Tackling turnover: Hospitality sector confronts an old problem the pandemic made worse

By: - August 15, 2022 5:30 am

The hospitality sector employee turnover rate in 2021 was 85%. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)

The COVID-19 pandemic threw cold water on Nevada’s longtime hospitality industry turnover issue from Lake Tahoe to Lake Las Vegas, forcing the entire state’s industry to reexamine the quality of its human resources departments, personnel recruiting and onboarding strategies, and high personnel turnover rate.

High turnover traditionally has been viewed as a necessary evil within the state’s hospitality industry, but the pandemic has made strategists and executives alike rethink their expectations of recruiting, retaining and managing personnel. 

“Learning and development roles are finally coming back,” said Las Vegas-based Kline Hospitality Consulting CEO Michele Kline, who hosts a podcast focused on hospitality training using real-life stories. “As organizations see how much of a revolving door there is now, learning and development becomes a key play so new hires are ready to take on their roles successfully.” 

Tackling turnover

“The pandemic did not just change businesses, it also changed workers,” said SW HR Consulting CEO Shermara Walker, also based in Las Vegas. “Turnover rates in the hospitality industry are staggering and these rates continue to climb, and the COVID-19 pandemic has played a huge role in this.”

Walker cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a staggering 130% turnover rate for the hospitality industry in 2020. The turnover rate measures total annual separations between employees and hospitality venues across the country. 

“This number is extremely high, but even before the pandemic, the rate was 79%,” said Walker. “With this issue of high employee turnover, there will be more burnout within employees, lack of coordination, frustration and working long hours without enough compensation.” 

The 2021 hospitality turnover rate climbed even higher to its pre-pandemic level to 85%, continuing the ongoing trend as newly identified pandemic turnover solutions like more efficient recruitment and retention have yet to take hold throughout the industry. To tackle the turnover issue, the state’s hospitality industry is now focusing on effective recruiting for the impending post-pandemic era. 

“One of the most exciting changes that the pandemic has brought to the recruiting process is the immersive expansion of the talent pool,” Walker said. “Thanks to telecommuting, so many businesses have transitioned internal positions to include remote or hybrid environments. Nowadays, the whole world is your talent pool.”

Relying on recruitment

Remote positions have helped tackle some of the turnover problems for Nevada’s hospitality industry, but for those vast majority of positions that require in-person attendance and a base in the Silver State, personnel recruitment is now receiving more attention than ever. 

“As a process improvement expert, I see that the inefficiencies in the recruiting process are now more exposed than they ever have been,” Kline said. “Candidates who apply for a job are not wanting to hear back [from a single employer] any longer, they jump on the first opportunity that knocks on their door. Making sure the process is flawless and that your brand stands out is the secret sauce.”

Personnel recruitment in the new pandemic world has been a long arduous journey back, one that Nevada Resorts Association President Virginia Valentine says is hitting its summit. 

“For the past two years, Nevada’s resort industry has been tireless in its work to bring back employees and recruit top talent to fill open positions,” Valentine said. “The recent resumption of international travel and a normalization of the tradeshow and convention business will drive business volumes during the midweek period, creating more job opportunities that move the industry closer to pre-pandemic employment leads.”

This increase leads to the more intense focus on retention from all sectors within the hospitality industry. 

Rethinking retention

After successfully recruiting a new employee, more attention is being paid to the onboarding process for that new employee than ever before. 

“The way you bring people on board goes a long way toward keeping employees engaged and effective in your organization,” Walker said. “This is true in any industry, but in the hospitality industry, with its notoriously high turnover rate, it is even more vital.” 

Walker says the days of anonymous hires in the hospitality industry should be over. New hires, regardless of position, title or location, should be shared well in advance with close co-workers. If that cannot occur, that puts even more emphasis on the orientation and training session on the first day, with an introduction by name to relevant team members. 

“There is now a shift from a focus on employee experience, to employee life experience,” Walker said. “It has brought more radical flexibility and more emphasis on when employees do their work, and how much of it they do, not where people work.” 

Both Kline and Walker agree that effective employee retention begins with a reset of corporate culture and often traditional tactics are now outdated and ineffective.

“The employee appreciation party is one popular retention strategy I believe is a thing of the past,” Kline said. “Team members want to feel part of the bigger picture. 2020 allowed people to stop and think, now they see value in understanding that they have a purpose in the overall objective of the organization and see the value in understanding the role they play in it.”

How hospitality HR has changed forever

Human resources and personnel management has changed across the entire hospitality industry, not just Nevada. 

“I believe what mainly has changed forever in the hospitality industry is the timing to turnaround a candidate’s journey, keeping the candidate warm and engaged throughout that process,” Kline said.  “Also the new emphasis needs to be on training, we must invest in developing our people. Not only the candidates who come in from other industries or organizations, but also the hiring managers, the recruiters and human resource personnel.” 

According to Walker, Nevada’s new trends in hospitality human resources center around training programs for new employees, management and sales. Combined with new and refreshed mentoring programs and innovative ways to measure performance results, the state’s hospitality industry finally has a blueprint to tackle the long-time turnover issues, Walker said. 

Working life before COVID-19 feels like a distant memory, so much has changed and so much water has flowed under the bridge,” Walker said. “Employee expectations have evolved beyond pay, benefits, and perks — a sense of shared identity, interactions, and a fulfilling employee experience are crucial for a successful post-pandemic business.”

The Culinary Workers Union got the Nevada Legislature to pass a “Right to Return” law which gave certain laid-off workers the right to be offered back their former or similar jobs, as those positions become available. The law went into effect July 1, 2021. At that time, according to the Culinary, about half the union’s 60,000 members had returned to work. By January 2022, that number was up to 40,000, and the union declared the law a success.

Culinary officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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Rodric J. Hurdle-Bradford
Rodric J. Hurdle-Bradford

Rodric J. Hurdle-Bradford is a freelance business writer who has covered the resort and hospitality industries for over a dozen regional and national media outlets.