We speak to tourism industry expert Altaf Sovani on what millennials really want and why they’re abandoning jobs

Altaf Sovani
Altaf Sovani, author of Labor Shortages Crisis in Hospitality, Tourism & Event Industry: Finding Innovative Solutions for Recruitment and Retention of Millennials. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Attracting and retaining millennials is crucial to solving the ongoing labour crisis that’s left hotels, restaurants and other similar businesses struggling to find sufficient staff to run their operations, says Altaf Sovani, author of a new book, Labor Shortages Crisis in Hospitality, Tourism & Event Industry.

There’s a catch, though. Businesses and leaders may have to adjust their needs if they want this increasingly powerful demographic of workers to stick around.

During COVID, many workers who either lost their jobs or had their full-time hours slashed have gone on to other industries that are more stable or better paying. But, even before the pandemic came along, the hospitality sector was facing a pervasive shortage of workers. “It’s just that it’s gotten even worse,” said Sovani in an interview with OBJ.

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And so have the customers. “Customer expectations have not changed from pre-pandemic levels. In fact, many have become more demanding.”

In his new book, Sovani has come up with solutions for hospitality leaders eager to recruit, retain and motivate millennials, or those who currently fall between the ages of 26 and 41. They’re an educated, informed and tech-savvy group expected to represent 75 per cent of the global workforce by 2025. 

While COVID has been a factor behind millennials quitting their jobs, job satisfaction remains essential to their retention in the hospitality industry, Sovani found.

His book identifies and explores eight key reasons why millennials are abandoning their jobs in hospitality and tourism. They are: an inconsistent application of organizational policies by supervisors; a culture that favours seniority over merit; a lack of opportunities for advancement; excessive focus on the aging baby boomer culture; insufficient training and development; poor compensation and benefits; and a greater desire for work-life balance. 

“People don’t leave restaurants or hotels; they leave bad managers,” said Sovani, who’s of the view that good managers don’t manage people, they manage things. “With this generation, you need to lead them, you need to support them, you need to motivate them.”

Sovani, who has more than 40 years of experience in the hospitality, tourism and event industry, runs his own consulting firm, Alzen Consulting. He worked for 27 years at Algonquin College, most recently as academic chair for its School of Hospitality and Tourism. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he was heavily involved in hotels and restaurants (he owned The Brokerage, which was the first restaurant in the Rideau Centre to offer cappuccinos).

Sovani sees innovation as helping to shape the future of the hospitality industry, which is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy. Booking engines, mobile apps, digital concierge services, keyless entry systems, and automated check-in and check-out processes are all examples of innovation and technology that are helping to make the industry run more efficiently. “But, you still need the human element,” he added.

Sovani based his research on thousands of informal conversations with millennials who chose to or aspired to join the hospitality industry. He also conducted dozens of formal face-to-face interviews with millennials as part of his doctoral research, in partnership with California Southern University. 

“Millennials want baby boomers to respect them, to listen to them and to understand them because they want a sense of belonging and value in the organization,” said Sovani.

What millennials are looking for, he said, is more flexibility in their work, to be valued and to be supported in their career progression. They don’t want to feel like they’re stuck in the past or being managed by their mom or dad.

He also found that millennials do remain loyal to their employer if presented with opportunities to advance. They’re looking for purpose, he said. They also want to work for an employer that demonstrates things like corporate social responsibility, empathy to climate change and progressive work policies, he learned.

A major sticking point remains the low wages and lack of proper benefits. Because more customers and clients carry credit cards now over cash, it’s more challenging for hospitality workers who traditionally relied on tips to complement their low pay. 

Of the millennials interviewed by Sovani, 63 per cent expressed concerns that their wages weren’t enough to meet basic needs. Some mentioned that they had moved back in with their parents because the cost of living was so high. 

Sovani argued that, in order to attract people back to an industry from which they’ve chosen to walk away, employers must offer the full package, including training opportunities, workplace well-being, flexibility and opportunities for growth.

He lists Stephen Beckta as a shining example of an industry leader who put his staff first during the pandemic. Beckta, who owns flagship restaurant Beckta dining & wine and its sister restaurants, Play and Gezellig, launched a successful fine dining meal kit service, called Curated by Beckta. It helped to keep his staff employed when dining rooms were temporarily shut down, said Sovani.

Sovani contrasts Beckta’s “human connection” approach with other operators who furloughed staff without bothering to check up on them until a year or so later, when they needed them back at work. “How you communicate with and care about your employees matters,” Sovani said. 

Sovani also acknowledges in his book that a revival of the sector must involve a coming together of industry, associations, academia, and government to address such relevant areas as immigration, as well as technology and innovation, and to ensure students are ready to hit the job market upon graduation.

Sovani, who’s a baby boomer, applauded the millennial generation for continuing to strive for purpose and flexibility. He acknowledged that, had he done the same, he may have spent more time with his two daughters when they were growing up, or focusing on self care. It would not likely have come at the expense of his career, he opined. “I don’t believe so, because I loved my work and I would have been more productive in less time.

“I am glad that this generation is pushing for balance and I am hopeful that our industry will meet their demands.”

For more information on Labor Shortages Crisis in Hospitality, Tourism & Event Industry go to www.endlaborcrisis.com.  

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