Growing hospitality talent in Dubai

Written by
Chance Wilson
Alexander Mann Solutions

06 Jun 2018

06 Jun 2018 • by Chance Wilson

Tell us about your career

I moved from the UK to Abu Dhabi in 1999 to be a training manager in a hotel after completing a bachelor’s degree in international hospitality management. When the Fairmont in Dubai was opening (their first international hotel outside of the Americas) they approached me. I’ve now worked for the company for 16 years.

Initially, I was more interested in L&D than wider HR. It was only after transferring to North America and experiencing different hotel openings and environments, including turning around unionised properties in distress, that it began to appeal. It went from there: from being a director of HR to a regional director and executive director and then a vice president.

How has Fairmont evolved?

Just over a year ago, Fairmont, Raffles and Swissotel – three luxury hotel groups with hundreds of years of history – were acquired by AccorHotels Group. We’ve therefore been merging with a huge but agile and innovative organisation, founded by two business partners in France.

They grew the company quickly: we now have 4,500 hotels and 250,000 permanent employees globally – including 100 hotels and 20,000 employees in the Middle East. The UAE is a huge market for Accor, Egypt is important, and Saudi is growing rapidly: developing Saudi nationals is a priority and we’re investing with partners in a school in Saudi Arabia to develop local talent to support future growth.

In the coming year, we’re going to open two hotels a month in the Middle East and the following year, three hotels a month; Accor actually opens a new hotel about every other day globally. We’re amalgamating the brands, bringing best practice from across hotel types, and now have a luxury division and an eco/midscale division.

Has Dubai’s growth and innovation influenced Accor?

We’ve had to run to keep up; there’s a lot of international investment and it’s a hub for travelling elsewhere in the world, so it’s not just about the influence of EXPO 2020. Accor has hotels to suit all different types of travellers, budget and luxury, and that’s very attractive for Dubai. We also have new lifestyle brands; for example, travelling as a lifestyle rather than simply having a hotel room. This has big implications for us in HR, because different types of people should work in different kinds of environment and bring different types of service alive.

How are you addressing talent acquisition?

At corporate level, we have 34,000 jobs to fill over the next four years; one-and-a-half times the number of jobs we currently have. So we need to be more strategic at a regional level about how we find the right person for the right job, in the right place, at the right time. We have so many different brands and offerings.

We’re working on a significant talent management initiative to understand who we currently employ, their potential, our internal pipeline and how to prepare people for leadership. We have the Accor Academy: there are 18 academies globally, including in Dubai, offering learning and development (L&D) – from finance for non-finance professionals to health and safety or hygiene training.

We’re also in the process of merging, a Taleo-based system and a website we use for legacy properties, so that there’s one application process. And we have a great referral system.

What lessons have helped shaped your recruitment strategy?

Even five or six years ago, hotel companies still used to do formal recruitment trips to labour markets and bring people over to Dubai. Now there’s a huge labour market here, people come to Dubai to find a job.

There are visa restrictions, which play a role in where you can hire talent from, and we’ve started to pay attention to that, plus we’re focusing on developing our own talent. Engagement and the talent pipeline are my strategic priorities.

How is Accor pipelining?

We’ve spent time identifying our needs and I’ve brought the leadership together to roll out tools and talk about our challenge. We’ve introduced a capability framework: for each level of organisation, we’ve identified competencies and development opportunities. We have personal development plans and offer opportunities for talent to grow, develop, train and be mentored.

Are there barriers for women working in hospitality?

The Middle East as a market for women has changed drastically: lots more women are choosing to have children here. You see plenty of dual-working couples or families where it’s the woman’s career that’s grown into the Middle East. So we have to keep up with the times here and enable that.

There aren’t enough women in leadership; we need to enable women to return to work after giving birth and to make it attractive to do so. I returned to work very quickly after having twins and want to be an example to the entire organisation.

The hospitality industry is hard work, but both women and men should be able to work in it and have a family. I’m open about the fact that my work day has to be structured in a certain way.

Many women feel they cannot talk about the pressures of balancing their roles, but I think we have to be vocal about it. It’s difficult in a hotel because you have to have coverage every day of the year, but it’s up to HR to find solutions.

As a company, AccorHotels is excellent at developing women. It had a target for 35% of general managers to be women by this year which I believe it reached. In this region, we currently have three female general managers; we have a ‘Women at Accor’ group with at least one representative from each hotel and it should be men standing alongside women because we need men to help: it’s a business issue.

How does Accor engage staff ?

We do annual surveys, but for me, engagement is about the actions we take every day to ensure people have the tools, training and the ability to do their jobs well.

We should be speaking to our employees on a regular basis, asking “how are you? Is there anything I can do to make your life better today?”. It doesn’t mean giving people everything they ask for, but making work engaging is about removing obstacles and helping people give a great experience. It’s the day-to-day leadership and their commitment to work with people that matters.

Around 80% of the time I can go into a hotel and predict how engaged the people are. It’s vital to business survival that we concentrate on, and care about, engagement. In this industry we can’t be replaced by robots; people come to a hotel because they want a service experience and that involves people.

How do you recognise and reward talent?

We h ave a transparent compensation and benefits strategy. We benchmark against the market and feel that we pay well. Beyond that, we have bonus structures and mobility for our workforce is a huge part of recognition. Ambitious people in the region want to grow, train and develop.

We’ve started doing a much better job of communicating our success and making it really visible and real so that people can say: “Hey, that person joined at this hotel and then they went there.” We have Yammer, internally, a Facebook page and we use LinkedIn and LinkedIn Elevate.

So you can see those paths, but it’s something the organisation needs to work on, and I ensure we tell those stories. I also tell my own story about going from training manager to vice president of talent and culture. When people ask “what is the organisation going to do for me ?” I tell them it will support them to do anything they want to do.

It’s interesting to showcase young talent within the organisation. Two years ago, Comex, the executive committee, selected a shadow committee, members of which had to be 35 years old or younger and prepared to travel to participate in meetings.

For example, the director of finance for Egypt was the shadow CFO for the whole organisation, based in Egypt doing his normal work, but travelling to Paris at least four times a year to meet with the Comex.

The shadow Comex helped developed a new brand – a type of ‘open-house’ hospitality called ‘Jo&Joe’, which is aimed at groups of young people, blending the best of private-rental, hostel and hotel formats.

We also have entrepreneurs within the business called ‘the disruptors’, who look at how we can grow and develop and question everything we do. I’m interested in doing that in the Middle East, where we have a huge young talent base with lots of ideas. 

How does Accor retain its top talent?

We help individuals understand what they’re contributing to the wider hotel. If you make the bigger picture visible, people feel part of something meaningful.

We hire for cultural fit and put a significant amount of psychometric work into developing assessments. We need cleaners who are motivated by the desire to feel great about a spotless room; we’re looking for chefs who are excited about food.

We have a system that screens out 90% of applicants and assessments are the first step in the process. We use a level of automation for the initial volume. It’s about getting to know the essence of the person, who are they and whether they have a desire to serve. Interview guides help our hiring managers find people who will fit, because if you start with that, you can develop and grow people.

Where people leave for a more attractive opportunity, the organisation should thank them, learn from them why they’re leaving, wish them well and welcome them back. I’m surprised that some organisations still don’t welcome back people who have left on good terms. 

What is the biggest opportunity in the Middle East for HR in the medium term?

We’re not a personnel function anymore, we need to drive the talent and culture agendas in our organisations or we will be left behind. Business is changing here, so we need to keep up, whether through technology or just thinking about our role. In my opinion, our job is to have a great talent pipeline and drive the engagement of our people.

Alexander Mann Solutions