Staff Competition in China.
By René J.M. Schillings
Tuesday, 16th March 2010
This feature is not about the annual football match between the chef team and the engineers, nor which server sold the most Wine of the Month, this is about fierce competition among hotels to attract the best people.

In a market economy competition must exist. Walk the busy shopping streets of urban China and vendors will try to attract your attention. Hotels, Resorts, Serviced Residences, Restaurants & Bars will compete for business. It is about market share, sales & marketing strategies, and keeping happy customers coming back. In China the number of hotel beds is growing faster than anywhere in the world.

And in every random city new hotels open from a base of 2-5 international hotels up to 5 years ago to 10 hotels today and more to open in the next 5 years. Major cities like Shanghai and Beijing already feel the pinch of overcapacity in post-Olympic (and soon post-Expo) times.

Hotel owners, management companies and analysts crack their brains on how to achieve market share, and get the favor of the consumer who has more to chose from and can shop around. But this fast growth does not only put the Occupancy Rates and Average Rates under pressure. What few hotels realize yet is that they are also competing against each other for the best talents in a limited pool.

Whereas hotels are often built with a 20-30 year plan and expected growing market & needs it is doubtful if in the next 20 years the pool of available employees choosing hospitality will grow too, in China

The days that young hoteliers would join a certain hotel, or group and make their career all the way up with the same hotel, same group are long gone. Today a job with a hotel is good for the next 1-2 years and people see where the next opportunity lies (and in Beijing, Shanghai even faster).

Hoteliers are traditionally mobile, the world is their oyster, and the home is where good jobs are. This also applies to hotels in China anno 2010. Within China the term ‘local expatriates' who work in any region of China other than their home town is commonly understood. Although hotel companies may promise future transfers to other locations, or gradual promotion it is not surprising that many hoteliers in China can not resist a good offer in another city, or a promotion when joining another brand.

The only way is up is the mood in China for the last 25 years, so why would hoteliers patiently wait for their promotion or do their hardship years in less favorable locations when hotels in more attractive locations are hungry to have them.

It was perhaps good practice for hotels when they open in a certain location to first look at the hotels present for potential recruits. Due to fast expansion of most hotel groups in China the transfer of staff from existing hotels to new openings is limited as existing hotels already struggle to find and keep their talents.

In addition, the expansion is often in the secondary cities where the primary cities do not necessarily want to go, or only for a short period of time. In mature markets, cities like Hong Kong where only 1 or 2 new major hotels open per year it's quite normal for an F&B Director to slip his business card to a good waitress and ask her to give him a call. An Assistant HOD may be experienced enough to join another, smaller hotel as HOD. When there is a local HR Director who worked for an existing hotel for 10 years get's pinched by a new hotel opening, the position maybe taken over by the # 2, Assistant HR, who was perhaps also 4-6 years there.

But where will the next opening hotel recruit from? In locations where 10 hotels opened in less than half a decade and still another 10 in the ground this is not only ‘not done' it also leads to a guerilla warfare for staff. New opening hotels can only apply the trick of scouting the competitor's staff a few times till they fall victim themselves to the very next new hotel. China has a history of hotel development of less than 30 years with the base of the earliest hotels, where future managers were groomed, only 10% of what is there today.

Up to 10 years ago there were practically no hotel & catering management schools in China as such. Chinese hoteliers started to go overseas to study hotel management about 15 years ago. However the drop out rate of these graduates who do not continue their career in hospitality after graduation is worrying. The graduates of today, who are the managers of the future may deliver only 5-10% of hospitality management graduates today, still working in the industry 20 years from now.

Offering more salary, and offering a higher position is also something that would work out fine in mature markets. In a competitive market pricing is key, a hotel has to offer a salary that is market conform and in China today the market rate for salaries are not determined by regional levels of income but what nationwide is paid for the best. Hotels on Hainan Island need to compete with salaries in Shanghai, Beijing. They may attract staff from less prosperous regions, but will loose them to the higher paying regions.

Secondary cities need not pay the salaries paid in Shanghai and Beijing, but whether you are Shenyang, Chongqing, Jinan or Tianjin, the past 5-10 years salaries locally are no longer competitive when you need to attract managers from all over the country. Title inflation became rampant in China, attracting management with higher titles they had to wait for a few more years in a normal situation. But higher title and higher salary can only keep those fresh recruits only as long as nobody outdoes you. It's an outright war with ever new tactics.

The more visionary hotel companies have already understood that many other benefits like modern and good staff facilities such as dormitories, staff canteens, and secondary benefits are the new tactics in this war. But when one hotel sets a new trend, the copy-cats will follow soon. The simple promise of promotion or transfer is a carrot everybody is dangling.

Good and intelligent staff recruitment goes from top to bottom. When management is unstable, unqualified, or has high turnover, rank and file will walk too. When rank & file is just fresh out of school, untrained, and keen to leave when better opportunities arise, managers may soon walk too, feeling that they can not achieve the objectives set when they have no staff.

The urgency to fill crucial positions, especially at pre-opening projects may often lead to poor recruitment, which leads to high turnover, which leads to poor reputation as an employer. Sitting on prospective candidates for a position too long and not keeping them in loop of the process, delayed interviews etc. may make a hotel loose the best available talents to other hotels who were simply faster or a bit further in the recruitment process.

Recruiting management and rank & file for new hotel openings can sometimes be hit & miss. Joining an existing hotel with a track record of business volume and where managers moved on thereafter is much more attractive for hoteliers than joining a hotel that isn't open yet.

A hotel's reputation as a good employer or where people come and go is as crucial for attracting talents and keeping them as is your guest satisfaction index and Tripadvisor rating are for attracting guests and keeping them.

About the Author:
René J.M. Schillings, a Dutch National, is the owner, founder and 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 2 offices in 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.

Company website: www.tophoteliers.com
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