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State of the Industry – Employee Engagement

I recently asked a room of over 300 event professionals to raise their hand if they were experiencing a record year in terms of sales. Ninety percent of the hands went up. I then asked how many of them were trying to hire more people, and again almost everyone in the room shot their hands up into the air. To set the stage for the state of employee engagement in the hospitality industry we must acknowledge the current landscape. The culture in companies across the country is being tested. Tested by an abundance of business knocking on the door. Tested with an extremely tight job market; and tested by the stress, devastation, and exhaustion from the pandemic and the ensuing recovery.

Our industry has been on a wild roller coaster ride filled with steep drops, wild turns, and drastic speed changes and there’s been no time to catch our collective breath. Here is what I’m seeing in terms of employee engagement and suggestions on what to do about it.

The job market is still tight, but help may be on the way

Recent employment numbers continue to confirm that there are almost twice as many jobs available as there are people looking for work. Of the almost 11 million jobs available across the country, more than 15% are estimated to be hospitality related. This has put a major strain on current teams who are short-staffed and can’t keep up with demand. When there is a shortage of workers, desperation hiring becomes an even bigger problem.

Among 400 catering employees we surveyed, more than half felt like their company did not have an in-depth hiring process that weeded out bad apples. Leaders must be mindful of the impact high turnover is having on their employees. The added stress, anxiety, and workload is causing a decline in engagement; however, this can be overcome with a thorough hiring process and limiting the number of times you are sending teams out understaffed. There is also hope on the horizon for the job market. Inflation and rising costs are forcing people back into the workforce and there has been a recent uptick in people looking to pick up second jobs.

Protecting the work environment

There has been an increase in bad behavior coming from guests at events. Pent up demand for in-person gatherings and rising costs have left a lot of people with a sense of entitlement that is causing significant stress and uncomfortable working conditions for caterers and event professionals.

Caterers are reporting an increase in the number of instances that have required intervention from managers. Teams are having to contend with verbal abuse, threats, rudeness, and overly intoxicated guests. It’s important that companies take precautions to guard against these situations, but also protect their teams in the event it does occur. I’ve spoken with caterers who have asked to be removed from venue lists due to the type of events they attract. Caterers are adding clauses into their contracts to make clients acutely aware that this behavior will not be tolerated. I’ve talked with multiple event professionals who have had to shut down bars early because guests were sneaking in their own alcohol or trying to serve themselves from behind the bar. A hostile work environment is not OK and is a quick way to crush employee engagement. We can’t control how people act, but we can control how we respond. When employees see leaders taking steps to protect them in these situations, engagement reverses course and skyrockets.

Wages must be fair, but it’s not everything

Most caterers have raised wages in 2022 and some have even done it twice. It’s important to keep pay consistent with market rates and make sure team members feel that they are being compensated fairly. With that being said, compensation is still not at the top of what drives employee engagement. Employee engagement continues to be driven by other factors like a clear growth track, flexible scheduling, and a feeling of belonging.

These are factors that can fall by the wayside when business demand is booming. Resist the urge to try and solve engagement issues with money.

Investing time in people and their development within your organization can pay much larger dividends. It also pays to focus on activities, events, and meetings that put an emphasis on bringing the team closer together.

When team members feel connected to their co-workers their engagement with the company increases.

Building in finish lines

Most people crave certainty and understanding—especially in situations where there is instability.

Our collective industry has not had a break for the past three years. The pendulum of business swung back and forth from zero to one hundred, putting companies in desperation mode on both sides. When there is no clear end in sight, it’s exhausting and can leave people feeling deflated, causing a drop in engagement. Leaders can counter this by creating starting and end points throughout the year for their teams. Implementing a challenge for the month can keep people engaged and energized. And when done well, it can focus efforts toward an area of need. It could be a prize for the most accurate events (no forgotten items) or a contest for who can get the most five-star reviews. Many caterers are managing their calendars to give their teams something to look forward to by closing and not taking any business for a weekend or even a full week at the end of a busy stretch to give everyone a chance to reset.

Employee engagement is more critical than ever before. With a tight job market and tremendous opportunity to capitalize on demand for events, catering companies can’t afford to spend unnecessary time dealing with turnover and unproductive behavior.

Heading into 2023 the companies that make this a priority will gain efficiencies that will put them ahead of their competition and provide a ride that is much smoother and enjoyable.

Anthony Lambatos

Owner/CEO, Footers Catering, Denver, CO

Anthony Lambatos grew up in the catering business working for his father and founder of Footers Catering in Denver, Colorado.  Anthony and his wife, April, purchased the business in 2010 and have successfully made the transition to a second-generation family business.  They recently moved Footers Catering into a new facility that will also house their newest venture – an event center called Social Capitol.  Anthony is passionate about helping other companies create great places to work and inspiring people with heart leadership and does that through his sister company MIBE (acronym for make it better...