Staffing shortages, supply chain issues, rising costs and, of course, the ongoing pandemic are creating a perfect storm of challenges for event managers. Out of the storm may come more efficient approaches to event planning and respect for hospitality employees.
It’s no secret to event managers that the so-called Great Resignation has hit the hospitality industry especially hard. Along with staffing shortages at hotels and other venues, there are supply chain problems, inflation, and the omicron variant to contend with as well.
In EventMB’s State of the Event Industry Q4 2021 survey, a third of event managers reported facing challenges from staffing shortages. And despite the fact that hotel service levels are declining, room rates are heading in the opposite direction, according to a recent article in Skift.
So how are event managers coping with all of this? EventMB spoke with a variety of event professionals to see what they’re experiencing and what strategies they think planners and supplier partners will need for the long-term.
As both an event manager and venue owner, Liz Lathan, CMO and co-founder of the Haute Companies, is finding that maintaining adequate banquet staffing, particularly in the face of last-minute sick days, is becoming a huge problem.
“We have folks on call, but it’s more stress on the management team to spend their time trying to cover shifts instead of running the business,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Covid is exacerbating staffing shortages, something Lathan encountered during Flashpoint, her company’s recent event in the Bahamas.
“On our second day there, my colleague who was co-hosting the event with me tested positive and was quarantined in her room, missing the entire event,” she said. “So in addition to preparing for backup locations in case it rains, we had to plan for backup hosts too.”
Staffing challenges are preventing Faith Gladden, director of conferences and events for the Society of Advancement for Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, (SACNAS), from creating the “wow” experiences she once was able to provide.
“We can’t plan the large elaborate banquets and shows, because there aren’t the staff at the hotel to execute them flawlessly,” she said. “Transportation challenges have also been at the fore of our association’s conversations and we’re finding that we need to adjust more often than not, because we simply can’t get the number of vendors we used to get.”
Sharon Zittle, director of operations for Informa, is experiencing extended delays on hearing back from vendors and turning proposals around.
“We’re also finding that our partners are having issues getting the help they need to provide us [show organizers] with things we’ve requested,” Zittle said. “Ultimately, I like to have a positive outlook, but I am concerned about how staffing shortages onsite, particularly at venues and hotels, will impact our guest experience.”
So how should event managers deal with shortages and the need to prepare attendees for reduced services?
“I’m a firm believer in communicating what to expect,” advises Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates. “Do it in a way that asks for patience and explains what’s going on. If guest rooms won’t be cleaned daily, let people know ahead.”
Gladden agrees, saying she makes it a practice to “over communicate” to attendees about what to anticipate in terms of service.
“Let your participants know well in advance that there will only be XYZ type of food available or that they should not expect house-keeping services daily,” she said. “People won’t be thrilled, but they’ll be furious if you don’t tell them, and they arrive expecting things to be ‘service as usual’ and that isn’t what they receive. In general, most are very understanding of the times we are living in as long as you give them enough fair notice in advance.”
Creativity and innovation among team members can also alleviate the situation, according to Zittle.
“When one of the hotels we partnered with was unable to provide us with meeting rooms for our conference, our operations manager created conference rooms on our show floor,” she said. “When our temp agency was unable to provide us with the number of temps needed to manage our event in Philadelphia, the city’s CVB and our own staff stepped in to help onsite, staffing information desks and whatever else was needed.”
“I have found we are all struggling in similar ways,” she added. “The best way we have coped with our vendors and venues is through a general camaraderie that we are truly in this together.”
How might the labor shortage, which could be with us for a long time, have a lasting impact on the way meetings are planned and executed?
According to Lathan, event planning can and should adapt to the current challenges.
“Why are we planning banquets if we know staffing shortages are a problem?” she said. “Can we do a restaurant dine-around instead? Or put a credit on our guests’ rooms to eat at their leisure? Can we plan for no housekeeping by embracing a sustainability message and making it part of the program? We don’t have to suffer through anything — we have the power to solve these problems by outthinking them.”
Instead of lamenting the changed reality, Lathan said it’s time for event managers to accept and even embrace it.
“We have to stop planning robotically and checking the box for all the logistics elements,” she said. “Instead, we as an industry need to create programs that are more thoughtfully designed with the venue and experience in mind. We must stop complaining about what isn’t and start crafting what will be.”
In a similar vein, Zittle observed that the labor shortage has a silver lining in that it is forcing event managers to re-evaluate processes and efficiencies.
“We have been doing things one way for so long; perhaps it is time to start trying something new,” she said. “I think about the way we submit work orders and if that is a good use of our time. Should we be doing something different? Are we best utilizing the technology we have? Our expectation of event excellence will remain, but how we achieve that might be different than what we have done before. Ultimately, I think that is a good thing.”
Organizations will also need to re-evaluate how they recruit new talent, Zittle added.
“We also need a new generation of recruits in this industry,” she said. “We need to get away from what has always been the norm and try to approach recruiting differently. There is so much talent out there in areas we have not looked at historically. Maybe we should be exploring that! Additionally, we have opened the door for those looking to work from home which allows us to not restrict recruiting to the areas we have offices in.”
Contracts and communications with hotels and venues also need to better reflect the current reality, according to Eisenstodt.
“No one likes surprises,” she said. “Hotels need to be upfront with their challenges just as we are expected to do so regarding our program or attendance changes. I think smart planners and groups will begin to negotiate and contract differently and set expectations that are realistic.”
According to a Q3 2021 U.S. job market report from Joblist, 58 percent of hospitality planners said they planned to quit their jobs before the end of 2021. In addition, about 25 percent of former hospitality workers said they would not want to work in the industry again.
What do event managers think the hospitality industry should be doing to better attract and retain the employees that are so vital to events?
Eisenstodt believes better pay, benefits and respect would go a long way, as would looking at new sources for employees, including among people who are retired or have disabilities.
However, she also noted that many hotels are still struggling with historically low occupancies.
“The industry is not back — we know that,” she said. “Hotels can’t promise a secure job, even how many days in a row someone will be able to work.”
Zittle is confident that the hospitality industry will be once again robust and have the resources for recruitment.
In the meantime, she believes it is incumbent on everyone to show respect and consideration for hospitality employees, especially those doing the grunt work.
“At the end of the day, as an industry, we need to value the person doing the job just as much as the job they’re doing,” Zittle said. “Tip your cleaning lady who cleans your hotel room, meet with the United Cleaning crew that is collecting your event’s trash, and try to learn their names. It is not hard to make the effort and value the people supporting your event. By valuing them, and the job they do, we create a better industry and will attract the right kind of recruits.”
While staffing shortages and other issues are creating major headaches for event planners, some see opportunities to rethink the way events are planned and to employ innovative new strategies. They also see a need for new approaches to employee recruitment and the need to show more respect for those whose work is vital to keep events going forward.