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Labor is a top challenge as hotels get up to speed

Food and beverage managers have to balance staffing with uncertain occupancy rates.
Photo courtesy of Hilton Garden Inn

Hotel occupancy rates are still way below average in most of the world, and while properties are slowly bringing back employees, few are fully staffed up. That makes it particularly difficult for hotel food and beverage managers to figure out meal service and meet guests’ expectations. The challenge becomes all the greater when you add in the extra sanitizing and safety responsibilities of the foodservice team.

“Most of our staff is still furloughed,” says Martin Mesa, director of Food and Beverage at Hilton Garden Inn in West Palm Beach, Fla. The brand is in the mid-priced range but offers full food and beverage service with its seated bar, chef-run restaurant and room service.

At the start of the lockdown, room occupancy was about 10%, filled by members of the Houston Astros spring training team that couldn’t return to their home countries. At that point, Mesa was doing all grab-and-go cold foods, but once occupancy passed 15%, he added a hot item. At the end of June, rooms were filled at 35% capacity and the restaurant reopened for breakfast, with everything served in disposables, says Mesa. A la carte dinner service may start up at 40% occupancy, he adds.

But with the uncertainty of coronavirus and future travel, staffing is lagging a bit behind service. “Labor and sanitization are our major concerns, and everyone is taking on more responsibilities,” says Mesa. Each employee who has returned is working more hours as well, and cross-training is developing as a solution until things get up to speed. “We’re cross-training the front desk employees to clean tables and deliver room service, and cooks are washing utensils,” says Mesa.

He has also built streamlined menus that are simpler to prep, serve and clean up after to ease labor. The focus is on salads, sandwiches and three or four appetizers instead of the previous 10 to 12. And room service is in transition, trending more toward in-room delivery in disposables rather than plated dishes on trays.

Occupancy rates have to go up to 50% to 60% to cover labor costs, says Mesa. With the coronavirus crisis ongoing, “the only thing that managers can manage now is labor,” he says. 

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