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Retention of Talents Checkmated by Hotel Owners in China.
By René J.M. Schillings
Monday, 10th March 2014

All hotel companies large or small would naturally want to groom their own talent base and it is a major selling point both towards hotel owners, when offering the management expertise as well as to attract talents to a hotel company with the claim that career opportunities are endless, given the existing portfolio of hotels and the pipeline as reported in the article above.

While we recruit predominantly for China and other parts of Asia, it is also evident to us that previous & recent China experience, Asia experience in general, or experience in any particular country of Asia, or a particular city is sought after.

The years of China experience is worth your weight in gold was something said a 15 years ago already by a worldwide operating Hotel Recruiter.

In the past decade China boomed even more, especially in the period 2000 – 2008, roughly from when the Olympics were awarded to Beijing, till they finished, it was boom-time in China, for expatriates to come to China a first time, because there was an enormous need. This boom had little to do with the Olympics itself, for the whole country was growing 10% year on year, anyway.

And while China was the least affected by the worldwide financial crises that started end of 2008 and still lingers on, many expatriates were already shed off, once the Games were over, and a worldwide recession was clearly in the sky.

This does however not mean that expatriates with China experience are no longer needed. They are still very much in demand. But what would be easy pie for not only the hotel companies but also for us as recruiters is that the same expatriates who came to China in the past decade where sometimes more wanted back then, even without China experience, than that they are today, with years of experience in China, but at a higher price tag now. Their ability to continue their careers in China has changed thanks to their years in China. What happened ?

What we observe is that many of those expatriates who came to China in a period when there as a massive need, came young, single, and flexible and ambitious to go for it, and take the challenge upon them. Having had a good time 2-, or 6-, or even more than 10 years working in China, they have grown in their career. Both the job titles as the salaries have gone up, which is natural in a career.

But they have also often got married, or got children in this period. Their needs have changed, and their flexibility to move around has been limited now. Some have grown used to a particular city or region, and simply do not consider all areas of China as a place to continue their career.

And here comes the paradox. While many of them work for the same hotel companies that are growing faster than ever before in their respective histories, and these companies are short of management, and advertising for positions, they can at the same time not offer much continuity to their own, experienced, devoted and to a certain extent loyal managers.

As a recruitment agency we come across a lot of expatriate Department Heads, # 2’s and General Managers, who claim that their current company has no next challenge for them, yet we as search firm may actually have similar vacancies with the same company, and then not to mention how many other vacancies that same company may have posted on their own website, or some other job websites.

This is also hard to stomach for those who have given their best last few years to a hotel company, and have in general a desire to stay in China, and if possible with the same company that despite the need to hire more additional managers, the company can at best offer them a next job in a totally different region, or indeed they may have to shop, via us as recruitment firm, with other hotel companies. 

How come that this is the daily practice and reality, which contradicts the media attention hotel companies give to their growth and newly announced projects, and the catchy phrases one may found on the Human Resources pages of the hotel companies, attempting to attract new & more talents with terms like ‘Endless opportunities, grow internally, and a general ‘we are one big family’ feel of such hotel companies when it comes to their employees.

The reality is that all the growth the hotel companies in a market like China have, is not driven by the hotel companies but is a reaction to the need for hotel management services,  needed by hotel owners, who dish out the management contracts and fund the projects. Who gets to manage at these properties is not lead by the hotel management company.

Today, in China, whoever gets a next posting or is transferred or promoted to a next role, does so by acceptance of the hotel owner. It is not the hotel management companies who feels it is the right time to promote somebody, or transfer an expatriate for the development of that expatriate and for the long-term need of the hotel company, but rather a matter of who gets accepted in the employment by the hotel owners.

The hotel company will do its best to put forward managers for a property, underlining the experience they will come for, but the owners still have to foot the bill for the price tag this manager comes with.

And that price tag is naturally higher when the manager is more experience, more senior, longer in China, and in many cases then also no longer a single person who is satisfied with a single room in the hotel but a full-flown expatriate, with needs to relocate family, school the kids. And this is a fundamental shift from how hotel companies used to operate in the past , or how they operate in other markets.

There used to be more ability and control by hotel management companies to appoint the manager they thought to be the best, and the hotel owner accepting this as the best solution for them. Now, particularly in China, owners will challenge that, and would ask the hotel company a wider selection of managers to chose from, and are perhaps inclined to go for the ones that come with a smaller price-tag, less needs.

This has led to a vicious circle whereby hotel companies give in to owners to appoint less experienced expatriates, which then leads to a higher chance of failure or under-performance, which then backfires onto to hotel management company and puts them in a weaker position.

Can one blame an obese child for asking too much candy, or should one blame the parent for giving the candy too often or more than is good for the child? Weak doctors make stinking wounds is the phrase, and it is therefore in the end the responsibility of the hotel management companies how they can combine the desire to grow with curtailing owner demands that effect the long-term goals of the hotel management company.

There is at this moment a serious and unfortunate drainage of talent of China-experienced expatriates, who are leaving the region, and some leave the hotel industry altogether, because the same hotel companies that have a large need for them, can in reality not offer continuity, if viewed from the short-term perspective to please hotel owners today. While the owners are blamed, one has to question rather in how far the hotel management companies are part fault in this, by not standing their ground.

While the above article is written with a perspective on expatriates in China, we can actually observe similarities with the top local talents in China, as well as similarities in other countries in Asia, where the same drainage happens, with similar consequences.

René J.M. Schillings, a Dutch National, is the Managing Director of TOP Hoteliers, the first specialized hospitality recruitment agency to open offices in the People’s Republic of China (in 2004). Based in Hong Kong he devotes most of his time managing the 3 offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing, where his team of consultants recruit hotel managers for all major international and some local hotel companies in China. His company was very early to recognize the need for local talent, Mandarin speaking expatriates and China experienced expatriates. His knowledge of the China Hotel Industry stems from his career as Hotelier in China that began in 1997. He has a BA in Hotel Management from Stenden University, a.k.a Hotel Management School Leeuwarden, The Netherlands and an MA in International Tourism & Leisure Studies from Metropolitan University in London, England. He is a keen observer of industry trends and has published numerous articles on HR issues in hospitality in China & Asia. Working in China, Hong Kong & Korea since the late 1990’s, René has lived in Hong Kong from 2005 to 2012 and resides since 2013 in Thailand with his wife and 2 children.

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