Outside Insights | March 2014 | By Guest Author

Hospitality Trainers More Important Than Ever

The news these days should remind operators why training is a critical component to everyday business.

Quick serves train restaurant managers to handle regulatory and legal issues.
Hospitality trainers are helping quick-service restaurants better prepare for regulatory and news-making issues, such as the recent wage protests. fightfor15.org / Photo by Christopher Dilts
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Just after stumbling out of bed each morning, the first thing I do is scan the local and national news stories posted on a half-dozen different websites. I don’t read every article, of course, but I do try to read the ones that are important to me either personally or professionally. And recently I find that I’m interested in more news items because of how they connect with my career as a hospitality trainer. 

For example, one of the most common stories lately involves wage protests across the country by restaurant workers. A growing number of staffers, especially those who are employed at national fast-food franchises in large cities, have been walking off their jobs in a series of one-day strikes in an attempt to focus national attention on the plight of low-wage earners and demand benefits such as a $15-an-hour minimum wage, better health care coverage, and more regular work schedules. These folks are frustrated with their working conditions, and many of them feel as though they have been stuck in entry-level positions for far too long, are unable to get a raise or promotion, and will never be able to escape the employment basement. 

No matter what you think about the issue, the fact is that, right now, these protestors are blaming restaurant employers for their problems and they are targeting the hospitality industry with these strikes. And companies should prepare themselves to better handle these walkouts through their training departments. 

As these changes sweep across the country, your HR, marketing, and operating departments will need to be involved in crafting company policies to deal with these new laws.

First and foremost, the best strategy for employers is to ensure that their training executives effectively partner with store operators to create and promote career development paths for all employees who are interested. From the first day they are hired, entry-level fry cooks, cashiers, and other employees should know exactly what progressive opportunities are available with the company and what they will need to do or learn in order to be considered for these opportunities. Not every new staffer will have the availability or desire to move up the ladder, of course, but those that do should be aware that their supervisors and the company trainers are ready to help prepare them for higher-level positions with higher responsibilities and higher pay.

The training department can also educate individuals on how to respond appropriately when these wage protests occur. They can partner with human resources to make sure that the rights of the strikers are clearly communicated to the managers so that no laws are broken, and they can partner with the marketing or media department to make sure that executives are properly coached with the right talking points (average employee wages, average tenure and turnover, company benefits, etc.) in case they are interviewed by local newspapers or TV stations. Field trainers and training managers are often in a great position to write career success stories for the company newsletter or Facebook page to publicize employees they groomed or mentored from an entry-level position and who were able to work their way up into management or an executive position. Finally, training departments can work with multiunit managers to educate their location-specific supervisors on the exact procedures to follow if a protest does occur outside of their business. The last thing the company needs is for an upset manager to create a “YouTube moment” that will show employers in a bad light. 

Wage protests and strikes are only one example, however, of news stories affecting the hospitality industry. If you check out the business section of a newspaper on any given day, you will most likely read a report about new government regulation, especially in more progressive U.S. cities, that will change the way restaurants and hotels can operate. Recent examples of these laws include bans on large sugary sodas and mandatory sick pay for all employees, as well as requirements that quick-service utensils and to-go packaging be made from compostable or recyclable materials, nutritional data be posted on menuboards and paper menus, and hiring managers not ask applicants about their criminal background during initial interviews. 

As these changes sweep across the country, your HR, marketing, and operating departments will need to be involved in crafting company policies to deal with these new laws. But it will often be the training departments that develop job aids to explain the changes to the field-based employees and managers so that they in turn can explain them to guests. The training department will also conduct evaluations to see if the changes have been implemented. 

Quickly changing technology trends have been showing up in the news a lot, as well; over the past few years, it seems like there has been a story about a new product or service that will change the world nearly every day. From Wi-Fi to smartphones to tablets to Google Glass, tech gadgets have exploded from an occasional topic to one of the most buzzed about news items. As budgets continue to shrink for classroom training and rise for e-learning at many hospitality companies, all of these technological achievements and advancements will certainly result in added work for our training departments. Instructional designers employed by hotels and restaurants are going to have their hands full as they partner with the IT departments to ensure that: their online training programs not only keep up with, but also are able to take advantage of evolving platforms and new gadgets; they are continually exploring new methods to make online learning programs easier to access and easier to use for the staff; and the costs of these technological advances are merited (meaning that these new ideas actually do improve the transfer of training from the learning environment and help achieve workplace objectives).

My final example of everyday news that pertains to restaurant and hotels has to do with allergen and food-safety training, which is increasingly important to 84 percent of the respondents in the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers’ (CHART) recent “State of Training & Development in the Hospitality Industry” survey. Food safety has always been a concern for us, of course, and several recent food-safety scares serve to remind us all about the importance of being diligent when it comes to protecting our guests from food-borne diseases. 

Food allergies, on the other hand, have been a relatively recent, but rapidly growing, concern for our industry. According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Restaurant executives don’t have to go much further than a few interviews with their front-line employees to learn more about this trend. These staffers will undoubtedly say that the number of guests who ask about gluten-free options, for example, has increased significantly over the last few years.

Again, here’s where the training department comes in to play, as we will most likely be the ones who spearhead the effort to compile and distribute this important information. In order for guests with food sensitivities to make educated decisions about which menu items they can eat, it will be essential that ingredient and allergen listings are available both on company websites and at the time that guests order their meals at restaurants. Hotel companies will also need to have this information available, even if they do not have a restaurant on the property, as long as there is some food available to their guests, whether it is a free continental breakfast available in the morning, cookies at the front desk, or mints left during turn-down service. 

In addition, not only will ingredient and allergen information be needed, but employees will also need to be properly trained on what to do if someone has an allergic reaction. Does your staff know what steps to take to protect your guests when they alert you that someone in their party has a food allergy? Can your employees recognize the symptoms that will be exhibited when a diner touches or ingests foods to which they are allergic? Do they know what they should be saying to emergency dispatchers if they call 911 when a guest does have a severe reaction? The answers to these questions will need to be incorporated into any allergen training programs provided by your training departments in order to keep the increasing number of food-sensitive guests safe in your establishments.

I know that I may be biased, but I honestly do believe that training is the most difficult of the support functions in any hotel or restaurant chain. We are the only group that must routinely partner with all of the other internal support functions as well as the operators, and trainers must learn to work with all levels of employees, from the most recent new restaurant hostess or hotel bellman all the way up to the C-suite executives. We are expected to be knowledgeable about almost every aspect of the operation (or be able to utilize Subject Matter Experts when we do not possess certain expertise) and to learn to work in the ever-changing conditions and ever-changing employee lineups in the field, and often must create new and effective educational programs with very little lead time to conduct proper performance gap analyses. It’s an incredibly challenging position, one that will only get more challenging in the future as restaurants and hotels need additional training to deal with issues such as wage protests, new government restrictions, rapidly changing technology, and increased safety measures for guests with food allergies.

Because of this great need for additional education in our businesses, I stand by the headline: hospitality trainers are more important than ever. Thankfully, we have an organization such as CHART to support one another through these challenging times and are able to learn, share, grow, and care with the very best in our industry. 

Patrick Yearout is director of training for Ivar’s Restaurants and a board member with the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers’ (CHART).