant workers picked from Vietnam and some students who are coming direct to Dubai from hotel school in Bali, for instance.

“While we worked through agents in most countries, they only drew up the original short list and this was reviewed by my HR team – following which I went in for final interviews.”

With such a large hotel, this unusual strategy means that Fulton has already met most of his staff face to face, and more importantly, they know him.

“It was a large investment in time and money, but it is the start of an open door policy here at Grand Hyatt Dubai – I have a staff hotline direct to my desk for instance, while my management team have met all overseas employees on arrival at the airport and then hosted a buffet reception to welcome them to Dubai.”

Focus of initial training has included orientation, product knowledge and department training, as well as phonetic English lessons, IT training and grooming.

The final touches will be in place with an unofficial ‘opening’ this month when staff will act as guests for a period to simulate real life situations prior to receiving the first visitors on March 18.

“What we want to achieve is an unfussy and uncomplicated hotel experience, both efficient and friendly and this will only come about through the seamless service provided by our staff,” said Fulton.

While the current political situation in the region has caused a small number of drop-outs, he stressed that Dubai remained a big draw, with many seeing a post here as a stepping stone to a career in other countries.

“With more than 1,000 staff, we cannot offer careers to everyone but our investment in recruitment means that we want to look after our people and train them well – this provides an incentive for them to stay with Hyatt.”

Fulton is looking to offer service standards that can compare with the best around the world, rather than benchmarking against Dubai competition, but sees his staff in human terms rather than as a product.

“By providing accommodation, transport, welfare as well as a job and a visa, we virtually ‘adopt’ our staff,” he said. “It’s my view that I run two hotels, that is the Grand Hyatt and the staff complex – and standards have to equally good in both places.”

||**||Breaking the chains|~||~||~|

Taking over management at Jebel Ali International (JAI) two years ago, Gerhard Hardick brought to the table considerable experience with the major hotel chains, but is now happy to ‘fish in a wider pool’ for his staff at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa, Oasis Beach and Hatta Fort hotels in the UAE.

“In many ways, this gives me a broader base from which to pick candidates,” he said. “I have the advantage over the corporate world that I can go out and look for particular individuals that suit my requirements – often a better candidate who might be more entrepreneurial.”

In his view, hotel groups have international standards and procedures, but these set the basic and bare minimums: “While I have brand equity with Jebel Ali International, I am not constrained by a head office which imposes rigid rules and regulations.”

He cites the classic case of empowerment – a strategy that may work in many parts of the world but is difficult to impose in the Middle East.

“I have definite reservations about this as a policy in this region and cultural differences make it difficult to work since you have to take into account both the nationalities of your staff and your customers.”

Key to his HR policy, however, is empowerment of department heads who are the main point of reference for staff: “A pro-active head can activate a complete change of attitude in the whole department,” he said.

Another ongoing strategy is one-to-one evaluations of all staff, ensuring that aspirations and ambitions are noted and channelled in the right direction – and here Hardick encourages staff to look elsewhere if their career requires progression that a small chain cannot fulfil.

“Staff have to remain marketable, and it’s good for individuals to add to their experiences and even come back to us after a period with another chain, providing oxygen for JAI.”

He stresses the unique challenge of HR and recruitment policies in the Middle East, claiming the rules of the game here are ‘totally different’ to other areas.

“You cannot play with people’s lives, and the basic facts are that your staff do not have the freedom to move that they would enjoy in Europe, for example, we are only just coming in to line with labour laws under the World Trade Organisation.”

||**||A gentleman's agreement|~||~||~|

With the lowest staff turnover in the hospitality sector, Ritz-Carlton sets great store by its HR and training strategies, based around its credo, motto, three steps of service and 20 basic tenets of service.

Added into this potpourri is the employee promise, where the company emphasises its commitment to staff development to underpin ‘the Ritz Carlton mystique’.

In practice, the system works, claims Justin Lee, director of human resources for the Ritz Carlton Dubai and co-ordinator of training in the Middle East region.

He cites the recent example of reviving staff morale at the Ritz Carlton Hotel & Spa in Bahrain, where the group took over management following nine years under Le Meridien brand.

“Staff there felt they were lacking attention and growth,” he said. “Some had been employed for the nine years since it opened, but had never seen areas of the hotel such as the seventh floor majlis, so we had a major job to instil pride in their property.”

He stressed that staff knew their jobs and it was the task of his 40-strong task force to induct the Ritz Carlton service culture: “We had to reassure them that they were the experts, and we relied on their experience.”

After a general introduction to the company, the task force worked with individual departments over a 10-day period, following which Lee said the change was dramatic.

“Out of 700 staff, we had only a two percent staff turnover after the first month, retaining both expat staff and the 115 local employees.”

Lee insists the Ritz-Carlton way is not rocket science, but simple people practices: “We are cognoscente of the bottom line, but know that investment in HR and training pays dividends.”

In the Middle East, he said the group did take account of the differing situation from elsewhere in the world and the money motivation factor.

“With our focus on development and training, we can use the hotel in Dubai as a ‘university’ to help with our expansion through the region, moving staff on to our other hotels as they open.”

||**||Get out of town|~||~||~|

If Dubai is seen as a stepping-stone to greater things, the emirate of Fujairah does not figure so highly on the wish list of potential hotel recruits, according to Patrick Antaki, general manager of Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort.

Opened four months ago, the 218-room hotel has 260 staff, mainly from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Mauritius, but Antaki acknowledges it was a tough sell that was made easier through the use of Le Meridien’s corporate strengths.

“The company is known for training and its regular career monitoring and appraisals and this helped as an incentive, while the possibility of eventual transfers to other Le Meridien hotels, in India or elsewhere in the Middle East, was another draw,” he said.

While some staff came on a promotional transfer from other Le Meridien properties, the majority were new employees and one key priority for Antaki has been to ensure a lively social scene for the staff who live in an accommodation block next to the hotel.

“As well as sports, quiz nights, animation etc, we also have a bus service to Dubai every other day and regular transfers into Fujairah town on alternate days,” he said.

Since the December opening, staff requirements have been fine-tuned, and Antaki is now employing more Arabic speakers, including half a dozen from the local Fujairah college.

“Generally it is much easier in this region than other areas of the world as you don’t have to deal with unions or tough regulations – and there’s a bonus in that most people are honest here as the penalties for transgressions are so tough.

“However, while I am paying salaries equivalent to those in Dubai to attract staff, it is still not enough, as the hotel sector just doesn’t pay enough to attract quality personnel.”

Antaki does stress the need for care in the recruitment process: “One thing I regret is not having the spare time to become more involved at the interview stage – this should not be left to an HR director solely, with carried out in conjunction with the relevant department head at least.”

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