Recruitment is Taken Serious in China.
By René J.M. Schillings
Sunday, 23rd October 2011
The fine art of recruiting the best available talents seems finally to be taken more serious in China, not in the least by employers in the hotel & hospitality sector.

Gone are the days that conventional recruitment methods were sufficient, and China breaks with a lot of worldwide conventions on how and who to recruit in many surprising ways.

In the past, and we refer to a period only a decade and a half ago, the late 1990's when the first international and local domestic commercial hotel companies emerged in China, recruiting suitable management for hotels could largely rely on 2 sources; For the Executive Management positions expatriates were brought in to China, via company transfers, by sending experienced hotel managers on a ‘next assignment' that happened to be in China this time.

The use of recruitment firms was also common in that era to attract new recruits, as China was still a great unknown, considered by most as a hardship posting, and not an obvious location for most of the existing management within companies. In the early 1990's it was very common for international recruitment firms from London, Australia and New York to look around at the best hotels in the UK, Europe, North America and Australia and see who was willing to accept an ‘exotic' posting as expatriate in Asia.

The great and famous hotels in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and all over South East Asia would bring in the ‘best' Chefs, Concierge's, Restaurant Managers, Hotel Managers and so forth straight from ‘the old world' whose experience in managing fine hotels would outdo their lack of local cultural and market understanding. When China started to open up, the same method was then applied to recruiting expatriates from all over the world to work in China.

After all, the concept of being an international hotelier is that you can implement the same policies and procedures at any given location, and offer the same international customer a product and service they could find in hotels around the world. For China, back then far less developed than the rest of Asia, finding those who were already more acquainted with life abroad and dealing with other cultures, the Middle East and South East Asia were popular recruiting grounds.

When it came to hiring locals in China it was simply a matter of lining up 100's of applicants at the staff entrance and select those with decent grooming, suitable physical appearance and combined with a reasonable level of English and train them up. They would prove to be loyal staff who would stay with the same employer for years. How much China has changed today.

With so many hotels opening in China, more than anywhere else in the world, the hotels' clientele having changed from mostly international visitors to predominantly domestic, the old conventions about hiring talents for the hotel industry is however fast catching up to the reality, especially since industries and employers other than hotels & hospitality seem to have a competitive edge when it comes to local hiring.

However, the undeniable fact is that many hotel managers still like to stick to their conventional ideas about recruiting talents, in China. It may have worked for them in other countries; it may have worked for them in China in the past or in more developed cities. Through our many contacts with hoteliers in the field we continue to find some obstacles and conventional but outdated thinking when hiring managers are new to the country, or at least new to a certain region.

A country with the size of China naturally also has a great diversity when it comes to local market and geographical challenges that make it harder to find the right quality of people to join a particular hotel. Location remains one of the key factors why potential candidates are interested, or more so why they are not interested in a job opportunity. China is now getting due attention by most hotel companies, it is for many hotel companies a fast-growing region and more focus and attention is paid to the region by having China defined as a particular region, and not as part of ‘Asia Pacific'.

And in some cases due to the size of the country, the number of hotels operating or opening, even being divided up in regions, whether they be North-South or by city-clusters or sometimes 1 province or several provinces. We believe that the closer a company is to its location, i.e. a recruitment managers understanding of the region, the more affective recruitment can be.

Despite the emergence of tools that allow people to communicate better at distance, like e-mail, internet and social networks like Linkedin, nothing beats the on-the-ground knowledge presence that can match people and their abilities and where to they be applied. Having an office in Hong Kong, Singapore or even Shanghai no longer equals to ‘being in China and knowing China', not to mention the limited understanding of those Corporate Officers and Recruiting Agents who sit in ivory towers in other parts of Asia, Australia, London or somewhere in the USA. Their well-meant visits to China may just give them an obscured and somehow sanitized version of the real China.

Today everybody who has been to China twice considers himself an expert on China. Arguably every country in the world has its' specific culture and market dimension which any (foreign) company in that country would do good to learn about, respect and find a solution to operate with, however the current importance that China is taking in the world commands due diligent insights and the size of the country and it's economic and social development are so diverse that even Chinese nationals have hard times to grasp the local dimensions that are required to successfully operate in various locations.

When this is referred back again to the delicate art of recruiting human resources and hotel personnel, the human factor is often not taken into the equation and the personal touch lost.

Today, recruiting qualified staff has become a serious burden to hotel managers and has proven to be liability for hotel management companies when promises to service delivery as well as projected revenues, GOP, occupancy levels and ARR's couldn't be met. Hotel owners in China are noted to become impatient and dissatisfied with management companies who can not deliver, or live up to their promise, and that mostly refers to the experienced managers a management company is supposed to provide but often can't.

Due to fast expansion Hotel companies have no choice but to bring in first-timers to China, hire managers from other brands, and in the case of local hiring make do with ‘scavenging' from other hotels and offer a bit more salary and a higher title, in order to have the hotel properly staffed.

When it comes to rank & file hotels already rely too much sometimes on fresh graduates from the many Chinese hotel & catering schools who found a reliable source of income in delivering fresh ‘trainees' twice a year. The old saying ‘build a hotel and the customers will come' seems to be applied to staff as well, however in a country where numbers of people are not an issue, but talent is scarce and expensive, hotels, especially those in the remoter resort areas, find themselves at odds facing difficulties finding the level or quality of staff that their (conventional) hiring requirements would prescribe, and also high staff turnover when the hired talents find a new job challenging and at the same time there being so many other opportunities available.

Recruitment has thus become a serious matter, and we can see a few positive signs now that recruitment is recognized as a specialized function, not to be left as a ‘side-show' next to all the important work to do by the Hotel Manager, or his secretary.

General Managers who send around a message to fellow GM's in the group or in town asking if they can recommend any potential staff will be laughed at by those who have been around for a while. An Executive Chef depending on his own contacts, sending a mass mail to Chef Organizations, or posting a job advertisement for a Pastry Chef will be frowned upon.

An HR Director who has no means to recruit but the internet and job forums will be pitied. It's as pitiful as an F&B Director writing his own FB promotion flyers and photo-shopping the pictures found on the internet, or a chef making his own Styrofoam decorations. That was in the last century perhaps common but today the real professionals will leave this to a professional agency, or supplier. Outsourcing specialized functions is in general a cost-saving method, whereby the extra cost to a supplier is off-set by a higher quality delivery and less time-consuming attention needed by the management who can focus on core activities, Outsourcing your recruitment is of course the business TOP Hoteliers caters for.

That professional Executive Search Firms and Recruitment Agencies have a proven expertise is perhaps illustrated best in the fact that we see that more and more hotels do appoint a designated Recruitment Manager within their HR Department, but also by the fact that we have noticed a tendency for hotels to hire people directly from Recruitment Agencies and Search Firms to work on their behalf, as their direct employee.

This would equal to a hotel hiring somebody from a PR & Marketing company, to be their PR Manager, or to hire an outside IT supplier's support staff as their IT manager. Because within the existing hotel staff, the particular experience would not be available. Whether a hotel chooses to take on such external on their own payroll or continue to use a recruitment agency as external outsourced supplier is a matter of calculation, whereby actually a combination of the 2 is probably the most effective way.

What it does say is that recruitment has become a serious function, highly specialized and a core activity for a specialist and not something any hotel manager should attempt to do next to his real, daily job and expect the same qualified results.

Whereas a dedicated Recruitment Manager who is hotel based would spend 90% of his/her time looking to fill the rank & file positions, he/she may not automatically have the reach to managerial staff as these positions do not appear on their search list all the time.

A Search Firm like TOP Hoteliers has those positions in search constantly and has a wider reach to candidates available and suitable. For those dedicated Recruitment Specialists who work for 1 hotel company at (Regional) Head office there may much pressure to fill positions for too many hotels in too many diverse properties and locations that the one-on-one personal approach of a Search Firm like TOP Hoteliers, helping with one or two of the more challenging searches proves to be more resourceful, especially when it comes to matching the right people to the right location & property.

An old Chinese proverb says' The observer is clear, the participant is blurred'. An outsourced Search Firm can often determine the obstacles to attracting the right talents and suggest ways around them, especially when they are the ‘expert' doing similar jobs for similar hotels in similar locations all the time.

And for the challenge in China, due understanding of the market and the location is what sets TOP Hoteliers apart from most of its competitors. When it comes to recruiting for hotels in a wider Asia region, we are surely making the effort to explore the rest of Asia, as a further dimension to China itself, rather than China as part of Asia, or as part of the international hotelier's wider environment.

Recent visits to Tokyo, Malaysia and Thailand made us see more similarities than differences actually, in terms of the challenges hotels face recruiting local talent, attracting the right expatriates and conventional recruitment methods used by hotel companies that worked in the 1990's but fail in today's situation.

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.

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