Maximizing Motivation: How to Get the Most out of Hotel Employees

By Rick Garlick Vice President, Strategy Consultant, Magid | March 03, 2019

There is near universal acceptance that having motivated employees is a prerequisite to delivering a positive customer experience. While it is hard to think of any industry where this isn't true, there is probably no environment where it is truer than the hospitality industry. Hospitality is an incredibly high touch experience for guests, who are likely to encounter many employees during their stay, and each of those interactions drives their willingness to return to both that property, and other properties in the portfolio.

Even as hotel brands are advancing technology to drive guest satisfaction, at the end of the day, the hospitality experience is about people, not buildings or technology tools. It is no coincidence that the most beautiful and well-appointed hotel buildings in the world are also staffed with the most attentive and guest-oriented staff. Just think of how many online reviews mention the people that served them, both the good and the bad. It is unlikely that a seamless mobile experience or having Amazon Alexa in the room, ready to serve, could provide the same level of guest satisfaction.

The concept of successful employee engagement in the hospitality environment is driven by three things: (1) hiring people who have a natural affinity toward serving others; and (2) supporting the employee's efforts through an accommodating service culture; and (3) providing the proper incentives, rewards, and recognition to reinforce positive performance. Employee performance is a result of both nature (e.g., talent, attitude) and nurture (e.g., proper motivators).

W. Edwards Deming once said, "A bad system will beat a good person every time." As long as hotels have enough applicants to select from to hire talented guest-facing employees (which may not always be the case), it becomes a matter of supporting those employees through both a positive service culture and proper performance reinforcers. While much can be said about the need to foster a service-oriented culture, the focus of this article is understanding workforce motivators that stimulate employee performance.

Here are several key points to keep in mind for maximizing motivation, especially among hospitality team members:

1. A paycheck is an expectation, not a universal motivator

One of the challenges of motivating people is that motivation is personal and the assumption that we are all motivated by the same things does not hold up in the real world. While many assume that money is the universal motivator, after a while, a paycheck becomes an expectation, and pay alone is not enough to influence behavior. On the flip side, while not getting fired is sometimes used to motivate employees, threatening one's employment status is hardly an effective way of getting his or her best effort.

Instead, employers should focus on recognition as a tool for motivation. A recent Forbes article stated that "recognition is the number one thing employees say their manager could give them to inspire them to produce great work. Global studies prove that when it comes to inspiring people to be their best at work, nothing else comes close-not even higher pay, promotion, autonomy or training." It may seem like common sense to recognize your employees through areas outside of pay, but it is still a challenge for many employers to get it right.

2. One size does not fit all

While everyone wants to be recognized for their good work, beyond receiving a paycheck, not everyone likes to be recognized, or rewarded, in the same way. For example, some people enjoy being put on a stage while, for others, being recognized in front of a large crowd would be their worst nightmare. Some people really like gift cards and award points, while others would prefer to be treated to a nice lunch with their family.

While incentive travel opportunities are nice for some, others with families find it difficult to leave home for more than an evening. The key is to develop a recognition program that allows for the flexibility for leaders to customize the reward to those things that motivate an employee.

3. Intangible incentives are underutilized

While people work to buy things they want and need, recognition should be a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. It might surprise people to know that the best way to recognize some employees is to give them more responsibility, as an acknowledgement of their performance. Many employees are seeking new experiences to give them greater value in the workplace, enhance their own personal brand and further their career. Some just like having greater autonomy without their manager hovering over them, or would welcome the opportunity to lunch with a company leader.

There is also great value in simple recognition efforts such as a handwritten note, an email to the team highlighting an achievement or taking a few moments to celebrate a recent success.

4. Beware well-intentioned recognition that is meaningless at best; insulting at worst

Sometimes employee recognition creates more resentment than goodwill if there is no perceived value in the gesture. There are horror stories of managers receiving large bonuses for successful years, while the employees who made this success possible receive a trivial acknowledgement like a free lunch. Understanding how recognition efforts occur throughout the organization can mitigate these kinds of perceived slights. Listening to your employees, and more importantly watching how they react to existing efforts, will provide you with a clear direction on which efforts may be having the opposite effect.

How do you then take these challenges and turn them into a successful motivation strategy? Here are some tips:

1. Involve your team

The best way to ensure your recognition efforts are striking the right balance in your organization is to brainstorm with your staff about ways to recognize the team for a job well done. This will help them feel a part of the process and may identify rewards that are meaningful to them but may have been easily overlooked by management.

2. Be creative

There are many ways to recognize, reward, and incent employees that go beyond the typical gift cards or service anniversary certificates. From small ways to recognize employees like a quick shout-out on social media to bigger programs like a peer-nominated internal award program, creativity helps employees feel valued and gain recognition in a variety of ways.

3. Be personal

Of course, creativity can be a bad thing if your great ideas hit the wrong notes. It's important to know how your individual staff members most like to be recognized and rewarded for good performance. To maximize motivation, employers need to recognize that one size does not fit all, and recognition should be tailored to the employee, based on his or her values, strengths and personality. Not everyone likes the same things even if something seems like a great idea at the time. Empower your leaders to recognize and reward in a variety of ways, and help them get to know what their teams want and need to feel valued.

4. Reflect your brand

It's always preferable if you can develop motivation strategies for your employees that reflect what you want to do for your customers. A hotel chain that wants to turn moments into memories for its guests came up with the idea to develop a recognition strategy with ways to create special memories for its employees in the same way it sought to do for its guests. Think about ways to integrate your brand promise to customers into your strategies for recognizing and incenting your workforce. This will ensure that you not only have engaged employees, but that your brand positioning is consistent internally and externally.

5. Reflect your values

Most hotel chains have stated values that define their brands and culture. When employees are aligned with the values of their employers, they are much more motivated to work hard and support the organization. Brainstorm how you can connect to the values of your workforce, and ensure that your values are clearly communicated so all employees feel aligned and connected to them. Perhaps consider a donation to an employee's favorite charity as a way of recognizing them. It's good for everyone!

To say that people are our most valuable asset may sound a bit cliche, but worse, it could be seen as disingenuous if you aren't meaningfully connecting with your workforce and your employees are not engaged. Employers nationally spend about $90 billion dollars on non-cash incentive programs (Incentive Magazine - July 19, 2016) but yet, satisfaction with recognition efforts is often scored as one of the lowest rated items on employee opinion surveys.

Given the importance of the employee-guest relationship in the hotel industry, improving your recognition and reward efforts, while correcting well-intentioned, but ineffective motivational efforts will ensure an even stronger guest experience.

Dr. Garlick Dr. Rick Garlick recently joined Magid as Vice President, Strategy Consultant. During a career that has spanned over two decades, he has worked with the most prestigious hospitality and travel companies in the world, in a variety of research and consulting roles. He has a diverse research and consulting background that includes extensive experience with guest experience management, employee engagement measurement and training; talent selection; brand research; customer satisfaction and loyalty programs; image and awareness studies; and national opinion polling. Dr. Garlick is a current a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC) and the former Global Travel and Hospitality Practice Lead at J.D. Power where he provided industry thought leadership to the company's clients in the hotel, rental car, airline, destination, gaming, and cruise line industries. His resume' also includes experience with two of the most prestigious research companies in North America: The Gallup Organization and Maritz Research. Rick Garlick can be contacted at 224-500-6888 or Please visit for more information. Extended Biography retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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