Demographic Dirty Tricks - Recruiting in a Media Desert

By Jeffrey Catrett Dean, Kendall College Les Roches School of Hospitality Management | October 28, 2008

Demographics has played an ugly trick on the hospitality industry. Today, our profession is facing the daunting challenge of replacing Baby Boomer managers, departing in record numbers to retirement or to consulting, with green Generation Y high school and college graduates. It has been estimated that the industry will need more than 200,000 new managers within the next five years in the US alone. (The interim generation, Generation X, is only 3/7 the size of the Baby Boom so cannot possibly slot into all the management positions becoming available.) Just when traditional hospitality is hardest pressed to make itself attractive to this teens and twenty-somethings cohort, it has been abandoned by the media and has quietly disappeared off the radar screens of most of today's youth as they plan for (or stumble into) their future careers. Thanks to the surprising surplus of cooking shows on the airwaves, young people do dream of opening their own restaurants and creating culinary concoctions that will vault them to superstardom, but traditional hotels, established foodservice, cruising, clubs and even casinos do not feature in the broadcast repertoire of today's reality crazed television networks, are rarely in the features pages, and do not show up in the foreground or even the background of today's feature films.

It was not always so. Demographics is a fickle friend. As Baby Boomer hippies traded in their bell-bottoms for Armani suits, evolving into 1980's yuppies, hospitality glamour experienced a renaissance unknown since the 1930's. With travel and entertainment expense accounts all the rage, post-modern Four Seasons look-alikes sprouted up across the country in the greatest hospitality building boom of the 20th century. Cruising, which had experienced an unlikely resurgence in the seventies fun ship era, proved itself to be more than resilient throughout the eighties, and private clubs flourished as never before. Las Vegas evolved from a dusty neon strip to a giant factory of gaudy dreams.

And supporting all of this was the media. Cruising had already experienced a boost through the infamous Love Boat TV series, and resort travel to exotic locations had been glamorized by a somewhat austere, vertically challenged individual best known for exclaiming "ze plane! ze plane!" on a weekly basis. Robin Leach brought plush living rooms and hotel suites into our own modest living rooms. When Arthur Hailey's Hotel was developed into a prime time television series with bearded James Brolin sipping champagne and hob-knobbing with celebrities, owners and Connie Sellecca, the hospitality television coup was complete. Every movie, it seemed, took place in a hotel or casino setting. The Beverly Wilshire could almost have been nominated for a supporting role in Pretty Woman. Michael J. Fox as The Concierge and Tom Cruise as the maker of Cocktail's that were definitely shaken and not stirred inspired a generation. Leona Helmsley dominated the pages of glossy magazines with her dubious claims to peerage, and upstart Donald Trump splashed across the society pages by placing hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. The fact that all of these media inventions had absolutely nothing to do with what goes on in real life hospitality management was completely irrelevant. Just as deluxe hotels had sprung up willy-nilly throughout the decade, hospitality management programs of the Cornell and Lausanne genre suddenly dotted the global academic landscape from state-run universities to community colleges to private boarding schools.

So why has the media gone off into the kitchen just when we needed them out front? Demographics is the culprit. Fiction mirrors life, just as life now tends to mirror fiction. Yuppieism with all its frills - fancy clothes, fancy hotels, and fancy restaurants - is the natural reflection of a generation in its thirties, a population old enough to have taste and young enough for appearances to be more important than comfort. Boutique hotels emerged for Gen Xers in their thirties. Today's Millennials are still in their teens and twenties, baseball capped and flip-flopped whenever possible. Tattoos are still de rigeur - at least for young women. Generation Y is not quite ready for the Armani suits or the grand hotels, and the media is not yet focusing again on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Paris Hilton antics are not enough to gain the media attention the industry needs to promote itself in its time of need.

What does this demographic disconnect mean for recruiting talent into the hospitality industry? While some hotel management programs in tourism-centric locations are growing (hospitality jobs naturally occurring to career minded youth in these destinations), hospitality education in general has stagnated with more programs going off-line than coming on. For hotel management schools, exposing students to hospitality generally is at least as much the challenge as focusing them on specific schools or programs. For a while at least, outdated home economics programs transformed themselves into hospitality trade-schools. With the increasing popularity of culinary arts, however, most of these programs have abandoned. As a result, many high school students today do not even know what "hospitality" means. Colleagues at another Swiss influenced institution here in the US reported that many prospective candidates confused hospitality with hospitals. This confusion was reinforced by the appearance of the Swiss Cross in school literature which bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the Red Cross!

How, then, are the hospitality industry and hospitality schools to attract promising talent to ensure the future wellbeing of the industry? In the absence of media attention, more inventive measures are required. Here are some suggestions for industry and academia.

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