Case study: Off-peak staff swapping at Grace Hotels

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Soneva Kiri, in Thailand
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The hotel group’s Strategic Labour Partnership with other luxury brands provides employees with a sea of opportunities

The organisation

Grace Hotels is a luxury hotel group. First opening in Greece’s Cyclades Islands in 2007, there are now six hotels operating under the brand, two of which are based on the Greek islands Mykonos and Santorini, three in the US and one in Argentina.

The problem

As is common in the hospitality industry, many staff (around 100) at the Grace Mykonos and Grace Santorini hotels are employed on a seasonal basis, meaning the hotels run from April to October and then close over winter.

For these staff, this means moving onto other adventures or taking a winter break, before potentially returning to the resorts the following season.

“About 60-70% of these staff come back each season and the remaining 30-40% have to be new hires,” explains Tim Williams, group HR director of Grace Hotels.

While this means a strong core of talented team members familiar with the property, their roles and the guests returning each year, some talented employees were being lost, while others felt the company could do more to support them.

“Feedback from talking to colleagues and from colleague opinion surveys showed that they wanted us to support and assist them in finding jobs over the winter season when their hotels close,” says Williams.

“People were engaged with the business otherwise they wouldn’t come back each year. But many want to work 12 months of the year so they have a continuous income stream and can also build upon their skills and experience.”

Williams says he recognised a business need to act. “If we could help people achieve their objectives then this would help build a greater sense of loyalty and connection to Grace Hotels so would help with retention,” he points out. “It’s about helping them go so that they then come back.”

Although Grace Hotels’ four other properties are open during the winter season, Williams explains that visa and language issues meant it wasn’t feasible to provide opportunities for employees at these other sites. It was clear that, if the company wanted to retain and motivate its employees, it would need to look further afield.

The method

This further afield meant reaching out to Williams’ HR peers and leaders also operating in the luxury hotel space. “We couldn’t solve the problem internally, so I started to look for partner organisations and other hotel companies that share our people-focused philosophy and culture,” he explains.

The idea was to offer international work placements to Grace Hotels staff during the winter months at hotels that require experienced employees during the opposite peak season. Destinations like the Maldives, Thailand and Megève in France were a natural choice as popular locations for European holidaymakers over the months from November to March.

Grace Hotels found a kindred spirit in Soneva, with whom it then established its primary partnership, known as the Strategic Labour Partnership. Once the partnership was confirmed, Sovena provided a list of vacancies which were then presented to Grace Hotels staff. Sovena management then visited Grace resorts to see staff in action who had put themselves forward for roles, conducting interviews on site.

A total of 11 employees chose to go down this avenue and all were allocated roles during the 2017/2018 winter season in partner hotels.

Sounds simple enough, but Williams admits there was some level of apprehension. “It’s an unusual initiative as we are sharing staff with a competitor,” he points out. “A key concern of ours was if we help people find a job overseas then will they come back? That would be an unsustainable proposition.”

The way around this dilemma was to instil into the partnership both a mutual understanding and specific terms that the partner is not to offer staff permanent positions. “We all – us, the partner and the employees – want a sustainable, multi-year partnership so we had to position it like that,” says Williams.

Of course, it’s not just the partner organisation that needed convincing of this. “We made sure to stay in constant contact with our staff when they were overseas to make sure they were happy and remained engaged with us,” Williams adds.

Encouraging employees to broaden their expectations of their roles was also necessary. “Not all partner roles will be a direct match to their home hotel roles so our staff needed to be resilient and open to new experiences,” he explains, adding that additional support was necessary to deal with visas and paperwork.

The result

The programme’s success is evidenced in the fact that of the 11 employees who embarked on the opportunity, all 11 returned to their home hotel.

This marked a win for Grace Hotels but also a win for the industry, putting it in a stronger position to retain talented and engaged people. Grace Hotels employees brought Soneva a much-appreciated different perspective.

As for employees? “They all felt it was rewarding to experience and work in a different culture, as well as being able to generate income, and all said they’d be open to going overseas again,” says Williams. “It’s great we were able to listen to feedback from our employees and action it.” He adds that there has been a noticeable shift in the competencies of these employees on their return.

But this year was only the beginning. Following on from the pilot, expectations for the upcoming 2018/2019 winter season include working with four partner organisations on opportunities in the Middle East, Asia, Indian Ocean and European ski destinations.

So as summer draws to a close, it seems that sunny days are on the horizon for Grace Hotels.

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