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These are the most innovative solutions to the shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry

By: Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Austria’s youngest star chef Anna Haumer is now an expert in employer branding at Zoku, a hybrid hotel concept that sets new standards internationally. How they are working on promising future solutions for the shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry, why finding and retaining employees is not a problem for them – and what is meant by salary as a “hygiene factor”.

We are going around in circles. At least, this is the impression you get when considering the issue of the skilled workers shortage in the hotel and tourism industry. Another restaurant is closing. Another hospitality school training course has been canceled. Another planned hotel opening has been postponed. Why? The answer is always the same: they don’t have enough people. And every time this happens, we hear from ever more knowledgeable experts who say: Alas, dear employers in the tourism industry, you need to pay more and focus on family-friendly working hours! In any event, you can’t do anything these days without having a four-day week!

Coffee and snack area in the Hotel Zoko

Image: Zoko

The fact that many hotels still have problems finding and retaining employees despite the successful implementation of such measures makes one thing clear: It’s not that easy. What’s more, the industry appears to be at an impasse. Sound melodramatic? It’s not like that at all. After all, if you are at an impasse, you’re always looking for new ways to do things. And it is precisely these new approaches that the hybrid hotel company Zoku is pursuing. What makes it so special? What does it do differently – with its 180 or so employees? And what can other employers in the tourism industry in general and the hotel industry in particular learn from this?

Zoku concept: revolutionary and successful

Whether in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna or Paris, when you step into a Zoku, it’s never a conventional hotel. For a start, you’ll search in vain for a traditional front reception. The Zoku concept has already been described as a mix of Airbnb and WeWork – a really hip place where easy living can be combined with pleasant co-working, if you like.


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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Zoku (@livezoku)

One thing’s for sure: It’s easy to settle into a new city here, no matter how long you stay. The two founders, Hans Meyer and Marc Jongerius, originally targeted the new generation of what are known as “business nomads”. In other words, people who can work on their computers from anywhere or who spend a few weeks or months in a city for a particular project.

But you can also stay at Zoku without any list of to-dos. Yes, vacation minus the workload seems to work just as well there. At least that’s what you can see from its impressive growth over the past few years: After opening its first location in Amsterdam in 2016, the company has so far opened additional locations in Copenhagen, Vienna, and soon in Paris. This is not only due to the good capacity utilization. On the contrary, Zoku hotels find it surprisingly easy to recruit – and above all, retain – staff. Why is this the case?

Anna Haumer: from star chef to HR revolutionary in the hotel industry

“Very few companies really think about exactly what employees with exactly which values they need,” says Anna Haumer. The employer branding expert knows the tourism industry in all its facets. Just five years ago, the Viennese-born chef was Austria’s youngest star and also made a name for herself beyond Austria’s borders as executive chef at Vienna’s Blue Mustard. After her career as a chef, she studied Human Resource Management at Vienna University of Applied Sciences. Why? “Because I’d rather solve problems than complain,” she says. “And because Zoku has a real impact in the industry that is forward-looking.”

Anna Haumer specializes in the shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry

Image: Zoko

Listening to Anna Haumer, you are struck by the key fact that she doesn’t believe in the conventional concept of the roles of employer and employee. You might say there is a more holistic attitude at Zoku. This is largely due to the history of its founding: “Back then, in the early 2010s, Hans and Marc’s basic idea was to create a place for business nomads, so they conducted umpteen interviews with this target group. What they found out was that most of them feel lonely. Therefore, they sought to create a place where they would feel less lonely. So it was very much about creating a community – also with staff.” Haumer uses the following points to explain that this community idea has turned into a company that thinks of the role of “employees” in a completely new, modern and highly successful way:

Finding and retaining employees – four tips from the hotel industry in practice:

1. Flexible understanding of roles to combat shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry

Zoku doesn’t think much of the rigid and highly specialized work role when it comes to guests. Instead, Haumer talks about “sidekicks”. This means that every employee takes on different tasks on a daily basis, depending on where they are needed. While this may sound chaotic initially, it’s actually not, because everything is planned in advance – a kind of coordinated flexibility, if you will. “The sidekicks usually rotate daily between the front office, check-in, bar or service,” explains Anna Haumer.


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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Zoku (@livezoku)

“As operational all-rounders, they take care of everything to do with guest interaction. The basic idea behind this is that everyone should have a feel for the big picture and see the different facets of hospitality as a meaningful activity. That’s what the hotel and gastronomy industry is all about: being a good host who can do more than just make a guest a cup of coffee; they can also print out the bill, for example. If, on the other hand, you’re always just sitting in the back office, you lose a feel for everything, you don’t actually get any feedback – and at some point you start asking yourself what the point is.”

2. Sustainability high three

As a B-Corp certified hotel, sustainability is taken a step further than usual. “This is an extremely important topic, especially for the younger generation,” says Haumer. “Many of the younger employees at our hotel really want their work to be sustainable and ethical, as well as meaningful.” Incidentally, sustainability means more than just environmental sustainability, it also includes economic and social sustainability. This means the company also has to operate sustainably and transparently for its employees. What’s more, “Everyone should also be able to develop sustainably as part of their work,” says Haumer. “For example, through B-Corp presentations that take place in-house or development talks, to name just two examples of many. In general, each employee is empowered to always stand up for themselves and say what they need to sustainably advance their career in the hospitality industry.”


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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Zoku Amsterdam (@zokuamsterdam)

3. Employer branding without empty promises

For Haumer, the hotel industry still has a lot to do in terms of employer branding. “Still far too few hotels ask themselves: What are things that could really motivate my potential employees to apply to us? How can I retain them long-term in the business? And most importantly: How am I different from other employers?” Of course, the answers always depend on the respective company DNA. Answering them authentically requires what Haumer calls an “employer branding process”.

Haumer reveals how it works at Zoku: “A hotel must first consider its employer value proposition. This is about long-term positioning as an employer and the value proposition to employees and potential employees. Simply offering additional benefits, such as a public transportation ticket or a four-day work week, is not positioning. The industry needs to question entire structures much more and consider issues such as corporate culture, identity and values. That’s why hiring a consulting firm to write your employer branding doesn’t work. It really needs to come from within the hotel business itself!”


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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Zoku (@livezoku)

4. Shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry: Not a question of money?

Last but not least, there is the matter of money. Couldn’t you skip all of the above and just pay astronomically well instead? Would that put an end to the shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industryright away? “Salary is only a hygiene factor,” says Anna Haumer. “Of course, the salary must be fair and meet the standard of living,” she says. “A good salary on its own only ensures that you won’t be unhappy. However, it’s not enough to ensure that you, as an employee, are satisfied in the long term. It may motivate you for a short time, but sooner or later everyone will look for another job to do something meaningful. The younger generation more than ever.”

As much as these approaches are related to Zoku’s very own corporate culture, they clearly demonstrate one thing: Today, more than ever, the operating concept, employees and management form a single unit of meaning. And it is precisely the question of meaningfulness that is of primary importance for future generations in all its facets. In fact, not only is it reflected in the concept of flexible role allocation, but also in the issue of sustainability or, indeed, with regard to the completely overestimated role played by salary.

One thing’s for sure: They are out there, these new approaches that lead out of the impasse of the universally lamented shortage of skilled workers in the hotel industry and they can help you find and retain employees. All you have to do is take the step.


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