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Uncovering the Hospitality Paradox



Have you ever heard someone say that when they retire, all they want is to open a B&B to enjoy the life?

Growing up in Brazil, this was pretty common - many people dreamed of opening a "pousada" on the beach, hoping to live the rest of their days peacefully, in a paradisiacal place, providing genuine hospitality to their friendly guests. I say was, as I haven't heard this in a while... Perhaps because nowadays it's much easier to go online and look up "is opening a small hotel a good idea?"...


Ok, but even if this ends up no longer being such a popular retirement plan, you might have read stories of executives who gave up their prestigious professional careers to invest in a hotel or a restaurant, to lead more enjoyable days, without the stress of their overly pressured corporate lives. The goal for them, as you read through their inspiring and adventurous stories, was to experience more genuine interactions with others, live a more authentic lifestyle and, often, be in closer contact with nature.


The hospitality industry has always occupied this special, almost romantic place in our imaginary.

Have you noticed how people who work in hospitality tend to be quite popular in family gatherings and parties? Talking about life in hotels and restaurants always seems exciting - friends want to learn about famous guests, the beautiful architecture, and listen to some funny anecdotes.


People look forward to their hotel and restaurant experiences with such enthusiasm, that one naturally ends up wondering how amazing it could be to actually be involved in such moments for longer. To be surrounded by great food, welcoming smiles and inspiring design... The life!


And perhaps you even had a bit of that expectation yourself, as you were drawn by the prospect of hospitality bliss, when applying for your first job in the industry. Call me naive, but I know I definitely had!


I wanted to work with something that allowed me to travel the world. I wanted to use the languages I learned, to connect with people from different backgrounds. But most importantly, I wanted to work in something that brought joy to others, and that would most likely bring joy to me too!


And I was incredibly fortunate to experience a lot of that!


But, then again, I also experienced a fair share of not that at all...


So as my career in this industry progressed, I noticed more and more people leaving it behind.


Most of my friends from university now work in completely different fields - many even went on to take a second degree and are now lawyers, engineers, journalists... We often joke that many only went to Tourism university to meet their second-halves - and my husband is one of them!


I must admit that at times I have questioned my choices too, and briefly explored other professional paths. The fact is, reality for many working in the industry, is that smiles can become more rehearsed, less authentic, and might hide a person – or a business – that is struggling.


On the surface, this may seem a result of the most talked about assumptions on the sector - low pay and long hours. Aside from the fact that this is, most definitely, not always the case, an insightful study called "Service without a Smile" from the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK from 2019 tells us a more complex story. It found that:


  • The working culture of the hospitality sector is stressful and demanding;

  • Three quarters (74%) of respondents have been verbally abused by a customer;

  • Many employees reported poor mental health and wellbeing, with one in five (20%) reporting severe mental health problems they believe to be a direct result of their job;

  • Almost two thirds (62%) of workers do not think the sector looks after its employees;

  • The mental wellbeing support available for workers is inconsistent;

  • Less than 10% had training to support health and wellbeing, mentoring or mental health first aiders;

  • Just over half (52%) said they would continue to work in the sector, but almost as many (45%) would not recommend working in hospitality.


This is the hospitality paradox: people, who chose to work in this industry with passion and enthusiasm, and who are expected to bring smiles and wellbeing to others, are too often feeling resentful of their career choice, or looking for a way out, due to the work environments they find themselves in.


As one survey respondent noted, "most stressful situations [in hospitality] are driven by maintaining a smile against all the odds".


It's (high!) time for change.

As leaders, we all know that stress can be toxic, and have hugely damaging effects on morale, productivity and turnover – all of which contribute to a company’s overall success.

So taming stress must be of the highest priority for any organisation to thrive. Demands for a better life balance keeps pushing people who would otherwise have loved to work in the industry, away from it, which contributes to an increase in skills shortage and therefore – you guessed it! – increased pressure to those who remain.


So for a genuine hospitality experience, we must do more to ensure the “feeling goodness” brought to clients happens both ways in the relationship between guests and hosts.

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Much like guests seeking our hospitality expect us to be hospitable, and care about their wellbeing, it's now high time we also start caring more about the hosts - the brilliantly talented people in this industry who likewise deserve to feel welcomed to warmer, kinder and more friendly work environments.

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The main recommendation from the RSPH study is for employers to put in place systems and processes that protect mental health and wellbeing.


So I invite you to an important reflection: what is your business doing to help your people welcome guests with with a genuine smile and a serene mind?