THE hotel industry may be a people-centric business at heart, but using technology in the right way can help raise productivity while enhancing the work environment for employees.
The Rendezvous Grand Hotel is doing just that to tackle some of the issues that hoteliers are facing in an ever-changing industry, while still recognising the importance of its staff.
In housekeeping - a department where it is usually hard to find willing staff - the hotel's employees are typically in the 50-60 year age bracket.
"We implemented things like ezi maid, a contraption we put under the bed. It's like a car jack, it lifts the bed so that they can make the bed without injuring their back. Another contraption we just introduced is the motorised trolley," says general manager Kellvin Ong.
About 80 per cent of the $68,650 cost of the 138 ezi maid bed lifters was covered by a grant.
And though the motorised trolley is three times the price of the usual trolley, it is easier for the housekeeping staff to push and it allows them to move faster.
In addition, the pantry area on each floor has been expanded, allowing staff to park two trolleys on each floor, saving time and effort as they no longer have to bring the trolleys up from the basement every day.
"Initially, with the older workers, we had some resistance. We had to conduct a training session to show them how to use the trolley, before they accepted it," Mr Ong adds.
Aside from that, the hotel has installed a programme that allows housekeeping staff to release a room to the front desk for bookings once they are done with cleaning it, which helps operations to run more smoothly.
In addition to helping its core team boost productivity, the hotel is also getting creative in dealing with the labour crunch, especially when it runs at higher occupancies.
While it used to have a regular pool of part-timers, it lost some of them during its refurbishment period when there was less demand for part-time employees. The 298-room hotel and its adjoining retail podium, Rendezvous Gallery, recently went through a $25-million renovation programme, which was conducted in phases.
"With housekeeping, for example, we do outsource - we have both our current force and additionally, we do hire contract staff. We work with reputable agencies (and) we do work with one or two that we're very comfortable with. We have a training programme for (them) to come in for a couple of days to learn our standards," he highlights.
Aside from housekeeping, it also outsources most of its security department and has tried to hire some contract staff for the food and beverage (F&B) establishments.
This allows the hotel to ramp up headcount when it needs staff during busier periods without hiring full-time employees. It currently has a workforce of about 120-130 employees.
However, there is also a downside - some of the part-time staff that it hired for its F&B services were not quite up to standard, not to mention the higher expenses incurred as they have to be paid by the hour.
To widen its access to talent, the hotel gets its staff to recommend relatives and friends as part-timers.
The tightening of foreign worker quotas too makes sourcing for foreign labour tougher, bringing with it additional costs as foreign worker levies are rising as well.
To help the industry raise productivity, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Ministry of Manpower recently launched the "Job Flexibility for Productivity" (JFP) initiative, a pilot programme that allows hotels to offer employees the opportunity to work across different job functions within the same establishment.
Staff in the hotel's F&B department, for instance, may both serve guests in its restaurant as well as tend the bar as the hotel cross-deploys them.
But aged workers might not be as keen to do more, even if it comes with additional remuneration, Mr Ong stresses.
On top of that, competition for staff grows stiffer as more and more hotels open. "First and foremost, it's a people (business)," he says. "There's a lot of interaction."
According to the STB, over 3,000 rooms are expected to come onstream this year from properties such as the ParkRoyal on Pickering, Sofitel, Ramada Singapore and Westin Hotel.
By STB's calculations, over 1,000 rooms were opened last year from new entrants such as W Singapore Sentosa Cove, Beach Villas and the Equarius Hotel at Resorts World Sentosa as well as Bay Hotel Singapore. There were almost 50,000 hotel rooms in Singapore as at end 2011.
So the hotel tries to retain staff by improving the work environment as it saves the hotel time and resources since new staff need to be trained.
"To retain staff, we try to do a five-day week for everyone. Sometimes it cannot work for the rank and file (but) we try. We encourage the section leaders to try and incorporate a five-day work week," Mr Ong stresses. "We also have to take care of staff welfare. In our canteen, we have our own cooks cooking for the staff. We try to make (our employees) as comfortable as possible."