From Crisis to Crunch Point: A Look at the New Era of Hospitality Hiring — Interview with Megan Johantgen

The hospitality industry is facing its biggest crisis in recent history. 

By August 2020, over 32K US restaurants had closed due to the pandemic, with 60% of those stating that they won’t be reopening. Add to this 660K lost jobs, a mass exodus of expert employees and an uncertain future, and it’s clear the hospitality landscape has changed for good.

It’s a seismic shift, and one that inclusive hospitality consultant Megan Johantgen has witnessed firsthand. With her passion for experience-driven F&B, Megan knows a thing or two about what hospitality really means — and how Covid has created new drivers for change.

We caught up with the hospitality insider to find out more about what’s really happening in the industry and how employers can fill their open positions, despite the many challenges. 

The state of hospitality hiring in 2021

It’s no secret the hospitality industry has taken a major hit thanks to the pandemic — in March 2020, the industry was projected to earn an estimated $899 billion. Just six months later, 100,000 US restaurants closed their doors for good.

Add in the  epic change in dining habits brought by the pandemic, Covid regulations that seemed to change by the second, and volatile on-off hiring needs for small businesses, and the impact on the hospitality talent market suddenly looks understandably bleak.

But what does all this mean for today's hospitality businesses? And what are the major shifts business owners need to know about in order to find the talent they need to stay afloat?

We checked in with longtime hospitality expert and industry consultant Megan Johantgen for answers.

Megan’s passion for experience-driven hospitality has taken her everywhere from the Churchill Downs to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In her vast experience in F&B franchises and large-scale events, Megan owned food and beverage KPIs for landmark events at the Verizon Center, USTA Billie Jean King Stadiums, FedEx Field, and more. She’s even lent her services to all-star clients like the Washington Football Team, NBA Wizards, NHL Capitals and WNBA Mystics.

Here’s what she has to say about the state of the hospitality talent market today, and how companies can rise above the challenges.

Covid gave hospitality experts an opportunity for change

According to Megan, Covid’s biggest impact on the hospitality industry was the time and space it gave hospitality pros to think about their already volatile work environment.

“A mass exodus of experts in this field was the biggest change. The pandemic really gave a number of long-time members of the hospitality industry a wakeup call that our jobs are in fact disposable and working from home was not an option for a large percentage of us,” she explains.

Once the wake-up call happened, there was no going back. Many industry veterans took the pandemic as an opportunity to make a career change.

“A forced time to stop and slow down for a group of people who were used to working nights, weekends and holidays gave us all a moment to evaluate other career and lifestyle options,” Megan explains. 

Like many hospitality experts, Megan ended up in the industry almost by accident.

“Hospitality is an industry where the industry chooses you, not so much you choose the industry. I did not aspire to be a bartender but becoming one opened up new avenues in business for me and taught me so many useful intangible skills. When you have the opportunity to take those skills and apply them elsewhere, why not?”

The hospitality hierarchy has changed

Thanks to the mass exodus of experts triggered by the pandemic, the face of hospitality changed rapidly.

Pre-covid, the industry was all about experience: 

“Despite the media and society depicting the hospitality industry as a place where you can hire a team easily by the dozen, it was a relatively selective field. Almost a hierarchy, in that to be a bartender you needed to have experience serving first, to be in management you needed a degree or years of experience,” says Megan. 

But now, that’s all changed.

“The crisis we’re in now has the industry exploding with a demand after a year locked away at home and we cannot be as selective in the hiring process just to fulfill the need. That means you’ll now see novice employees at even your most respected hotel chain or favorite five-star restaurant,” she says.

Hospitality employees are returning to work more slowly than expected

Despite there being plenty of roles available, newer candidates still aren’t lining up to take a seat at the table.

From re-entry anxiety to regulation-induced confusion (think: the UK’s recent ‘pingdemic’), there are numerous reasons why people aren’t returning to work as quickly as expected. And for employers looking to fill roles fast, that often means they’re having to compromise on quality.

According to Megan, the employers that lacked resilient recruitment and hiring systems to begin with are the same ones who have struggled to take a proactive response to these issues.

“Across the board we’re seeing employers offer incentives and benefits out of what is now desperation — and not necessarily because they truly value their employees — because we still do not see people returning to work at rapid rates,” says Megan.

Megan’s 6 top tips to recruit quality hospitality workers

With many roles to fill (often left empty by experts in the field), finding the right people to fill the gaps is a challenge.

Here are Megan’s top tips to fill empty roles (and keep hiring human) during one of the hospitality industry’s toughest years yet:

  1. Be honest.
  2. Spend time and money on proper training.
  3. Create a family atmosphere where honesty of how the business operates, expectations of the role and the human experience comes first. We have to learn from last year that hospitality IS humanity.
  4. Bring in a logistics expert and ask the current team members what they would do differently.
  5. Focus on the culture/environment of your business and think about what is good for your team and the brand and what is not. That could mean bringing in a diversity, equity and inclusion expert or re-evaluating opening and closing side work.
  6. Look at every area in your business and evaluate it, just like you did for yourself over the last year

As well as upping your operations game, it’s time to focus more than ever on hiring the right way.

“My advice for those trying to improve their hiring strategies is to go and make a connection with the local city college or universities, hospitality/tourism students or even marketing students,” says Megan.

Why? Because building a team from scratch gives you the opportunity to build it right.

“It will be easier to start from scratch on building a team than it will be to convince a seasoned hospitality employee that this sector is the best to work in or worth staying. Focus on building a brand of people who want to be there — and what better way than to start molding those who choose to further their education in the business,” she says.

Human-first hiring = The new face of hospitality

From historic job losses to major closures, Covid has changed things for good — but as with all changes, there are some big opportunities for savvy hospitality leaders to grab.

Not only can companies benefit from the switch-up in talent, they also have the opportunity to create a human-first hiring process that brings in the best from day one.

“The crisis we’re in now has the industry exploding with demand,” says Megan. There’s never been a better time to take advantage of that demand and create an awesome hiring process for the good of your employees and your business.

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