Hoteliers recognize back-of-house spaces for employees have historically looked and felt institutionalized. Given today’s tighter labor markets, they realize that upgrading those spaces can help with employee retention.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel owners and brands are investing more resources and dollars into making the back-of-house spaces for employees as good as the front-of-house spaces are.
Matt Woodruff, SVP, guest excellence and chief brand partner officer at Hospitality Ventures Management Group, said the current workforce is not going to feel comfortable or feel a sense of belonging in an outdated break room.
Historically, employee spaces would have white walls, old tables and leftover banquet chairs that no longer fit the bill for guest-facing spaces, Woodruff said, which isn’t conducive to a forward-thinking strategy.
That’s why HVMG along with brands such as Marriott International and Hilton are working to improve their employees’ sense of purpose on and off the clock.
Changes in looks, language
Late last summer Marriott reached out to Chicago-based architecture and design firm Zimmerman Weintraub Associates, asking the firm if they could help revamp back-of-house spaces at properties under the Courtyard by Marriott brand and create a better experience for associates.
ZWA’s Tim Freeman, hospitality studio lead and senior designer, and Dan Hennessy, head of corporate strategy and growth initiatives, created two design scheme packages for Marriott’s Courtyard brand, which owners could choose from based on their budgets.
Hennessy said it’s no longer good enough to have an old and ugly break room and he recognizes the trend of creating uniqueness and a sense of place through design.
He said that if hoteliers want to retain their employees, it's important to create spaces for them that impart a residential feel that promotes relaxation.
"We're definitely moving away from the focus on just utilitarian spaces to a space that is actually going to be attractive and (that) people want to be in," he said.
“(It’s) obviously something the brand is going to drive but it still has to be sold to the owner … we’re providing enough flexibility that they can have choices and options, but ultimately it’s going to be things that are within a known set of parameters,” he said.One of the packages the firm created for Courtyard has a modern scheme and the other is a more rustic design, Freeman said. Providing a couple of options is attractive to owners, he said, instead of creating a custom package for each property, which isn’t cost-effective.
Hennessy said during the ideation phase with Marriott, one of the core considerations that kept coming up was making sure the firm created something that associates would be proud to call their space, which would increase happiness, he said.
However, the spaces needed to be easy to maintain, he added, and functional. One way to do so is through modular components like easily movable furniture. Freeman said manufacturers are also starting to create products that are more durable for back-of-house spaces but are just as attractive as products in the guest-facing areas.
Freeman said vinyl flooring in the back of house is ideal because the material can easily be cleaned. And the vinyl today doesn’t look like the vinyl that was made 10 years ago. Instead, it looks and feels like a natural wood flooring.
Hilton is also taking strides in improving employee spaces. Not only is it about enhancing the furniture, fixtures and other equipment, but it’s also about creating a shift in dialogue, such as calling the spaces “heart of house” instead of back of house, said Gareth Fox, VP, human resources, Americas, at Hilton.
“Our goal is very, very simple. Our goal is everyone deserves a great environment to work in,” he said. “We’re a strong advocate of if your employees feel engaged, they feel they’re working in an inspiring environment, then that translates to a (positive) customer experience.”
He said if it’s not good enough for the guest, it’s not good enough for the team member either. And generally, at most hotels across most companies, he said there’s a real opportunity to upgrade the spaces.
“One of the reasons why I think we have a lot of inconsistency, is hotels traditionally … spend a lot of time designing the front of house for the customer experience, but probably don’t put a lot of thought into the team member back-of-house areas,” he said.
Fox said Hilton sat down with an architecture, design and construction team to build out some design standards for conversions and future builds.
Hilton has a lot of hotels converting and joining from other companies, he said, that will take a property-improvement plan straight from the early stages of the takeover.
He said the brand is moving away from employee cafeterias and the goal is to give team members a restaurant experience. Hilton also is implementing signage with positive messages in the corridors, a digital communication system instead of traditional notice boards, Wi-Fi for team members, music in the heart of house as well as offering education on health and nutrition.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
In addition, Fox said Hilton is putting an emphasis on creating flexibility with associates choosing their wardrobes.
“It’s not just the chairs, the walls and the ceilings, it’s also what do we give them to wear, what are their uniforms like … we’ve shifted from uniforms to wardrobes,” he said. “We’ve embraced a methodology of engaging our team members in selecting their own (wardrobes).”
He likened much to what the airlines are doing, giving the cabin crew and attendants uniforms that are slightly different but within the same family.
He said Hilton also recognizes that different jobs have different levels of physical demand, which might require a more sturdy uniform. Roles like housekeepers and engineers that are physically fixing things throughout the hotel will need fabric that wicks moisture as well as pants with flexible waists and padded knees.
This initiative has been rolling out in the Americas over the past five months and will roll out in Europe, the Middle East and Africa early next year, he said. In the Hilton-managed hotels, these standards have been mandated, he said, and the company is encouraging franchised hotels to implement them as well.
Fox said the average cost of a renovation would be less than $5,000 for focused-service hotels, while renovations in full-service, flagship properties have cost all the way up to $500,000 to $1 million.
“Having a fantastic team member environment goes a long way in engaging our team members … retaining them and engaging them,” he said. “I think that’s really core to us reducing our turnover.”
New-build versus existing properties
Woodruff said it’s much easier to implement improved back-of-house spaces for new-builds. HVMG is doing this with the Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Augustine Beach Oceanfront Resort.
However, that doesn’t mean an existing property can’t shift away from the utilitarian look with a few simple, low-cost steps.
“You can liven it up, make it feel better. You can do that through paint … through replacing the seating … and a lot of it can just be done through décor,” he said.
For properties that might not have a lot of space to add fun recreational elements like ping pong tables in the break rooms, he suggests looking to location for inspiration.
Since the St. Augustine property HVMG is developing will be beach front, the hotel will offer surfboards for employees to use during their free time to help unwind, Woodruff said.
Defining the ROI
Owners have to understand that the return on investment for improving employee spaces is not black and white.
“You’re going to have to put those subjective elements into ROI. I do absolutely think that with the Generation Y to Generation Z workforce becoming more prominent … that these experiences are going to have to be different than maybe what happened in the past,” he said.
He added that it’s not so much about looking at the exact dollar amounts.
Fox said the key for Hilton when it comes to ROI, more than anything else, is creating pride for team members and an environment where employees can be engaged.
“We certainly benchmark ourselves on the external marketplace for great places to work,” he said.