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How to get stable staff in remote locations

Staff working conditions and staff turnover are related. This essay examines the issue of staff living standards at remote location hospitality businesses.

I seem to be travelling a lot lately. My most recent trip has taken me to far North Queensland for a quiet look at the industry around Cairns and the Barrier Reef islands. If you’ve read some of my previous articles you may have gathered that I have a particular interest in the problems of managing remote location hospitality businesses and FNQ has a good collection of them.

My partner and I travelled north from Cairns and decided to go to Cape Tribulation, which proved to be one of the most beautiful, undeveloped places I have encountered. We stayed at the a resort as normal, paying customers — something I rarely do these days. We didn’t announce ourselves to the staff or management and just settled down for a week to enjoy the sunshine and the stunning beauty of the area. The staff were quite friendly and efficient, which is what I would expect at a good resort.

Many businesses rely on backpackers

This was a stark contrast to some of the other service attitudes we had encountered at other businesses in the region. We quickly noted that the less professional businesses seemed to have an inordinate number of backpackers working within them. At times it grimly amused us to play ‘spot the Aussie’ without much success — the accents surrounding us sometimes made us feel that we were in the less salubrious parts of London, but the heat and the humidity quickly brought us back to reality. What is it they say about mad dogs and Englishmen?

Backpackers. Some are skilled but most won’t, or can’t stay long

A few discrete enquiries about the prevalence of foreigners revealed the standard cry of the remote location business operator: ‘It’s really hard to get good staff here’. Yep, we know it is; we’ve heard it all before, but I don’t have much sympathy for them because I think a lot of business operators don’t do a lot to hold on to good staff and to an extent they are to blame for the problem themselves.

Poor living conditions

Would you stay very long if this is where you had to live?

I’d have to say at this point that I’ve formed this opinion because I rarely see good staff working conditions in remote location businesses. A lot of the staff accommodation and meals I see are pretty basic (being polite) — certainly not good enough to keep someone happy for the year or so needed to create reasonable standards. I think a lot of business owners and managers maintain staff living standards they would not tolerate themselves and as a result create a self-fulfilling prophesy in regard to staff turnover.

Does this occur because of ignorance or apathy? I don’t know for sure, but I can speculate. When you live in reasonable luxury yourself, physically removed from the other staff, dining in the restaurant rather than the staff canteen, earning enough money to get away regularly, it’s easy to lose objectivity. This is the situation a lot of hotel and resort GMs enjoy, while their staff suffer a lifestyle that can hardly be described as attractive.

Perhaps it should be normal procedure for senior managers to regularly spend a week living in normal staff accommodation, eating staff meals, using staff toilets and bathroom facilities and generally getting a feel for what it feels like to be on the receiving end? Once a year should be sufficient to bring some objectivity to the proceedings.

False economy

I suppose some of them think they are saving money by not upgrading staff facilities, but this is false economy if it causes high staff turnover — the cost of constantly replacing and training new staff would easily exceed the cost of providing good living conditions. To be fair, common accounting conventions exacerbate this problem by placing the cost of building renovations in separate accounts while the cost of staff recruitment and training is hidden among operating labour under the generic heading of ‘wages’. If recruitment and training costs were isolated from other wages in hospitality accounting systems, I feel the situation would be quite different.

You think you’re saving money by not looking after your staff, but you lose-out in many other ways.

So with all this in mind I was very pleasantly surprised when I encountered a housemaid cleaning our room at our resort and asked her: ‘What is the staff accommodation like?’ Her answer was quite unexpected: ‘It’s very similar to this (indicating the well appointed and very comfortable room we were staying in), but slightly smaller. We all live up the back of the resort and we’ve got our own swimming pool. I like it here, I’ve been here for two years’.

I immediately gave the management of the resort a big mental tick for being smart and for going against conventional wisdom. It strikes me that not only is it morally comforting to treat your staff well, it is also very good business. In our training courses I’ve always maintained that staff turnover is the killer of good hospitality standards. We examine many businesses each year and I keep seeing a direct correlation between staff stability and excellent hospitality standards.

Staff are not inherently unstable

Staff are quick to leave you for another business if they think they are not being treated with respect.

The old attitude that hospitality staff are inherently unstable and that high staff turnover is inevitable has never sat well with me. For a start, backpackers are going to be unstable because of their limited visas. I know that by taking fairly simple steps the turnover can be reduced in almost any business — as we have proven to some of our more cynical clients. We’ve also noticed that a reduction in staff turnover inevitably leads to a substantial increase in profit.

Many managers in the hospitality industry falsely assume that their staff are inherently transient and don’t devote any effort to looking after them or addressing the problem — and then they struggle to maintain standards and produce a reasonable profit.

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