ILHA INSPIRE Reportback: Adapting to Workforce Challenges with Innovative Strategies

Each year, the top minds in Luxury Hospitality come together at the annual ILHA Inspire Conference to see old friends and meet new ones, to debate what’s ahead, to learn from each other, and brainstorm solutions to the industry’s thorniest problems. This year, I had the honor of moderating a panel on workforce challenges, which is undoubtedly one of the industry’s biggest challenges as the industry works to recover from the pandemic-related talent migration to other industries at a time when new hotels continue to open and peak room rates require flawless execution. 

The leaders I spoke with spanned smaller urban assets, an industry giant with multiple brands and thousands of rooms in one island location, a regional vice president of operations for a globally recognized brand family, and an event services and luxury technology provider. We discussed the implications for generational shifts in the workforce, how brands and operators can align their goals with the seemingly disparate goals of their associates, how culture is the secret sauce to attracting and retaining talent, and what owners and operators can do to be employers of choice.


Jason Bass, The Director of Culture and Programming at the Thompson Atlanta Buckhead

Graeme Davis, President, Baha Mar 

Gamal El Fakih Rodriquez, VP of Operations (Luxury) – Caribbean and Latin America, Marriott International 

Renee MacDonald, VP, Strategic & Venue Partnership Development, Encore

The following are the key takeaways from our conversation. A link to a video of the session can be found here.

Times Have Changed

We saw record ADRs in 2023 across most markets, which increases guest expectations and the need for exceptional service. “The challenge post-COVID is delivering on the value proposition for our guests. Rates have gone up 40%, which is a silver lining, however, the guest expectations are consistently growing higher and higher,” said Graeme Davis, President, Baha Mar. The higher room rates are a positive for hotel managers and owners alike, but the record rates come at a time when deferred capital investments, labor shortages, and generational shifts have made it more difficult than ever to meet guest expectations.

All the experts agreed that the first step is always to hire the right talent, but with many seasoned professionals having left the industry during the pandemic and younger generations having different working styles, that can be a challenge. “Filling these roles is our first challenge. Our second challenge is connecting with the new generations. Hospitality has changed, Luxury has changed. We need to find a way to connect with the younger generation of talent emotionally to attract them to hotels, so they don’t go into luxury in other industries – luxury retail – or other industries,” highlighted Gamal El Fakih Rodriquez, VP of Operations (Luxury) – Caribbean and Latin America, Marriott International. 

At Encore, they take a slightly different tack. “Encore wants to lead with an ‘employee-first’ attitude.” To backfill the talent lost over the pandemic, “We take an academy approach so people know they can learn and grow and build a career in the industry. But what’s most important is we tried to look out and find some untapped resources. As we know, audiovisual has been a pretty male-dominated industry, so we developed a program called WAVE (Women in Audio Visual Events) and we’ve been able to increase our percentage of female team members by 22%. Combining that program with the National College Leadership Program, our business resource groups, and our DEIB policy, we have been able to bring people to the industry very successfully,” said, Renee MacDonald, VP, Strategic & Venue Partnership Development, Encore.

Culture Over Compensation

“Sourcing good talent is a universal challenge,” continued Graeme. Creating a culture within the property, a ‘brand’ in the community, is the first step to attracting talent. Jason Bass, The Director of Culture and Programming at the Thompson Atlanta Buckhead, highlighted that culture can mean different things to different people and can be hard to measure, but at the Thompson Buckhead, “we ultimately came down to trying to figure out how much earned media we could get and how people were discussing the brand externally. They saw that a lot of our employees, or folks that came to be employees, came because they saw the great work that they were doing in the community. Or their family member said, ‘hey, you need to go down there and apply for a job, they really care about the community.'” 

“Driving culture is a simple formula but many operators don’t get it. If the employees are happy, the guests will be happy. Hiring with the right attitude and training for skills, this is so important, particularly when you have a lower skill set,” shared, Graeme Davis, President, Baha Mar. 

When asked which is most important in hiring: compensation, flexibility, status, or brand, El Fakih Rodriquez, VP of Operations (Luxury) – Caribbean and Latin America, Marriott International added, answered none of the above. “Obviously, compensation is important, depending on which market you are operating in, but money is not a motivator. For the new generation, I believe it’s the culture of the hotel. For me, everything goes to the hiring, you have it or you don’t…..If you have that obsession to serve, in luxury we can teach you. If you don’t have that obsession to serve, it won’t be a great fit. If you have that mindset, where you want to be in the lobby, you want to greet every guest, you want to pay attention to details, you have aesthetic intelligence, well, that’s luxury.” 

Renee MacDonald, VP, Strategic & Venue Partnership Development, Encore, stressed the importance of “belonging,” highlighting that, “Associates want to move beyond DEI toward feeling as they belong. Encore has added business resource groups such as Veterans, Well-being, Belief, etc., which provide team members a place where like-minded individuals can come together to make decisions to drive the organization forward.” This instills pride because they become part of the solution!  “If we offer them that culture within the hotel, and we offer them the opportunity to grow with us as a company, they will stay,” El Fakih Rodriquez added.

What’s Been Working

Put your employees first. Take care of them in the same way you care for your guests. Bahamar’s Davis detailed an impressive list of benefits the company offers to support wellness and an employee-first mentality. “We are the first employer in the Bahamas to offer free medical insurance for every employee. We have a full-time clinic with doctors from 8 am to 11 pm and a pharmacy onsite, as well as one-on-one counseling with onsite industrial psychologists. We have a cafeteria with food throughout the day, a coffee shop, and a 7/11 at the back of house with food and items at cost. We have a gym and a local CIBC bank for the associates. Treating them with respect and putting them first at all costs is critical. We paid every employee to stay home from March of 2020 until we reopened in December 2020. We spent over $80 million to keep everyone employed over the pandemic. This not only generated loyalty but made us the employer of choice.”

Offer your employees an opportunity to be themselves at work. “Luxury and the perception of luxury are shifting. Let the associates be the best version of themselves. Tourism is a canvas of self-exploration. It is about being the best version of yourself for both the associates and the guests,” stated Thompson’s Bass. To help with retention and to attract new talent, the Thompson Buckhead is aligning its benefits with the values of its associates. They have rolled out paid volunteer time off where each employee is given four hours every two weeks where they can volunteer their time at an approved non-profit. They have also “rolled out a culture committee with representation from different departments, which allows folks to voice what they are interested in.” The hotel has been known to take over one of their restaurants on Tuesday nights for open mic night, where the employees can showcase their passions outside of work. “This provides a venue for these associates to feel supported in their passions even outside of work and creates a connection you don’t usually get if you just do your day-to-day business,” commented Bass.

Support financial wellness, have an emergency fund.”A lot of employees are check-to-check right now, so we incorporated an emergency fund into the employee benefits package. If someone is a good employee and their brakes go, having a fund that can front them the money so they can get to work and they can keep that employee, it’s a win/win because hiring a new employee costs a lot more than $400.” Baha Mar has an employee resource fund called Baja Blue. “We put in a minimum of $100,000 per year into the fund. On top of that, for any fully depreciated asset sold on property, the funds go into the blue fund. So, it can go up to half a million when we are selling off old cars, old furniture, etc. These funds take care of associates’ needs if their car catches on fire, if they don’t have enough insurance, if their cancer treatment goes beyond the insurance, for example,” shared Baha Mar’s President, Davis.

Offer cross-training, flexible roles, and the opportunity to grow. “Hospitality has always been a very traditional industry with a lot of hierarchy. The new generation isn’t willing to wait two years in their roles to move to something new, they want to have an impact, and they want a variety of roles, so we must start rethinking the job descriptions that we have, broaden them, give them more tasks, so they can learn more things from different disciplines in a shorter period of time. Many of them don’t want to grow up, they just want to grow horizontally. Not everyone wants to be a general manager of a hotel,” shared Marriott’s VP of Luxury Operations, Caribbean, El Fakih Rodriquez.

Building alliances with other organizations is key. MacDonald from Encore stated: “We obviously have to hire from a technology perspective and have that skill set. We have to hire from a hospitality mindset and have that training. But taking luxury, adding a whole new level, we’ve just been named The Official Event Solutions Partner for Forbes Travel Guide, so with that, our team gets access to five-star luxury training. It’s going to help set us apart, help our team get more engaged, and know what needs to be done from a luxury perceptive. I challenge you to do that, whether with Forbes or MPI or other programs to build alliances and have outside resources to help you.”