Isle hotels struggle to sustain workforce
The visitor industry wants to keep quality workers as it faces decreased revenues
When the Hawaii Tourism Authority commissioned a workforce development plan, the state's lead visitor industry was in the throes of a severe labor shortage of skilled, service-oriented workers.
Times have changed. Now, the more critical issue for most visitor industry employers is how to preserve jobs for workers in the wake of visitor pullbacks and decreased revenues.
The state's lead visitor industry saw a 7.6 percent drop in April as the impacts from the recent demise of ATA and Aloha Airlines, the departure of a second cruise ship, surging oil prices and a tumbling economy kept mounting. In the interim, tourism officials and executives say they have been forced to make tough short-term decisions to stem the losses.
Marriott Resorts Hawaii has a 60-day hiring freeze in place, Starwood Hotels & Resorts has had a hiring freeze on managers since April 1 and earlier this year Hilton closed some of its food and beverage venues and adjusted hours at others.
"Everyone wants to stay focused on long-term issues like how to prepare for emerging markets like China, Korea, Taiwan," said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels in Hawaii and French Polynesia. "If these markets grow, we'll have to be prepared, but it's not going to be a major issue in the next 12 to 18 months. Right now, we have to look at what areas we can scale back."
Yet some things never change. Finding, training and keeping talented people who can cater to the needs of Hawaii's visitors will continue to be the biggest challenge the visitor industry will face in the next decade, said Walter Jamieson, the dean of the School of Travel Industry Management for the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"Despite the current conditions, we cannot lose sight of the need for a quality workforce for Hawaii's success as a destination," Jamieson said yesterday during a presentation to the Pacific Asia Travel Association. "I don't want to see the industry stop working on human resources or quit hiring at a time when we could be growing and training our workforce in preparation for improvement in the next 18 to 24 months."
Right now, Hawaii's visitor industry is struggling to find a balance between operating in a down market and the need to push hiring and training programs to prepare for the needs of emerging markets.
To maintain its competitive edge, Hawaii must continue to hire and train more workers to handle emerging market visitors; however, most properties are focused on survival, Vieira said.
"We won't be here in the future if we don't try to maximize our revenues," Vieira said. "I don't think that you'll see mass layoffs in our industry, but we are already starting to see hotels cut restaurant hours, close wings and invoke other contingency measures."
Still, if Hawaii's visitor industry is to come out of its current tailspin, it will need a trained workforce in place, said Ed Hubennette, vice president of North Asia, Hawaii and South for Marriott Resorts Hawaii.
"Even though today, it may seem that sourcing labor is not important, we are still growing in Hawaii and we are still adding additional products that need workers," Hubennette said. "We are watching the workforce age and we need more people in sales and management."