Recruitment for Remote Hotel & Resort Locations in China.
By Rene J.M. Schillings
Wednesday, 8th June 2011
Finding qualified staff is a challenge for most hospitality companies and with many of the global hotel companies setting aggressive growth plans, this challenge will only get worse, especially for more remote locations in China.

An Q&A session with Rene J.M. Schillings, Managing Director of TOP Hoteliers Hospitality Executive Search.

1/ Is there currently a problem recruiting people to more remote Chinese destinations such as Hainan island or Lhasa?

RS: Yes there is certainly a problem. The problem has always been there, finding qualified staff for more remote location.

Traditionally a lot of remote resort locations in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean such as The Maldives could pool from immigrant workers.

In China there is a limitation on expatriates or foreigners hotels are willing to employ so the staff has to be pooled from a large country that has nevertheless plenty of employment opportunities, even shortages in the main cities. Due to the size of China there is of course an abundance of regions that are still ‘virgin' territory for tourism development, and this is where in the coming decade the opportunities will be.

The staffing of these mostly resort locations is often an after-thought. The project itself is conceived with due diligence on the potential to build a stunning resort, non-presence of any competitors yet, to the potential of the location to attract visitors, who may come for short stays but not considering the staff who has to be there permanently.

As long as there are plenty of job opportunities in the main cities or main urban regions like Guangdong and the East Coast of China, those remoter locations will always be competing for the best staff to come, and to stay

2/ How does the hotel and catering industry typically try to attract people to its more out of the way destinations – financial incentives? Training?

RS: There is a variety of ad-hoc measures. I shall outline the most common, but also mention why they may also fail.

Financial incentive: The term ‘local expatriate' is already a known term and in use for almost 2 decades in China whereby national citizens are given an ‘expatriate' status for moving within their own country, but outside their original region.

Local expatriates enjoy salaries that are higher than the local staff and often higher than they would earn back home, plus added benefits such as regular home leave, special benefits such as meals and (senior staff) accommodation and sometimes the ability to relocate family.

However with currently the whole country going through fast development, the term local expatriate status hardly applies any more. Originally this was applied for residents of the main cities like Beijing & Shanghai to go to any secondary cities.

Today the secondary cities already see their ‘locals' move to other secondary cities. The higher salaries for these local expatriates or call them today ‘nationally mobile hoteliers' working in any city in China, has driven up the salaries for the local staff as well.

Promotion of rank: This has perhaps been very common in hospitality worldwide where management was groomed for future positions by ‘sending them out'. So an Asst. Department Head would get his opportunity to become Department Head at another hotel and that would naturally be a more challenging location.

A first posting as General Manager also usually would be to a remoter location or ‘less important property'. Thinking in lines of succession planning, elevator programs, grooming one's own pool of talent that is all as by the book. Where it breaks however is that the pool of potentials, ready to make that first move is really small if you have 1 hotel in Beijing and then plan to open 10 more in the country. 

And whereas young ambitious managers are willing to do a few ‘bush' years in remote locations, their ultimate aim is to come back to the main/home city, preferably with the same company, in the newly acquired level. When such opportunity does not exist, they easily join another hotel company, in their original city.

Clustering of positions: We see that a few companies who have a few scattered locations quite easily fill a position at 2-3 locations by bestowing the title of "Area Director/Manager".

Whilst this looks very nice on a resume, and gives the employee a certain feeling of having made it to corporate level beyond 1 property, in reality they are doing 3-4 jobs by 1 person; still spend most of their time trying to manage 1 remote locations with added burden to handle the others. The salary and responsibilities seldom reflect the "Area/Regional title.

So it is rather an empty title, only given because it is so hard to find 3-4 qualified people for each property that hotels are happy they can find at least 1, and let this person be in charge of all

Carrot on a stick: Many an hotelier is promised a better location or future promotion for going a few years to a hardship location. This is a common way internationally to make a career.

The difficulty is often that the employee gives himself far less time in that location than the employer. Whereas the employee starts thinking and asking about the next (better) location as soon as the 12 months are done, the employer often at odds to find a next person for the location will try to stretch the commitment to the location.

When this is stretched too far and too long, the employee is very likely to accept the offer of another company that can offer them a more desirable location/ promotion at once.

Ability to travel frequently out of the location: Even at General Manager level there are a few examples where in reward for sitting at a less likely location that still requires a very qualified manager, an additional role as ‘Regional' is given as a reward.

This would at least give such senior hotelier the need and opportunity to frequently travel out of the remote location on ‘official' business. Whereas this gives the opportunity to broaden the horizon and makes the feeling of being stuck in a remote location less hard, one would of course ask how to balance the presence and time required at the location and the other ‘Regional' role. One way or the other it has to give in somewhere. A manager can only give his full attention to 1 issue at a time.

Training does not seem to be part of the incentive. Perhaps one could say that hoteliers working in the remote regions are often shut of from certain training programs or the ability to attend such, or see less frequent visits from head office people, corporate trainers, and have less other hotels around them to see what's going on in the industry.

Remote does mean in certain ways being shut of from development and also sometimes the feeling is that ‘out-of-sight is out-of-heart' that those who are not in the flagship properties aren't noticed by the decision makers are passed over for promotion.

Some resorts have done their outmost best to offer state of the art accommodation facilities, and spend a lot of effort to monitor the well-being of their staff by giving them enough activities, facilities for entertainment. This is a positive development which is then slowly also adopted in less remote regions.
3/ Is it more difficult to recruit or retain staff to these locations?  I think this is rather obvious following the rest of the text. You wouldn't expect an answer to be:  "No, not at all". I would rather rephrase this question as:  How do you recruit staff to these locations and make sure they do not leave as soon as they have a better opportunity?

RS:  As a recruiting agency we first make sure that our client also recognizes the difficulty. A lot of our clients are so convinced that their brand, their stunning project and the future opportunities the company holds are enough to attract the top talents.

Without telling our clients that they probably are at the loosing end of the War for Talent, and probably will have to lower their expectations of criteria we try to identify at the same time what makes a job in a remote region attractive or make sense for a future  employee.

TOP Hoteliers being the first registered agency in the PRC, we actually do visit a lot of these locations. Part of the ability to ‘sell' a location comes from actually having visited there and understand how remote, remote is. We do look at details such as the availability of flights in & out, the level of development of a location, what else is there besides the resort, even if a city has a decent supermarket, clean air, the distance to the nearest town etc. etc. 

When talking to potential candidates for such location, one has to look a bit further than just the resume and the functional ability to do the job. Enquiring about family status, if such person has ever worked at a location from family before and simply if somebody is the type to work at a tranquil resort, versus a hip & happening urban city hotel.  It would be unwise to send a young man who still loves the Friday night disco to such location, as it would be to send somebody who just got married and started a family.

If somebody already has worked at such remoter locations than this is a good indication they know what they are going into. Some hoteliers actually love those remote regions.  We certainly visit such locations also to ask hoteliers how they are doing and if they are happy there. Whereas many would admit to us that if there is a job offer elsewhere they would go immediately,  we do register those who say ‘I quite like it here'.

Some areas like Lijiang and Sanya have become considered less remote over the past 5 years, as more hotels open, more expats and local expats arrive and a number of them actually quite liking it decide to make this a more longer engagement.

4/ Do many hotels have a policy in place to attract staff to out of the way places, or do they just recruit in the same way as any property?

RS: I can not observe any official policy, rather an ad-hoc or learn-as-you-go approach. Typically such locations starts off with the assumption that based on their brand and the opportunity alone they can attract the right people, but learning by mistake and seeing that it either takes a long time to find the right people, have a lot of potential candidates eventually turn down the job, or high turnover they gradually resort to some of the tactics as mentioned in Question 2.

As we already have been recruiting for such remote locations in the past, and are familiar with the locations and their challenges prior to a new hotel opening there/a new GM requesting our assistance we try to use our experience to cut straight to the tested ways, rather than letting a resort go through their own trial-and-error period.

5/ Which positions are particularly difficult to fill in remote locations, e.g. finance/marketing

RS: Any position for which there is already a shortage in the main locations will be even more difficult to fill in a remote area. Naturally every hotel company is looking for the best, the brightest.

When it comes to front of house staff, hotels want those who have a natural ability to communicate with guests, good English, sparkling personality, and on management level those who have been exposed to the latest trends in hospitality, educated, well-trained, and able to work independently.

In general it has been proven that when these remote locations hire expatriates versus locals there is a higher certainty that an expatriate will serve his contract, especially those for who job opportunities in the main cities have become less due to a drive to localize these positions as much as possible. 

Also ‘elder' hoteliers, no longer at the prime of their career or seeking the next move up, are often proven to be more stable. They have less desire to make a move and they are also less likely to get pinched by other hotels as they are less in demand. 

There is already a shortage in China overall for experienced and qualified local Chinese hoteliers. They are there, but they are too few for every hotel, every department, every location. Although TOP Hoteliers encourages localization for the future growth of the industry in China, for some positions in remote areas we actually recommend the hire of expatriates for the sake of stability and to allow sufficient time to develop local talents in 3-5 years after opening.

6/ Are there any destinations in China that are particularly difficult to attract staff to, and how do you account for this?

RS: Remoteness is a subjective term. Is a hotel in Shatin or Gold Coast in Hong Kong ‘remote' ? Is an airport hotel remote? Even within the city limits of major cities in China we can find hotels and resorts at locations like the Great Wall near Beijing or the Summer Palace and the many satellites around Shanghai like Sheshan and Kunshan.

Even though they are within less than 2 hours travel of a major city, they find it challenging to compete for employees with the hotels in the core city. In general we can observe that Northern China (any city North of Beijing) is less popular among Southerners. Whereas Northerners are more than willing to move to the South of China for employment, the reverse is not the case.

North-Eastern China, especially Xinjiang & Mongolia but also Tibet are still largely seen as underdeveloped regions where only 1-2 generations ago cadres were ‘banned' or ‘assigned' against their will in a command economy.

Even today with real and potential opportunities in these far-flown areas of the People's Republic they still have a stigma of places of ‘exile'.  We would consider a resort location really remote if it is more than 1 hour travel time away from a secondary city.

Questions by Asian Hotel & Catering Times andpart of this interview has appeared in the April issue.

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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