The talent challenge: It is time for the industry to emphasise that service is not servitude

The latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer recorded a 182 per cent year-on-year increase in international tourism for the January-March 2022 period, with destinations everywhere welcoming some 117 million international arrivals compared to 41 million in 1Q2021. In March alone, there were 47 million arrivals.

But you don’t need the stats to know that travel recovery is gaining pace. Airports, hotel lobbies, attractions and restaurants are bustling again. My social media feed in the last two months has been bursting at the seams with photos and videos of friends getting back on the road for meetings, events, family reunions and leisure retreats. It is fabulous.

Travel and tourism stakeholders everywhere have been preparing for this recovery, even as soon as lockdowns were ordered in 2020. Whatever goes down must come up, and it has been reported time and again that businesses have made good use of the travel disruption to review and evolve their operations so that they can hit the ground running once Covid red tapes are removed.

However, even the most well-prepared business owner is fighting a tough battle now to rebuild his team – a challenge that exists in our industry pre-pandemic and has only intensified since many have left their roles and even the industry for good. In an employee’s market, wages have gone up and HR must do much more to retain staff, thus adding to the mounting cost pressure on businesses everywhere.

Travellers today will find that travel isn’t as smooth as they last remembered. Queues to check in luggage or clear immigration are getting longer and moving slower. Delayed hotel check-ins are common, and daily housekeeping may take a little longer to complete. On board flights and at restaurants and attractions, it takes a little more effort to get some assistance.

Tempers are short and complaints are flying fast across social media. Such experiences cast a shadow over businesses’ warm welcome for returning travellers and customers, which is unfortunate because we, in this industry, know how earnestly we have pined for recovery.

It is now a test of patience for both the customer and business operator, and the latter has to find an acceptable balance between digitising processes for efficiency and keeping the promise of hospitality through human touch.

In recent interviews with hospitality leaders, hirers and a hospitality educator, the consensus is that the talent shortage now is an opportunity for travel and tourism businesses to revamp their employment terms and expand career opportunities for their staff.

An improved public perception of service as a career is important. By sending a louder and more positive message about the value of service and the career prospects it brings, the industry will also impress upon consumers that – in the words of Arthur Kiong, CEO of Far East Hospitality – service is not servitude but a respectable passion.

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