Jun 19, 2020 | Ask & Talk | Reading Time: 8 minutes
“That’s the way it is. Why change now?” This is common answer hospitality leaders encounter when proposing changes in hotel operations. Indeed, changes can be difficult to make and they might bring some resistance, but they are often necessary for better results or even survival.
Whether you like it or not, the fact is that hotel operations are changing drastically. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis is speeding up a process that was already happening in the industry: the analysis of processes, often with the adoption of technology, to increase revenue, productivity, and guest satisfaction.
Now we can add “minimize the risk of spreading the COVID-19” as a strong reason why changes in hotel operations are vital in this “new normal” world. Contactless check-in and check out, for instance, are becoming a “must” in hotels all over the world.
Furthermore, with the financial crash, hotels had to downsize and are now trying to find ways to improve productivity and keep the excellence of service, even with fewer human resources at their disposal.
But the truth is that efficiency and productivity have been underestimated by hoteliers for a long time. Several hotels don’t control or analyze how processes are done, how they impact operations and what could be done to improve them and get better results.
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Some hotels, like Marriott or Accor, already understand the importance of analyzing and improving processes. After all, with so much data provided by technology, to not collect, analyze and improve hotel operations seems like a waste of money and energy.
Operational excellence for an outstanding service
To better understand the importance of the optimization of processes and the benefits of improving hotel operations, we had the opportunity of interviewing Leticia Tavares, Director of Operational Excellence at Marriot International.
After graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School, the Brazilian hotelier joined Marriott International on a rotational program that brings MBA talent into hotel management. After concluding an 18-month rotation she joined one of Marriott’s hotels in Atlanta as Director of Operational Excellence.
Leticia’s expertise is to help hotels increase Guest Satisfaction, Intent to Return, and Key Success Metrics through Lean Six Sigma methodologies and operations experience. Leticia shares more about her travels and hospitality career in her personal blog – Hospitality Vitae.
In this exclusive interview, Leticia explains in detail what her role is in the hotel chain and why the optimization of processes is important for hotels. She also shares valuable tips and examples of simple actions hotels can do to start getting results now.
* Please note that this interview represents Leticia’s own views and opinion and does not represent those of Marriott International.
Tell us about your professional background.
Leticia: When you look at many leaders in Hospitality, many started their careers early on, sometimes as front office agents, bellmen, human resources coordinators, and so on, and I think that is fascinating because learning from the ground up is something that I really believe in.
My career path was a little bit different, though: I graduated with a Business degree from Universidade de São Paulo and after graduating I joined Whirlpool. During college, though, I had the opportunity to work with Hospitality – I was a Wedding Planner in my hometown and a banquet server in a hotel in London, during an exchange program.
These two experiences really made me think about hospitality as a future career. After working in Marketing for four years, I decided to get my MBA in the United States. I knew that if I wanted to work in Hospitality, making a career change during my MBA made a lot of sense.
As I mentioned above, learning from the ground up was something I really valued, so I did not see myself working in a Corporate role right after my Masters’s program – I wanted to work in a hotel, with operations, in order to become a well-rounded Hotelier. So, after graduating in 2016, I joined Marriott on an 18-month rotational program that gave me incredible experience working in more than 8 different departments in different Marriott brands, including Renaissance, Westin, and The Ritz-Carlton.
What does a Director of Operational Excellence do?
Leticia: As Director of Operational Excellence, my goal is to work with different departments in the hotel in order to increase what we call Intent to Return and other key success metrics, such as food and beverage food quality, elite appreciation, cleanliness, maintenance and upkeep, among others.
I partner with the departments to work on our main opportunities, which we learn by listening to the voice of the customer – internal customers (our associates) and external customers (our guests) and by analyzing data. Let me give you an example:
In my hotel, our in-room dining satisfaction (food quality scores, for in-room dining) were stagnant and we saw comments in the guest satisfaction survey that mentioned “food is cold”, or “it took too long to receive the order”. With a group of front line associates (Runners, who deliver the food) and back of the house associates (Chef and Expeditor) and one manager, we did a deep-dive into the operations to understand why we were having complaints.
We analyzed the voice of the customer, we did a process walk, and audited a few orders, and we applied some Six Sigma Methodologies, which I learned during my Green Belt and Black Belt courses.
We concluded that there were a few things we needed to improve in the process – we introduced frequent audits, a script for the telephone agent, among other things, and we tracked the updated process for a few months – our scores went up!
Is there a particular characteristic to be a good Director of Operational Excellence?
Leticia: In my opinion, if you are passionate about hotel operations, project management, and process improvement, Operational Excellence could be a great career path for you. I had taken Operations courses in my MBA, such as Managing Services Operations and Supply Chain Management, but I did not have a Lean Six Sigma Certificate (Green Belt / Black Belt). I was able to take both courses with Marriott and I am now certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and currently working on my Black Belt project.
What is the optimization of processes and why is it important?
Leticia: There are many definitions around process improvement and what it entails. I will share with you the importance of it through the lenses of a hotelier.
When I started working with process optimization I realized that so many times in my life I had implemented solutions without knowing if they were answering the right questions, or the problem’s “root cause”.
The process optimization methodologies I learned helped me understand that
before thinking about solutions, we must understand the problem we are trying to solve.
It is a different mindset, for sure, that challenged me to think differently.
Process improvement projects also helped me understand how gaining buy-in before implementing any changes was extremely important. How many times have you heard people saying – “We have been doing this for years, we don’t need to change”? Probably many times!
Changing is hard and there is a lot of resistance. One of the most important questions you have to answer when gaining buy-in is:
“What is in for me”?
And think about that from different perspectives. In the in-room dining project I mentioned above, I identified some opportunities from listening to the customer and associate (voice of the customer), and I shared with the team in order to gain buy-in:
(1) What is in for leadership – improve our food quality scores, one of our key metrics, and associate engagement;
(2) What is in for telephone agent, expeditor and runner – improve the relationship, communication, and trust;
(3) What is in for our in-room dining Chef – improve the information in the ticket to guarantee the correct item was made.
Last but not least, process optimization/improvement projects’ goals vary depending on the project – it could be decrease costs, improve guest satisfaction (or any other key metric), improve throughput time, increase productivity…
That’s why I spend a good deal of time in the first phase of my projects: the “define” phase, in which I write a very well-detailed Project Charter. We could go on and on here, but I will say – if you are curious to learn more, check Project Management courses, or start with a Yellow Belt course.
To sum up, process optimization, if done right, can have lasting impacts on your organization. The goal is to make changes that are implemented by your team, that impact positively the organization and that last.
What role does technology have in helping optimize processes and hotel operations?
Leticia: Technology helps optimize processes but I would not start any project thinking that I have to implement new technologies. Sometimes hoteliers are presented with solutions that they think might solve their problems but I would challenge people to first understand what their problems/opportunities really are.
On many occasions, the answers are simpler than we think and don’t require big investments. Again, let’s talk about the in-room dining project. We did not have to implement any new technology – in fact, we realized we had to better utilize the system we had in place! We also created some simple things, such as a telephone script checklist and an audit form.
In this pandemic, resources are very scarce. How can productivity help save costs?
Leticia: As a leader, do you know what is your productivity goal for the week, month, or year? I think that understanding your productivity numbers is the first step to identify improvements needed.
If we cut labor costs, but continue to perform the same activities in a way that is not efficient, we are not being productive. In the short term, you might see savings, but in the long term how will guest satisfaction be impacted?
If you don’t have enough people to take care of your guests, guests won’t have a good experience and won’t come back. Some recommendations that I have, as you look into understanding how to be more productive with the hours that you are given, are to understand the patterns of your hotel:
- when do you have more people checking-in in which you need more associates in the front office?
- Are there opportunities to cross-train your associates, so that during downtime they can perform other activities and develop their own careers by learning something new?
- If your hotel is open now, what is the minimum staffing model, to still guarantee service delivery, and how do you think about bringing people back as occupancy starts to pick back up?
Do you have any tips for productivity that might help hoteliers in their daily hotel operations?
Leticia: Absolutely! First of all, if you use Microsoft Outlook, there are so many tools there that can help you be more productive – first, make sure you add all your “to-do’s” and appointments to your calendar (sometimes I even add a 30-minute slot to only read emails and respond them, so that I am effective during that time!). I usually start the day by printing the calendar page for the day, so that I can carry it with me as I walk through the hotel (we are rarely seated behind a desk, as you know it!).
Dedicate some time to your associates as well – check-in with them often to understand how the day is going and if they need help with anything. As I mentioned above, the “voice of the customer”, in this case, our associate, helps us identify opportunities for improvement.
Last but not least, try to meet people face to face if possible, instead of emails, especially if they are in your own hotel. That helps speed up decisions that have to be made and helps you check off a “to-do” of your list.
How do you see this role as Director of Operational Excellence after the pandemic?
Leticia: I believe that there will always be the need to improve the way we operate, especially during periods of crisis. The “new normal” will require not only reviewing current processes but also creating new and innovative ones. The expertise of a Director of Operational Excellence in leading and managing projects with multidisciplinary teams will prove to be very useful during these times. I can’t wait to see what’s next!