The war behind a welcoming smile

Careers Competition for jobs in the hospitality industry is fierce as employees, who can pick and choose applicants, are looking for that little bit extra.

Janice Loria takes students at the Gulf Travel Training Centre in Abu Dhabi through a lesson. Hospitality industries have been hard hit in the financial crisis, turning the search for work into "war", according to a hotel executive.
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Looking to hire two senior managers in his three mid-range hotels in Dubai, Habib Khan, the chief executive of Planet Group, placed a free advertisement on a hospitality website. Almost instantly his inbox was flooded with résumés from all over the world. "I would say per day I would get an average of 50 applications from places like the UK, Turkey, the US, France - and all over, really." The global economic slowdown is hitting hotels in the West hard, driving down occupancy levels and forcing managers to cut staff. Middle-Eastern hoteliers, however, are still hiring.

"Right now I no longer need to hire a recruitment company to headhunt people for me. All I need to do now is sit back and post a free ad online," Mr Khan says. Having the upper hand in the situation, hotels are now in a better position to select candidates and it becomes essential for people seeking positions to also have advantages over their rivals. "The market is a lot more competitive for job seekers now because they have to compete with talent from Europe, Asia and the US," says Paul Diab, the director of operations in the MENA region for Golden Tulip Hotels & Resorts. "There are less jobs and more people fighting for them, so it's really a war."

Hotels can take advantage of the situation and offer less attractive employment packages than before. "The tables have now turned as more people are now desperate for jobs and they are ready to accept the first offer we give them," Mr Diab says. "This works perfectly with our strategy because we are trying to cut down costs." For those seeking jobs in hospitality management, Joe Sita, the chief executive of Nakheel Hotels, advises having a background in finance or business.

"Being a former accountant is one of the main aspects that really helped boost my career." Even winning lower-ranking positions, such as bell boys and cleaning staff, is more difficult. Training for such manual jobs is easier and takes less time than for staff who have more direct contact with guests, executives say. "It takes about a week to train a cleaning staff member and around three months to train someone who would work at the reception desk," says Simon Cooper, the president and chief operating officer of the The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. "That is why hotels are known to give among the lowest salaries compared with any other industry because, at the end of the day, we employ a lot of limited-skill labour."

Hani Khorsheed, the secretary general of the Abu Dhabi Travel and Tourism Agencies Committee, says applicants should invest in themselves to better their chances of landing a job. "The people that come to our centre here to take courses on how to become a travel agent or work as an operator or sales officer at a hotel get calls from hotels and tour guides even before they complete the course," he says. "That is how training really counts and if hotels and tour operators are now less willing to pay for this cost, then it is up the person to invest in him or herself."

The committee is providing International Air Transport Association courses that take three months and cost Dh7,000, (US$1,900). These teach students everything from how to book a hotel room and airline ticket to how to interact with customers. Other courses offered include marketing and customer service, which each last for a month and cost Dh3,000. Still, there are no guarantees of employment. Some hotels are looking at ways to cut staff numbers, such as running limited-service properties.

Nakheel Hotels plans to open its first budget hotel in September under the Easy Hotel brand. "All I need to do is employ five or six full-time staff and the rest of the staff, which would handle things like cleaning, will be outsourced," says Mr Sita. This way, even during periods with low occupancy rates, the hotel could control expenses. "So given the current conditions you have one of two options: either to take a part-time position or really start to invest by taking training courses so you would have added value when applying."